All I want for Christmas

2008-12-22 00:00

The streets of Howick are ablaze with Christmas lights. Well, let me not overstate the case. We are not quite Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue. But we try, and we take care that our decorations will give offence to nobody. There are candles and stars and Christmas trees which everybody can enjoy whatever their religious beliefs.

A visitor from Mars would quickly understand that this is a religious festival. He or she could be excused for thinking that the person around whom Christmas centres is a portly old gentleman in a red cloak. Or a snowman called Frosty. Or that perhaps the inhabitants of Howick are animal worshippers and their god is a reindeer called Rudolph with a red nose instead of a halo.

Does it matter? A conservative Christian group in the Western Cape has demanded that Christians should have nothing to do with Father Christmas.

“Don’t tell your child lies,” they say. My mother would have agreed. In our childhood we were left in no doubt that the Christmas gifts were from people who loved us, who wanted to celebrate with us the birth of Jesus. There was no talk of Father Christmas. It didn’t stop my sisters and me from climbing on the roof to pin letters to the chimney stack just in case.

Just over 100 years ago, Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun. “Dear Editor”, she wrote, “I am eight years old. Some of my friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says ‘if you see it in the Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?”

And Francis P. Church, the crusty and agnostic editor, wrote the famous editorial reply which the Sun printed every Christmas after that until it ceased publication 50 years later: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

We are no longer eight years old. We know there is no Father Christmas. Nor Mrs Claus. Nor elves in Santa’s workshop. Nor Rudolph. Our Christmas will be hot. There will be no snowpeople, nor red-breasted robins. The candles will melt. The holly will wither.

We know too that Jesus was not born on December 25. Centuries later the church chose that day to give a Christian slant to the old mid-winter festival celebrating the rebirth of warmth and light after the winter solstice. No one knows when Jesus was born. Some biblical scholars have suggested that the Christmas stories of angels and shepherds and wise men are legends that had crept into the gospels to further adorn the story of Jesus’s birth, since the earliest New Testament records — the letters of Paul, the gospel of Mark — make no mention of them.

A poll that was reported in several British newspapers earlier this month suggests that a surprising number of Britons would disagree. Over 33% of Britons still believe that Jesus was born to a virgin, more women than men, more Scots than Sassenachs. Forty-four percent of Britons intend to go to church on Christmas Day. I was surprised by the figures. Since 2000, more people have worshipped at Christmas in Britain every succeeding year.

Yet the other 56% in modern secular Britain will all still celebrate Christmas. And not only in Britain. For Christians it is about more than Santa and his elves. They celebrate God who has identified with our human lives to transform and redeem them. But for much of the rest of the world, Christmas is still a time of celebrating human goodness and generosity and love. It has become almost a worldwide festival, from Tokyo to Mumbai, from Park Avenue, New York to Main Street, Howick, of peace on Earth and goodwill among humankind. And in the spirit of Christmas all sorts of small kindnesses — toys for poor children, meals for the elderly and homeless — happen all around us in a miraculous rebirth of the human spirit.

Should Christians resent that? Should we, like Puritan Britain in 1673 under Oliver Cromwell, ban Christmas jollity because it has become full of unscriptural accretion? Or should we be glad that some of what Christians think is the essential message of Christmas — that goodness eventually triumphs over evil, that light penetrates the darkness, that despite all the bad things around us, humans can still be recalled to true humanity — is celebrated across much of the world.

Of course traditions have grown up around the Christmas story. The Christmas story is like a quilt made up of hundreds of pieces to make an intricate and beautiful pattern. Each new generation adds its own piece. The pagan evergreen tree of northern Europe has become the Christmas tree. The legend of St Nicholas giving gifts to poor children has become Father Christmas. The wise men of Matthew’s story have become the Three Kings. It may well be that even the gospel stories have an element of myth and imagination. Charles Dickens added the Victorian touches. In our own time, a Coca-Cola advertisement gave Santa Claus his red ermine-trimmed suit.

Some of us see more things in the pattern than others. For some it is a picture of incarnation, for others it is just a pattern of lovely legends. But all of us can celebrate the time together and make it a time of peace and goodwill.

And dear pagan Father Christmas, if you are listening, I would like a Havana cigar and a single malt whisky under the pagan Christmas tree while I listen to the Boney M Christmas album. But I will have been to church first, and knelt before the manger scene, and worshipped.

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