As a Humanist, I don’t share the Christian belief that God’s son was born on earth but I do appreciate some of the cultural expressions of Christian belief in music and art, and in popular Christmas traditions such as candlelit services, carol singing and those seasoned performances of Handel’s Messiah. I also empathise with the underlying psychological needs those beliefs, stories and traditions evolved to fulfil, and the sentiments they express, which are after all, universally human.
The Christmas story, for example, has its poignancy and charm in a purely allegorical sense, since the idea that God became incarnate as a baby is powerful imagery to illustrate the truth that strength, greatness and power can be manifest in things that appear to be small, weak and powerless. It’s why the Christmas story can still move people who no longer adhere to religious dogma. It is also true that there is no easier thing to celebrate than a new born baby, and since I’ve become a mother, I’ve met countless people for whom that is what Christmas is about; a celebration of babies and children, of new life and its triumph, even at the darkest, coldest ebb of the year. Christmas is often both literally (with all its candles and fairy lights) and figuratively, a shaft of light in the darkness, which brings with it a renewed sense of hope and gets us through to the spring.
Having said all that, I do hope that the traditions evolve to slowly exclude superstitious, outdated and harmful dogmas. I don’t mean to belittle the prejudice and unpleasantness of some of them. It’s why I feel uncomfortable singing many of the carols now. The implicit and underlying sexism in Christian writing and imagery is so insidious and offensive that I feel I undermine my humanity uttering those words. It has to change but we don’t have to lose everything else in the process. We can have the carols but change the words. We can have candlelit services with a modern humanist liturgy.
As well as appreciating some of the Christian aspects of our December celebrations, celebrations which it must be noted are much older than Christianity, I am also mindful of the fact that the beautiful churches and Cathedrals which so often appear on our Christmas cards are as much my inheritance, to be owned, interpreted and repurposed, as they are the inheritance of any of my believing friends. I often visit the Cathedral near my home to reflect, and while I once felt alienated from such spaces by the dogma taught there, I have grown to view them as my heritage and embrace their potential as places where all of us might one day be inspired to grow spiritually, whether we are religious or not.
Perhaps the best way of summarising what the seeming oxymoron of a Humanist Christmas means to me, would be to say that Advent is all about reflection and Christmas is all about gratitude. During Advent, I take the time to take stock and remind myself of what matters most. I reflect on my personal growth, in terms of my understanding, character and values, and on my sense of identity, purpose and vocation. Importantly, I consider how I might create and nurture more meaningful connections with family, friends and strangers. When Christmas finally arrives, I celebrate all the growth, progress and potential I see in myself, others and the world, and I celebrate the company and qualities of those people closest to me. Even in these regressive, fractious and anxiety-inducing times, it is possible to find plenty to be thankful for.
Christmas is of course a mishmash of all sorts of traditions, some of them pagan and others Christian in origin. It’s worth digging into these from time to time to see what inspiration and insights they might bring of both the philosophical and creative kind. For example, from their use in the winter solstice celebrations of the Egyptians, Romans, Celts and Vikings to their more recent and familiar appearance in the traditional Christmas scenes of Victorian England, the evergreens have always been central to the festive season, and their presence among us now takes on a special significance in the light of deforestation and climate change. Will the (hopefully sustainably sourced) tree in your living room speak to you of the plight of the world’s forests and all their inhabitants? Will it compel you to tread more lightly on the earth in 2020?
After all, there’s a lot to be said for a simple life, and a simple Christmas for that matter. What was wrong with a little stocking each with a few treats inside? What was wrong with a few hand-made decorations and just one indulgent meal on Christmas Day? There is something undeniably grotesque about the rampant materialism at Christmas in the light of the damage humanity has done and continues to do to the planet. It does seem as though many people really have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas but by that I don’t mean they have forgotten about Christian dogma, I mean they have forgotten the importance of attending to the deeper parts of our human selves. They have become blind to our higher needs for meaning, value, culture, empathy and self-actualisation.
Last Christmas, I witnessed something which summed up this spiritual poverty. It was a red-faced middle-aged man having Christmas shopping rage (otherwise known as a tantrum), over an incident so trivial it isn’t even worth describing. He was brandishing one of those long bags containing rolls of wrapping paper, and the absurdity of the spectacle was such, that its impression was at once seared on my memory, possibly forever. It’s fair to say that I do not sympathise with the endless pursuit of goods and excess that some people seem to be gripped by at this time of year. However, that’s not at all to say that I disapprove of festivity and merriment. Quite the contrary, while it needn’t take the form of a shopping spree, gratitude should be shown with wild abandon once a year at the very least!