I expect many of us learned that little rhyme when we were children, which harks back to a bygone age in which Christmas was still relatively innocent, and less swamped by today’s rampant commercialism. The ha’penny referred to is in fact the old British pre-decimal halfpenny coin, which ceased to be legal tender in 1969, and the rhyme pre-dates that by centuries. As I picked up my iPad to download my digital newspaper (yes, I move with the times!) I noticed that today is the 25th November, exactly one month till Christmas, and this got me thinking about what the big day means. As I have said before, I veer towards agnosticism rather than any particular religion, but I respect the fact that this is a Christian celebration: Christ Mass, Jesus’ birthday. I also respect the fact that for those of other faiths this is probably not a day on which you celebrate, although I would imagine that it is hard to avoid if you live in a predominantly Christian country! Over the years, many traditions have developed to celebrate Christmas, both in a public sense and within families. I know that the way my parents celebrated Christmas wasn’t exactly the same as others in our village, but at its core was the same thing and there is nothing wrong with bringing a little individuality to it: what works for some may not be right for others, but the important thing is that it has its meaning for us.
The point of today’s post isn’t to look back in a haze of nostalgia, though. I want to look ahead, to what this Christmas will mean, and every succeeding Christmas. Much has been said and written in recent weeks, months and years about religion being at the root of conflicts across the world. This is terribly sad, even more so when you consider that it is nothing new: in the 2000+ years of our calendar system there has been a conflict or war with a religious element to it in around 1500 of those years, somewhere in the world. What I fear is that we are losing the ability to respect each other’s religions, cultures and traditions. I worked for twenty years in one of the most culturally diverse areas in the UK, and have been part of celebrations for other religions, such as Diwali and Eid, to name but two. What always struck me was how people of different faiths welcomed others into their celebrations, and how this engendered mutual understanding, respect and friendship. Yet somehow, the great and the good seem to think that others may be offended by these celebrations, giving rise to such lunacies as Birmingham City Council having rebranded the season some years ago as ‘Winterval,’ or the widespread use of the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ which I think started in North America. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think so!
Why can’t we all celebrate our cultural and religious diversity, rather than attempt to water it down to avoid offending someone, to the point at which we lose sight of the true meaning? I know that sounds ridiculously naive, given what I have just said about religion as a factor in conflicts, but I don’t really believe that the zealots who kill in the name of a religion are in any way upholding its true spirit. Nor do I accept that the more evangelical approach is necessarily right either: it can also lead to a blinkered view of religion and its place in the world, coupled with a great deal of hypocrisy.
But I digress. Is it too much to hope that those of us for whom it is part of our culture can celebrate Christmas, however we choose to do it, without having to worry what others may think, and to hope that even if it isn’t part of their tradition they feel included and able to take part? Equally, is it too much to hope that all religious and cultural celebrations can be respected and enjoyed by all? It probably is too much, but I’ll continue to live in hope. This will be my celebration for 25th December:
I hope you can share in the spirit of this, as I would hope to share in the spirit of your celebrations, whatever they may be and whenever they take place. And I hope that your preparations will go well: you can’t be any worse off than I am, as the realisation that there is exactly a month to go is coupled with the knowledge that I haven’t even started yet!