Writing about what Christmas means to me does provide me with a problem. Being rather limp in matters of religion, I have long gone for the get-out clause of describing myself as an ‘agnostic Anglican’. It’s the perfect via media. I can still dabble with Darwin and Nietzsche, but I can produce enthusiastic nods at parties from pretty Catholic girls and sound vicars by lamenting the state of the Church of England. But it’s still a pretence. If I really wanted to believe, I’d go to Church.
I haven’t always been so timidly cynical. A vicar would make a pre-Christmas visit to my primary school and implore us to remember the little Baby Jesus on Christmas morning. Being an earnest tot, I tried my best. I’d put down my new Nintendo DS and spend a good minute or so solemnly reflecting on the miracle of the virgin birth, even if my spotless young mind wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.
Even with my efforts to duck thinking about life, the universe, and everything, I find myself this Christmas with a similar earnestness in matters of faith. Even before my climbing of the greasy pole of right-wing journalism inevitably entails me having to go to Rome, I remain a flying buttress to Christianity in Britain, and it cannot be said to be in good health.
In my last week of teaching, I can remember venturing into what had been the school chapel. The crosses had been torn down, a mural of Christ painted over. It had been dubbed an ‘inter-faith space’, or some other such painful neologism. Iconoclasm, in the name of ‘inclusivity’. In that moment, I was conscious of a profound sense of loss. Cue the quotations from Arnold and Larkin.
Alas, my best poetry books have long since been stolen by vengeful ex-girlfriends, so to illustrate my despair I shall point to the 2021 Census. We are now no longer a majority Christian country. Only 46 per cent identify as followers as Nazareth’s most notorious carpenter, down 26 per cent on twenty years before. Fewer than 1 in a hundred attend a service of any kind on a Sunday, and 40 per cent have no faith at all. Those flocking to carol services over the last week offer scant consolation to our empty Churches.
Richard Dawkins might be cock-a-hoop, but I imagine many more will feel a troubling nag that something important but unfathomable is disappearing. We can moan about ‘w*kery’ in the Church of England all we like, muttering darkly about helter-skelters in cathedrals and Justin Welby’s temerity to not be wholly behind the Rwanda policy. But what can we do?
A party whose last three leaders have been a Catholic (of sorts), an agnostic, and a Hindu – there’s a joke in there somewhere – cannot claim to be Anglicanism’s political wing as naturally as before. Despite my Young Fogey pretensions, I am a product of sopping wet North London liberalism, and I agree with Sunak that our party’s best hope of avoiding irrelevance means imitating our Canadian friends. Then again, with Catholic slowly overhauling Anglicans, I can surely get a piece for The Critic out of arguing for a counter-Reformation.
Yet our party’s depleted religiosity only mirrors what has happened to Christmas. Thinking solemn thoughts about the Infant King on the 25th is a minority pursuit. What Auberon Waugh labelled ‘Father Christmas Day’ is much more popular. Drag your children to Midnight Mass; force them through some Dickens. But all but the religious bores will grow up thinking about presents and chocolate. That vicar who came into my school was fighting a losing battle, and he knew it.
But the Christmas message is one of hope, and it would be wrong to wave our readers off to Christmas so gloomily. ConHome has not always been a beacon of optimism in 2022 (apologies for that, Ms Truss). So it is in the approach to Christmas of our new(ish?) Prime Minister that I seek some solace.
Sunak was the Chancellor who Diwali candles out on the doorsteps of 11 Downing Street, and who has a little statue of Lord Ganesh on his desk. Yet that hasn’t stopped him reportedly decking the halls of Number 10 with holly, organising carol performances, and subjecting his staff to a dose of Michael Bublé. One can imagine him nodding along earnestly to the King’s Christmas message, even if the God our sovereign references is not his own. Sunak is one of millions of non-Christians who annually celebrate the period’s special qualities.
As Sebastian Flyte tells an incredulous Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, even if one does not literally believe in the baby and the manger and three kings and all the rest, it is still “a lovely idea”. Whether one is a Christian, of another faith, or of none, we have all benefited from growing up in a country still saturated in Christian assumptions. Even if you think it is all bunkum, you are better off for knowing it. Christmas is the archetype of that.
Anyone who has read his Max Weber (or Tom Holland) will know that Christian ethics can remain whilst belief in Gospel truth fades. The same can be applied to the festive paraphernalia. I grew up attending Church of England schools, with classmates of various faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds. I was thrilled to be a heathen Joseph alongside a Hindu Mary in my Year 7 nativity.
In a basic sense, we enacted the performative Christianity that fly-by-night carollers are currently doing, singing hymns twice a week, hearing the an annual assembly about the Good Samaritan, and putting on nativities. Yet slowly, imperceptibly, the greatest story ever told made its humble impression on us. We were saturated in the Christian message, and never more than when we put on our dressing gowns, wrapped tea-towels around our heads, and proclaimed to the assembled parents and camcorders that a child had been born in the East.
The Romans had their Saturnalia. The Druids had (have?) that annual pratting about they do at Stonehenge. Human beings naturally seek to huddle together against he midwinter dark. What sets Christmas apart is that we add to that a remarkable story. Those who would never dream of picking up a Bible for a few short weeks a year find inspiration in the tale of a messiah born in a manger.
Even the sternest atheist cannot avoid being touched by the divine qualities of this time the year. As Lord Frost suggest in The Daily Telegraph, in an otherwise secular age, Christmas connects us with a tradition dating back millennia. We might struggle to find the words to describe that sense of the spiritual and sublime. But we can still feel its wonders, whether we celebrate through singing hymns, eating mince pies, or watching The Spy Who Loved Me.
So to anyone worrying that reckless consumerism and Strictly Come Dancing have long since robbed this weekend of any purpose, do not fear. The fun of a modern Christmas is still laced with the sacral quality of an ancient and enchanted time. As long as there are still hymns being sung and tea-towels on heads, the real magic of Christmas will never wholly be forgotten. A very merry Christmas, one and all.