In defence of the War on Christmas

As 2011’s royal wedding happened, the Guardian hit on a stroke of genius. Perched in easily missed white type atop its sprawling coverage, a tiny button read “Republicans click here”, which when activated hid all related stories. The button, which proved popular enough to reappear this year when the couple’s child was born, made the paper’s site a refuge for the unenthused, the only place online or otherwise where bunting and bootlicking could be escaped. As Advent commences, I often wish such a filter hid reminders of Christmastime from view.

As Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience notes on the programme’s blog, arguments for the validity of godless Christmas celebrations have done well in recent years. These are the “Axial tilt is the reason for the season” shirts, the “Keep the merry, dump the myth!” placards of American Atheists, the selection of cards sold by the British Humanist Association, the Digital Cuttlefish’s books of festive (and fun) poems; they’re various chapters in Ariane Sherine’s Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and by implication part of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, the Rationalist Association’s annual benefit; they fill countless column inches by Robin Ince (its host), Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Myra Zepf, Alain de Botton, Alom Shaha and Jim Al-Khalili among others.

The case, summed up in AA’s slogan, is no doubt as familiar to atheists today as are the faults of Pascal’s Wager, both being discussions with believers one comes across too frequently for comfort. Many of our Christmas customs if not most – gift-giving, good will, feasts, festooned fir trees and Father Christmas – aren’t of a necessarily religious character, the argument goes. If superstitions bequeath us an excuse to have at them, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The logic’s sound, but commonplace enough that it risks seeming both reflexive and received. I decided to give up Christmas last year, for no more grand a reason than that personally, I don’t enjoy it. With such passionately vocal thirst to reclaim it in the secular community, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly rebuked, as if my absence from the bandwagon endangers a key atheist PR objective, stopping images of secularist grinches waging war on Christmas being properly cast off.

The trouble, and I’ve only realised it in recent years, is that I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.

Yes, I’m turned off by the BBC broadcasting Bible readings, church services and carols about blood and gall – but I’m just as turned off by their annoying, repetitive melodies. I’m angered by Operation Christmas Child, and by millions of children being made to sing said carols in their schools or act out narratives from religions whose ideas they may not share and aren’t yet well placed to assess – but I’m just as angry parents lie to their children about who provides their presents, often objecting to them being told the truth, for no clear reason except finding the deception somehow sweet. I don’t enjoy the smell of tangerines, the putting up of decorations, the taste of mince pies or the expectation I gorge myself on food I’d never otherwise eat, enduring sit-down meals and light dinner conversation (no swear words allowed) with relatives I’d rather not encounter. In the end, I struggle mostly to be cheerier than usual for contrived and arbitrary reasons.

If you are a Christmas person, and clearly many of us are, I’m all for your enjoying the rituals of your choice – we’d do well to be cautious, though, of insisting “Of course atheists love Christmas”, implying as a chorus of this insistence does that we not only can but should. One perk of non-religious life, it’s been argued in New Humanist before, is the right to pick and choose our festivals. A status quo where atheists feel bad for not being Christmassy enough has something very wrong with it.

Atheism’s collective urgency to show festive credentials is understandable. As Glasser writes, “[p]opular culture is full of rotten characters who hate Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Narnia’s White Witch.” Alone among calendar dates, failing to love it ostentatiously provokes a barrage of reproach: I’ve been called a killjoy, a spoilsport and an Eeyore for disliking it, but never for finding Valentine’s Day crass or New Year underwhelming.

One wonders if the keenness to affirm secular love for Christmas stems in part from a desire to placate religious critics, assuring them our boat-rocking plans are limited. Certainly, Eric Pickles’ call three years ago for councils “not [to] allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity” drew valid fire for recycling myths about “the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous” as evidence for a so-called war on Christmas, but Pickles also demanded councils fund “carol services and nativity scenes” – a valid target, surely, for secularist pressure?

Baulk as we might at the “war on Christmas” narrative, parts of how Britain marks it belong in godless people’s crosshairs, from government-backed proselytising of this kind to evangelism in state schools, religious programming at licence payers’ expense and the pollution at large of the public sphere’s secularity. However excised of religion Christmas exhibits might be in marketplaces and the media, they’ve undoubtedly opened the door to public religious displays more widely in the name of inclusivity – Oxford’s giant street-mounted menorah, say, lit each Hanukkah by the town mayor and a local Rabbi, or Channel 4’s broadcasting the adhān for Ramadan this year.

The object of a so-called war on Christmas (and on all these articles of faith as establishments of public life) is really a profoundly diplomatic settlement, an understanding of the public sphere as neutral, unclaimed territory rather than land divided among orthodox religious groups. This is why I can’t support the ‘multifaith’ approach above, espoused on Bill O’Reilly’s programme by Chris Stedman recently: a multifaith public square is as bad as a single faith one, in some ways worse, because it still gives public authority to clergy; still makes people outsiders who won’t participate; still pollutes the peaceful neutrality of a marketplace which asks no one to demonstrate their piety.

However secular or holy we think the festive season is, that détente matters. Those in atheism who sit happily with unwrapped gifts and hangovers on Boxing Day should think twice before they lapse into unravelling it themselves, keen to ‘destigmatise’ secularists by showing us as Christmas-lovers. A culture of pressure to participate fostered by atheists is as bad as one produced by theocrats like Pickles – neither tolerates dissent, and both perpetuate the notion those who don’t join in are spite-filled Scrooges.

If we care for people’s conscientious freedom or right to live by the calendar they choose, we shouldn’t let fears of seeming grinchish silence us when religion encroaches on public life at Christmastime; equally, we should support those in our ranks who don’t do Christmas, and oppose the spectre of the Grinch being used to guilt or smear them. Call this scaling back of peer pressure a war on Christmas if you must, and Bill O’Reilly is correct that it exists; to me, it seems like giving peace on Earth a chance.

Winter is coming: forget Christmas and fall in love with it

Warning: contains spoilers for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.

Each season has a scent to herald and define it. Summer’s belongs to sizzling car roofs and sweating rubber tyres, the static residue of thunderstorms following heatwaves, autumn’s to low-hanging mist and rotting leaves, then toffee apples, fireworks and chip fat running into drains. Winter’s at its height is fresh, the icy clean of morning frosts and condensation-covered windows, but its first approach has an anflug of its own – the oily, faint metallic wash of pipes grinding back into use, radiators moaning once more while cold hangs in the air outside. This was the smell that filled my house this morning.

Till January I’m resident again in my home town, a draughty, church-filled thorp near the Scottish border, twenty miles of mountains, lakes and woods to either side. Not since 2008 have I seen winter in here: for the five years in between, I spent those months either in Oxford or Berlin, returning Christmastime to a place transformed without viewing the transformation. Before that, winter was a misery, dark days and long nights holed up, blocked up and fed up, craving sunlight and release. As a teen I loathed this town, longed to escape its smothering isolation – the day my A-levels reached an end, also the day I turned eighteen, I packed a bag and left by train, staying on the road till university – and the darkest, coldest time of year when venturing outside was foolish made it feel more cut off still. Our calendar’s last months, the dying embers of the year, seemed lifeless, desolate, as bare emotionally as nearby forests.

I wonder looking back how much of this reflects the religion of my childhood. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory for children after which my whole bedroom aged eight was styled, the titular witch Jadis – having corrupted it on its creation – curses all Narnia with a winter that never ends, though Christmas never comes. (Why Narnians ever celebrated Christmas, God’s avatar in their world being Aslan, I still haven’t quite fathomed.) The bleak midwinter makes a familiar metaphor, as in Rossetti’s poem and its hymnal setting, for a world short of salvation: Christmas arrives, both first time round and for believers since, a light in the darkness, imbuing creation once more with life and hope.

The trope isn’t unique to Christianity, whose major rites are at once its most syncretic. Those festivals which fall around midwinter, as festivals are prone to do, have often stood for redemption in some sense or other: feasting after a year’s hard labour, remembering past struggles’ fruits, festooning evergreens and keeping fires lit, reminders the cold season’s atrophy will give way in its turn to spring. Summon your fondest images of winter – aren’t they, in fact, ones of its mitigation? Music and merriment to counteract bleak weather, time with loved ones to stop icy roads and storms cutting us off; fires to beat discomfort back, roast feasts and sweet things to quell emptiness psychic as well as bodily. We console ourselves, in Steven Moffat’s words, that we’re half way out of the dark, toasting our own resilience and emergence soon from the the cold more than we toast the cold itself.

My godless life rather enacts Lewis and Rosetti’s spiritual winter – an atheist, my world has yet to thaw in their terms (or rather, has succumbed to deconversion’s heat death), and my secularity of late runs deeper still. Partially as an introvert, partially tending despite myself toward the ascetic, I’ve little time nowdays for festivity, Christmas included: its trappings and traditions leave me jangled, stressed and out of sorts – longing, if I might half-inch a term from Christian liturgy, for ordinary time. The best December of my life so far, I spent alone two years back in Berlin, 2011’s last weeks pursued in solitude except online, nothing at all of Christmas or much else timetabled in. If this sounds glum, it was the perfect converse: nothing can be a hugely profitable thing to do, and ducking pomp and circumstance made me aware I generally dislike them – on birthdays, solstices or other dates. Berlin’s long freeze, in fact, prompted me to review my thoughts on colder seasons: I now find Narnia’s Christmasless winter quite ideal.

Like atheists, winter requires no redemption. My instinct is if we accepted it – if we focused in simply on feeling winter, instead of self-distracting with egg nog and tinselled trees, trying not to feel it – we just might fall for Jack Frost on his own terms. As the scent of winter’s nearness greeted me, sweeping between the house’s walls, I thought of its barren beauty, like that of deserts and ghost towns: exhalations thick and opaque, vanishing seconds after forming, empty skies clear and crystalline. The shortness of the days is precious, not oppressive, enough to give us pause and make us catch them while we can; being stuck inside, an invitation to focus on what counts. And what wakes slumbering neurons like a brisk morning’s cold snap, kicking the senses into gear, the mind into the present moment?

This is what winter’s bleakness really offers: a chance to re-enter the here and now, less busy and finer-tuned. Instead of seeking ways around it, let’s learn to learn to love that.

Winter is coming. I welcome it.

Not all of us love Christmas, and that’s perfectly all right

At Christmastime, it’s fashionable for secularists to say that actually, yes, they do love Christmas. A recent article by Jim Al-Khalili, ‘Why this atheist celebrates Christmas’, exemplifies the trend, as do the many online memes and comments arguing there’s nothing religious about gift-giving or decorated trees. “You don’t need to believe in Mithras to enjoy the tradition of celebrating the sun’s rebirth”, one of them reads, “and you don’t need to believe in Jesus Christ to enjoy the tradition of renaming this ancient holiday”.

With Eric Pickles and the right-wing press united in insistence that “militant secularisation” will “allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity”, it’s an understandable line of response to stress that godless people, too, love the festive season. Yet not all of us do. For some of us, Christmas is hard to enjoy – and yes, religion and the privilege it enjoys play a role in this.

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