I do not ‘belong’ to a religion. Neither does anyone in my immediate family or many of my close friends. But somehow, at this time of year, I find myself delighted by music, decorations and general hullabaloo which all purport to celebrate the existence of a historical character whose legacy is sometimes problematic, and who (from historical evidence) may never even have existed. Um …. what?
Any Christian will tell you that Advent is, from a religious point of view, a time of serious thought and abstinence from treats. Decorating trees, hanging twinkly lights across streets and counting down December with chocolates are definitely not in the Bible. In many ways, the Christmas we celebrate is more about the ritual than the religion itself. But perhaps it is worth remembering that religion can, itself, be a heritage to celebrate, whether or not it seems objectively true to you as an individual.
We know that holly, ivy, a Yule log, and other traditions of what we now call Christmas are, in fact, rooted in older Midwinter festivals, which provided the same high point in the cold dark months that Christmas offers now. The need for warmth, community and light during the hardest season is deep within our collective psyches, transcending the divisions of religion or nationality. This is why the traditions of Christmas have survived and adapted, rather than fading into the background as the number of church members in the UK has shrunk to barely 10% of the population. For an official Christian country, Britain is increasingly mixed-faith and secular in its culture.
It is perhaps sad for religious believers that a purportedly Christian holiday has become a riot of mass consumerism, but they should be reassured that this is nothing new. (What does the song of the Twelve Days of Christmas teach us if not that love and peace have been celebrated by overt materialist displays for many centuries?) Christmas presents and overindulgence in mince pies are only the latest forms of a social ritual which pre-dates Christianity and serves a purpose for far more diverse audiences than church attendees.
Rituals provide opportunities to display one’s part of a wider culture. To decorate or cook for religious festivals is to actively reproduce familial, cultural or national traditions which reaffirm an individual’s place within our illogical, symbolically-bound human societies. It marks the passing of the year, offers the chance to reaffirm or create social bonds, and provides an excuse for generosity and kind feelings which help us through the grimmest parts of winter even though we are no longer in a agrarian society which threatens starvation before the spring.
The source of nonsensical rituals are often hotly debated, but to me, whatever lies behind bizarre behaviours like donning reindeer antlers or hiding presents in a giant sock is far less important that the continued existence of the traditions themselves. Nonsense is what makes us human. Every family or group of friends develop, over time, certain behaviours which mark them as members of a social group, somewhat sheltered from the vagaries of chance by the support of a human network. For a culture, the adherence to apparently illogical behaviours or beliefs are what identifies a member from an outsider. Just as I argued last week that fictional stories can be as important a heritage as historical events, so religious events can be meaningful in different ways to people with different beliefs.
This is why Christmas is worth celebrating for those who enjoy it, regardless of their religious beliefs. To participate in and recreate traditions handed down from earlier generations and gradually adapted to serve contemporary society is the epitome of a shared heritage.