GP Taylor: Christmas casts its light on the fading of a faith

THE child three feet in front of me perched on the edge of the stage. The church hall was packed to the doors with expectant parents.

The air was heavy with hope and the scent of mulled wine. It was hot and sticky and lit by dim candlelight. The scene changed as children paraded.

Some were dressed in robes and others with wings. A reluctant goat was dragged across the floor and people smiled. I watched the boy on the edge of the stage. His eyes opened and closed as his head nodded. Sleep took him from the world. With a sudden crash he fell forward.

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With free fall precision he landed in the crib filled with straw. A plastic doll broke his fall. An old man laughed. The room echoed to his moorland voice. “He’s killed baby Jesus...”

This week, across Yorkshire, that scene will be repeated on countless occasions. Children will put on tea towels and bath robes and parade in schools and halls as they retell the story of the birth of Jesus, the most famous person in the whole of history.

He was born in dubious circumstances to a girl barely in her teens in a room at the back of a pub amongst animals and the dirt. A King of kings born in a land far away with only a comet and three wizards to mark his arrival.

In memory of that first nativity, each year there is a ritual reenactment. At one time taking part in it was a rite of passage.

Many of us have embarrassed stories of being made to wear a dress and put on wings, wrap our heads in tea towels and squeak out songs about a little stars and dodgy old men bringing gifts.

But, no matter what our sentimental memories of the nativity are, we have to ask the question as to its relevance today.

Does the rehashing of a 2,000-year-old event deserve a place in the school calendar? A sobering question in a society where more people believe in ghosts rather than God.

The way in which ordinary people express faith is changing rapidly. Spirituality is in a resurgence, but it is not expressed in a traditional Christian way.

The Church lost the battle for hearts and minds many decades ago. It just hasn’t realised how irrelevant it actually is and clings on to an illegitimate place within the community.

Other voices have equal or even more importance in what they have to say at this time 
of year. Christianity is just 
one brand on the crowded Christmas shelves sitting like an arrogant abacus beside the desired iPhone 6+.

The society in which we live desperately seeks to celebrate Christmas more and more. When I was a child there was a wonder about the season that I think has been lost. Magically, the Christmas tree arrived overnight on the 23rd of December.

Now, it is not unusual to see Christmas lights in early November. As soon as Halloween is over, the shops are decorated with trees and lights. Very little of this has anything to do with the Christian faith.

Dark nights and icy mornings seem to bring out the pagan within. As the sun appears to weaken almost to the point of death, there is an ancient desire for us to mark the change in the year.

We have to remember that long before the birth of Jesus, people were already celebrating a mid-winter festival. Fires would be lit, sacrifices made and dances performed to bring life back to the sun. The golden orb would then brighten over the days bringing warmth back to the earth.

Christianity hijacked these celebrations, replacing the Sun with the Son.

In these modern times, all that is happening is that this subliminal paganism is growing as traditional belief slowly dies.

I spoke to a young mother on her way to a nativity play and asked her what it meant to her. At first she stumbled over her words and then said that it was a good story and was nice. She had no real expression of faith in her life and this would be her only interaction with the incarnate Christ.

Parents are usually too busy looking out for the star moment of their child to look deeply at the event taking place before them.

This is a symptom of our time. The Church harps on about the real meaning of Christmas and no one apart from the faithful are listening. It is just another sentimental sugar-sweet part of the season and as relevant as candy canes and mistletoe. More people vote in The X-Factor than go to Midnight Mass.

Christians have to realise that they do not own the copyright on Christmas. It has long ago stopped being a festival for the Church.

The old ways of holly and mistletoe, pagan reminders of our early history, never really went away. The feast of the mid- winter solstice echoes on in our eating, drinking and enduring long queues in the supermarket.

The Church has to admit that it is no longer at the head of the Christmas table. Perhaps then it can tell its story with integrity.

GP Taylor is a vicar and a bestselling author from near Scarborough.