A FRIEND took his daughter to the Myer Christmas pageant recently. Unsullied by any religious references, it had floats featuring various toys available at the store—a fact the master of ceremonies was at pains to emphasise—as well as the obligatory few footballers (because AFL is so relevant to Christmas) and the Chinese New Year dragon (ditto).
Australia’s greatest festival is nearly upon us, and all round the nation people are stressed about what offerings to lay at its altar: the cash register. They are maxing their credit cards and preparing to devour—before debt, in turn, devours them. Should we spend less than last year, the media will present it as an economic disaster.
Isn’t it wonderful what secularism can do to a religious festival? In many shops, schools, councils and government departments we can’t even call it Christmas any more, because that’s insufficiently inclusive. Never mind that I never met a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu who resented Christmas. Indeed, they welcome it, and hope only that their religious festivals might also get a modicum of recognition.
It’s not followers of other religions who are making Christmas ever-more bland and banal, ever-more distant from the supposed spirit, though they are usually invoked. It’s the secularists—some with naive good intentions, some determinedly with malice aforethought — who are trying to eliminate Christ from the festival that bears his name. Thus we receive festive cards wishing us season’s greetings or happy holidays, decorated with snow-clad conifers; primary teachers no longer put up nativity scenes; and we sing Jingle Bells rather than O Come, All Ye Faithful.
Mind you, religion is not entirely eliminated. The vacuum is being filled by worship of another omniscient, omnipresent, benevolent deity: the one in Coca-Cola red with a bushy white beard and a sack over his shoulder (though even he is too “religious” for some).
None of this is new, of course. I am not simply railing against commercialism. That battle was lost long ago. Nor am I suggesting Christmas should be a uniquely Christian festival, because non-believers are just as entitled to a holiday—and they are welcome to share mine. Nor can Christians tell pagans to find their own festival. They will rightly retort that December 25 was theirs first.
In fact, many Christians have been ambivalent about this holy day that arrived late on the liturgical calendar.
Some Christians oppose celebrating Christmas because they fear it offers nominal Christians and non-believers a veneer of sentimental religiosity that tides them through the rest of the year, while others see it as a welcome opportunity to give the Gospel message to a once or twice-a-year audience.
My plea is to keep some spiritual relevance in Christmas, for believer and atheist alike. For Christians, Christmas is pre-eminently about grace, the incarnation, God entering human history to redeem and restore. It marks something transcendent and sacred. But secular people, too, are spiritual, and they too are impoverished in the absence of anything transcendent and sacred. They will not find it in a festival to Mammon.
The tragedy is that for so many people Christmas has become an ordeal, and its hopes and expectations have been postponed to the holiday that begins the day after.
You can be spiritual without religious belief, but you can’t be spiritual if you are enmeshed in the joyless, stressful pursuit of a mirage. Just watch the desperate faces of shoppers in the last few days before Christmas, the pressure parents feel to do something exceptional. When did the mark of how much you love someone become how much you spent on them?
Even the celebratory nature of the feast has receded now that we live in a time of perpetual overindulgence.
It’s hard to suggest this without sounding naive and sentimental, but perhaps Christmas can be reinvented. Perhaps we can rediscover the innocence and wonder with which it is at least ideally associated.
This Christmas, we could all pause and reflect, take time to be grateful, count our blessings (or their secular equivalent).
Are we living in accord with our best beliefs, our purest conscience, and how can we do it better?
So, my compliments of the season, and have a relaxing but reflective festival. And, if you are a Christian, happy Christmas.
Barney suggests we rediscover the ‘innocence and wonder’ which accompany Christmas—certainly, an innocence and wonder we knew as kids. Perhaps this is the way we ‘become as little children’ (Matthew 18.3) for Christmastide?