'No one messes with Ramadan, Diwali or Hanukkah, but Christianity is a pushover at Christmas'

Nativity scene seen in a stained glass window in St Lawrence's Church in Warkworth. Picture by Jane Coltman
Nativity scene seen in a stained glass window in St Lawrence's Church in Warkworth. Picture by Jane Coltman
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LET’S begin with the comment of one mother to another overheard at a school nativity play: “I don’t know why they always have to bring religion into it.”

One of our national electronics retailer’s Christmas commercials ridicules the idea of a traditional Christmas and ends with a salesperson demonstrating a 4K OLED television claiming that this is what Christmas is all about. No it isn’t.

I passed two ladies talking in the High Street today and overheard one say to the other with reference to their diaries: “We must do something Christmassy.” I should have said: “How about going to church?”

No one messes about with Ramadan, or Diwali, or Hanukkah, or any of the other major world faith celebrations, probably because they know what the reaction would be if they did – but Christianity seems to be a push-over for abuse, and it’s precisely because we don’t fight our corner that Christmas is becoming increasingly secular.

We certainly don’t have to join in the craziness of retailers trying to outdo the competition by putting their Christmas wares on sale earlier and earlier each year – in many cases as early as September. Instead of pre-Christmas church bells, all you can hear is the sound of tills ringing and retailers laughing all the way to the bank. We don’t have to contribute to that image of Christmas.

We might also ask ourselves how sincere our gift-giving is if it revolves around pre-Christmas sales or, to put it another way, if we can’t afford the level of gift-giving that we feel is incumbent upon us, then maybe we need to rethink what we are doing and why.

A glimmer of hope in that respect is to be found in the “Secret Santa” practice of, especially in work places, everyone picking a name of someone for whom they buy an appropriate gift, typically of abut the same value, rather than everyone feeling they have to buy for everyone.

There is a certain symbolism involved in such gift-giving, and because everyone agrees to do it no one feels cheated by only receiving one gift or stingy for only giving one.

And then there are Christmas cards. With a little effort, it is still possible to find religious-themed cards. Why would we, as Christians, send anything else? If we have non-church-going or even non-Christian friends, we shouldn’t have any qualms about sending religious cards – it’s our feast and we are simply sending them our Christmas greetings whether they keep Christmas or not.

Also, by buying religious-themed cards, we are supporting and encouraging those retailers who swim against the tide by stocking them. It may take a little courage on our part, but it is more easily done than you might think – you just have to do it.

In our increasingly secular society, more and more we are going to hear words like “festive greetings”, or “season’s greetings” – anything other than the word Christmas itself (on the basis that it has the name Christ in it and might offend non-Christians). Well, too bad. Not to labour the point – it’s our feast and if it wasn’t for Christ there wouldn’t be any Christmas.

Ask the average Muslim, for example, if they are offended by the celebration of Christmas and the answer will almost certainly be a resounding “not at all”, in fact there are probably aspects of it that they rather enjoy. It’s the political correctness brigade that invents the intolerance, aided and abetted, no doubt, by the ever-growing humanist lobby. They don’t seem to object to all the commercialism, just the Christian celebration.

Before I became a priest, I spent seven years in the Middle East in a country where Christians weren’t allowed to practise their faith. At one time there used to be a Christmas parade – with real camels of course – through the company’s residential camp, but that was eventually stopped in response to local employees moving in.

In my time there, expats could get away with decorating their houses with coloured lights, but nothing overtly Christian was allowed outdoors. If you knew where to look, there was one stationery store in town that sold non-religious Christmas cards bearing innocuous greetings such as “happy holiday”.

In that situation, you made your own Christmas because all the usual trappings were missing. Being in the desert, not even the weather was Christmassy. When I returned to this country, the last thing I expected was to one day find Christmas being dumbed down here as well when there is absolutely no reason for that to be happening other than our acceptance of it.

We really do need to start reclaiming the feast because, if we don’t, we could find ourselves fighting a lost cause.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.