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Secular Christmas is a lie Only its Christian understanding makes sense

Unto us, a child is born (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

Unto us, a child is born (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)


December 16, 2021   5 mins

It was one of the first funeral visits I had to make as a newly ordained curate. And little did I know it would be one of the most affecting. The undertaker explained that the Dad had unexpectedly died of a heart attack in his work’s car-park and it took a few days for him to be discovered.

I rang their bell, nervously. You never quite know what you will have to deal with, what manner of grief will be present. Here it was raw, angry, and visceral. The family were sitting on the floor in their lounge, eyes red and puffy, Christmas decorations pulled off the wall. Discarded tinsel was piled up in the corner of the room. The house was cold. The tree was bare. Christmas had been exposed as a lie.

Later, I went to a parish Christmas party. Mariah Carey and Jingle Bells filled the air. The party atmosphere bubbled with a generalised bonhomie. “Cheer up, Vicar. It’s Christmas,” someone said, handing me a glass of fizz and ignoring the obvious fact that I wasn’t the slightest bit in the mood. They meant well, of course, but all I could think of was that this party didn’t feel anything like the Christmas that we had been hearing about in church.

There, we had been reading from the book of Isaiah: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Everything seemed the wrong way around. The people to whom Christmas was primarily addressed thought it an insult to their pain, and yet those who celebrated it the most seemed quite oblivious to its deeper existential message.

For the last twenty years or so, a new kind of Christmas celebration has been slowly working its way into the mainstream liturgical calendar. Its origins are in the Christian response to the longest night, around December 21, traditionally also the feast day for St Thomas, the patron saint of doubt. It was revived in the Eighties by people putting on Christmas celebrations in hospices. And it’s called Blue Christmas, blue as in feeling blue rather than an Elvis tribute Christmas service. It’s like Christmas except in the minor key, often with jazz music rather than traditional carols — though In the Bleak Midwinter often gets sung.

Blue Christmas is aimed at those for whom this is an especially difficult time, because of loneliness, or bereavement, or being out of work. And at Christmas it’s impossible not to remember those who we love and see no longer.

On top of this, the Covid uncertainty now throws a pall of gloom over all our preparations. So people came to our service last night, finding a dark corner of the church to sit in: those facing a miserable Christmas dinner for one bunged in the microwave, but also the cancelled, the bankrupt, the disgraced, the betrayed, the addicted, the heartbroken, the disillusioned. Some of us wanted to be there simply because life itself is never easy.

This is what the church looks like. It is one of the few places in our culture where we can bring all that messy stuff in our lives that we don’t know how to fix or process. And — if you will forgive me for sounding like a sermon is coming on — these are the gifts we bring to the manger that are more precious than gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is the cracks that let the light in.

Every year, Christians struggle to distinguish between the Christian festival that takes place on December 25, and its secular cousin that travels alongside it. Every year, the cultural mash-up between Santa and Jesus, Rudolph and the angel Gabriel, gets ever harder to distinguish. In 1951, French Catholic clergy burnt an effigy of Santa Claus in front of Dijon cathedral. Extreme, yes. But I get it. Christmas has become far too confused.

Some years ago a little boy came to our Christmas nativity play dressed up as Batman. He sat among the kings and shepherds, the Vicar unclear as to his theological role. This cultural fusion has long been with us, of course. Arguably, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens have formatted our celebrations more than the Christ-child in the manger. “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time,” sang Band Aid. Well, there won’t be snow in Bethlehem either (I just checked). It’s the Middle East for heaven’s sake. Snow is not a big part of the weather. Christmas has become a strange jumble of cultural references. And every year, there will always be yet another dreary hot take in the Guardian to the effect that Christmas is a borrowed pagan festival anyway.

Inevitably, then, Christians seek to maintain a degree of distinctiveness to what they do at this time of year. And there are already differences. For Christians, Christmas begins on the 25th and goes on for several weeks. For non-Christians, it ends on the 25th, or a day or two after. This means we sing our carols at different times. Just as the secular Christmas falls silent, full of that having-spent-too-much, having-drunk-too-much ennui, Christians take up the strain. It’s a problem, because by then many of us are sick of all those bloody carols, having been bombarded with them for weeks.

The answer to this need for distinctiveness is to be found in the minor key, in Isaiah’s proclamation, in the blue of Christmas. While secular Christmas goes on with its relentless up-speak, a Christian Christmas can get to the parts that “Merry Christmas” cannot reach. Technically, the difference is between optimism and hope. Optimism is generally fuelled by denial, a refusal to face the darkness. It’s a kind of holiday from reality. Hope, on the other hand, is a much more belligerent emotion. It stubbornly dwells in the darkness yet refuses to be beaten by it. Have you seen that YouTube clip of a classical music band doing a flash-mob performance of Here Comes the Sun in a Madrid unemployment office? This isn’t cheap optimism. It is light in the darkness. It’s hope.

The Book of Isaiah was written several centuries before the birth of Christ but is clearly its inspiration. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,” the author writes. Then, a few chapters later: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given … and his name shall be called Almighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”. When Isaiah promises that the people who have walked in darkness shall see a great light, St John develops the theme: “a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Whether you see Isaiah as some sort of prediction — the traditional Christian view — or as something that becomes the basis for a later ‘Christian’ understanding of the incarnation, it matters not so much. Isaiah conceptually organises Christmas.

Which is why the light pollution of the secular Christmas fairy lights must be a worry for those of a more religious disposition. You can only see the star if you are prepared to sit in the dark, refusing cheap consolation. Which is all to say that another Covid Christmas, one where the festivities might be once again a little more muted, could be a much better basis for appreciating what the whole thing is supposed to be about. It is at the funeral services I take at this time of year that I find the real Christmas message is easiest to preach — we stay in the dark and look for the light.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Great article. Where I live the stores put Christmas goods on the shelves soon after Halloween. From a consumer perspective, the Christmas season runs about two months (and is key to the financial success of many shops).
Hope and the possibility of redemption are the two great messages of Christmas for me, a terminally-lapsed Christian who still has the Christian spirit within him.
And don’t be too hard on Dickens. Yes, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is quite a commercial offering but Scrooge was surely redeemed at Christmas, dragged kicking and screaming out of the darkness of his greed and selfishness.

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Happy Christmas J Bryant, from a fellow lapsed ( and un-lapsed Christian) . Keep that Christian spirit alive.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Shaw

Happy Christmas, Peter. 🙂

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

If you were ever a Christian, you may have backslidden, but you can’t have “lapsed.” He refuses to let His own depart. And a bearable Blue Christmas to you!

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago

Christ on a bike ! that was a great article, unherd you are really spoiling us today.

Last edited 2 years ago by George Glashan
Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Trike, not bike – it’s a Holy Trinity

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
2 years ago

Thank you Giles. I actually shed a tear reading this thinking of my beloved sister who died not long ago.
This is why we so want the churches to throw its doors open, so we can sit in joy or in pain and be still

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

A good article Giles.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

It may be tough for Giles to ‘hold the line’ but the vernacular meaning of Christmas has changed slowly over the years, and will continue to do so.
As a Blue Christmas (aka Yule!) treat go to a large old cemetery and look at the inscriptions on the headstones. In Victorian times the inscriptions read ‘Pray to God for my soul’, ‘My Soul is with the Lord’ and so on. More modern inscriptions are ‘Loved father and grandfather deeply missed’, or ‘In loving memory’. Childrens’ graves are often decked out with teddy bears or football team strip.
I suspect lots of people no longer truly ‘believe’ in souls or a loving god, and a year end party is a western society filling the gap.

Last edited 2 years ago by AC Harper
Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Not uncommonly, gravestones of Victorians and Edwardians who died in illness, often young, bear a quote from Paul in Philippians: To be with Christ which is far better.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

“Everything seemed the wrong way around. The people to whom Christmas was primarily addressed thought it an insult to their pain, and yet those who celebrated it the most seemed quite oblivious to its deeper existential message.”

This pretty much captures the Zeitgeist. We are living through a Great Inversion. What’s bad is good, what’s wrong is right, lies are truth, and truth is lies. Christianity – the idea that God lives and shines in each and every one of us, and only in Him we trust and fear – is under attack from a vile collectivist fungal ideology, and there’s the Archbishop of blinking Canterbury, masked up and triple-jabbing himself on Twitter, to help keep us all safe.

Christ help us all.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Horsman
Katharine Davidson
Katharine Davidson
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Your comments reminded me of these lines in Yeats’ The Second Coming:

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I think about them a lot these days.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

Yes me too. And Kipling, too:

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools 


George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago

you should check out Jordan Peterson’s lecture series on the Bible, its very good, iv only watched the Cain and Abel and the one on Noah and the flood, so I haven’t got to the one on Christ. Its not a sermon or a recruitment video for Christianity, its a pretty dense exploration of the meaning behind the stories. it more looking for the lower case t truth of the stories rather than did scientifically / historically these stories actually happen. the ones i watched are excellent.
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL22J3VaeABQD_IZs7y60I3lUrrFTzkpat

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
2 years ago
Reply to  George Glashan

The one on Adam and Eve and the Creation Myth is the strongest. Start with that, anyone who wants to watch the JBP series

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Peterson’s lecture’s are a psychological exploration of the biblical stories. Approaching the bible in that manner has been a revelation to me, as an atheist.
His Maps of Meaning is a serious piece of work, much along the lines of the lecture series.
.

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
2 years ago

Perhaps people who disrespect the Christian faith will sit up and take note as the prophecy of the book of Revelations becomes realised in their own lifetimes?
Revelation 13:16-17
King James Version

16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

Just a thought.

Last edited 2 years ago by Glyn Reed
Gareth Rees
Gareth Rees
2 years ago
Reply to  Glyn Reed

I have 666 tattooed on the back of my head, does that count?

Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
2 years ago
Reply to  Glyn Reed

Well if it says it in the King James Bible, it must be true.

That said, science can put a date on it in a way John cannot. NB: approximately 7.5 billion years, once the sun has become a red giant.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago
Reply to  Lord Rochester

The only thing science can do is have a speculative stab in the general direction of a cosmological approximation of a good guess. Which will change next year (or the year after).

Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcia McGrail

Then let’s turn to the bible for guesswork, obviously better.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago

For guess work in what, exactly?

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcia McGrail

The King James Bible is a translation from 1611, authorised by a somewhat peculiar king. We often forget that the bible was written in a mixture of languages: Hebrew, koine Greek, Aramaic, and possibly others with regard to the Old Testament. These will not have been exact translations such complex philosophies could never be translated perfectly, and it must be noted that any translators will not only highlight or downplay the mores of the day but also display the personal mores of the translator and editor. (My own experience with translators, and particularly editors is they often wilful change your meaning in so many ways that it can often change the meaning to such an extent that you read as arguing against the point you are arguing for.) Anyway, my rambling point is the bible is philosophical rather than a legal text, and it might behove us to read it in a light of love should there be any doubt as to the actual meaning of certain parts.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Lee Jones

I will admit, the King James is beautifully written, and a joy to read. Others can read a little like technical manuals. So 5 stars to a peculiar king in this regard.

Andrew Daws
Andrew Daws
2 years ago
Reply to  Lee Jones

The 1662 prayer book was good enough for St Paul, so it’s good enough for me…

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Daws

The prescience of St Paul seems almost biblical.

Andrew Daws
Andrew Daws
2 years ago
Reply to  Lee Jones

OK, if it’s such a good translation, how come Leviticus 18:22 is translated as ‘man shall not lie with man as with a woman” when literally the verse reads “man shall not lie on the lyings of a woman”? And yet that mistranslation has been taken as proof positive that God hates all fags.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Daws

Read both my comments! Or maybe drink a little less perhaps, it can make a fool of the best of us.

Andrew Daws
Andrew Daws
2 years ago
Reply to  Lee Jones

so if I don’t agree with you, it’s either because I’m too stupid to read your posts, or because I’m drunk?
It must be wonderful being so omniscient.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Daws

Read the comments!

Andrew Daws
Andrew Daws
2 years ago
Reply to  Lord Rochester

no, mate, 4004BC. Do you know nothing?

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Glyn Reed

Not all Christians accept that particular book as being particularly Christian, or even canonical. But it exists, so I suppose it must be read, sadly it almost always seems to ‘loved’ by the sort of Christian who managed to miss the extortions to universal love preached in the previous 26 (the number changes depending on your particular sect), but that’s people for you. Most are rarely nice, let alone charitable, loving, or kind. Self perceived holy righteousness, if shouted loudly enough will always trump the true message. But who am I to judge, I myself fail, every day, to follow Christ’s message, but I try, then I try again.

Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe
2 years ago

Dickens, like the majority of Victorians, would have been familiar with the Bible, its stories and phrases that had passed into common usage. He certainly knew the darkness of human life.
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s name Ebenezer comes from 1 Samuel. It means the stone of help. Used as a Christian name, Dickens is suggesting that Scrooge always had the potential to provide the help that he does in the end.
Paul tells his converts that they had once been darkness. That is, they had not just been in the dark but had been impregnated with darkness so as to be identified with it. Now, the Apostle tells them, they are light in the Lord.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

Is your incredulity based on his being born 2000 years ago or his being a guy? Because I’m quite happy that the world’s saviour was born then and is male.

Happy Christmas

Last edited 2 years ago by Linda Hutchinson
Milos Bingles
Milos Bingles
2 years ago

Only 1% of people aged 18-24 identify as Church of England, and Fifty-two percent of the public say they do not belong to any religion, compared with 31% in 1983.
It’s on its way out. Religions come and religions go. Christianity had a good run but in the UK, like Scandinavia, it’s the beginning of the end.
Christmas is an end of year knees up for most people now. A chance to let your hair down after a hard year’s work.In 200 years time I’m sure Christian traditions will remain, like the nativity etc but not much else.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

Other things that aren’t obviously religions, such as environmentalism and Islam, are taking its place, but it’s unclear if they’ll have Christianity’s longevity.

Gareth Rees
Gareth Rees
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

In what possible way is Islam not an obvious religion? It is Christianity’s younger brother.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago
Reply to  Gareth Rees

o no it isn’t!

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

Civilisation had a good run too. Definitely on its way out

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

A good run?! I’d call two thousand years something more than a good run. If you think it’s been only a good run, challenge yourself to read N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God over the holidays.

Of His Kingdom there shall be no end.

Milos Bingles
Milos Bingles
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Taylor

I will do you a deal Bob, I will read N.T. Wrights book if you read On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. by Richard Carrier.
The Aztec religions will have been around for thousands of years, so were Norse religions. And Greek religions too. Religions evolve, just like animal species. They are homosapiens attempt to make sense of the world. But they do come and go.

Last edited 2 years ago by Milos Bingles
Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

please, Milos please don’t addle your brain reading ANY nt wright – you’ll come away believing the moon is made of green cheese. Read something sensible from J C Ryle or Sinclair Ferguson. You may believe Mr Carrier et al, as I believe in Jesus Christ but not many Aztec, Norse or Greek are still persecuted for their faith, like the Ayub brothers on Pakistan’s death row; Pastor Lorenz in Cuba, Hussein Soodmand in Iran etc.
As for evolving – is that in the blind, random, pitiless chance sense of the word that turns goo into you over eons?

Gareth Rees
Gareth Rees
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Taylor

More fun to be had watching Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows (Part 1 and Part 2) in 4DX at Cineworld.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Gareth Rees

Esau thought there was more fun to be had in a mess of pottage than in his birthright.
Fun. You’re trolling. You’re not as banal as you’d like me to believe.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

I’m not sure that has much to do with it though.
Let’s be honest, Christmas has always been a part-religious, part-secular celebration even when more people actually believed in Christianity. For many people it is a time of year to be with family and for festivities and cheer during what are the darkest months of the year. Father Christmas comes from old traditions even if he was commericialised recently. People need days of light hearted relief in what is a stressful life and don’t really enjoy being lectured at about it by puritanical busy-bodies.
The idea that Christimas has been hijacked by secular festivals is of course an idea that goes back to the Puritans, and we see how well trying to enforce a more religiously pious version of Christmas went back then, let alone now.
I do think in England our lack of other holidays means we overload pretty much all meaning onto this one. Americans have thanksgiving, in Spain and Italy there are easter celebrations and saints days, and other places have a sprinklingly of popular festivities. In the UK we have but one which is why the whole thing is heavily freighted with emotions for many people.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
2 years ago

Well said. It is light, warmth and life at the darkest time of the year, which is why so many aspects of it are older than Christianity. It fulfills a psychological need.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

I agree to an extent, but isn’t the whole secular experience we’ve created just so tawdry sometimes? Nothing religious but also nothing magical about it. Hysterical shopping and consumerism starting months before, office parties where you get pissed and can’t have any meaningful conversations with anyone. This is why so many people actively dislike and even try and escape it (impossible of course, travelling to Morocco or somewhere to avoid it ends up marking it).

Perhaps it is nice for small kids, as long as they are not too spoiled.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

I’m drinking in a Spoons in sarf London with exuberant grave diggers having a piss up.

Whatever the reason, when people enjoy the company of their friends and colleagues we give the world a little more light.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

I’m a non believer, but Christianity certainly isn’t on its way out world wide, there are more believers than ever before. But, you are right, except among some ethnic minority communities, it does seem to be in serious decline in the UK and Western Europe.

Miriam UĂ­
Miriam UĂ­
2 years ago

‘Every year, Christians struggle to distinguish between the Christian festival that takes place on December 25, and its secular cousin that travels alongside it.’ Yes, that’s me.
Really great article. Thank you Giles!

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
2 years ago

Don’t be so literal

Magg
Magg
2 years ago

Amen

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago

Read N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God this Christmas. If I knew who you are and had your address, I’d send you a copy.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Taylor

O, please don’t – nt wright doesn’t know what he believes & has made a scholarly fortune wrong footing the rest of us.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcia McGrail

Marcia, I’m aware that a ministry here in the United States has titled an article on their website, Why Wright is Wrong. But their argument is with his theology, not with his authority as a historian.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

A very good article and a reminder, for me at least, that the Church still has a role

Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead
2 years ago

If anything has muddied Christmas time it’s the Christian church that have hijacked an ancient celebration of the winter solstice. Solstice is 21st, celebration day the 25th when ancient man (without clocks and i-phones) could tell, with relief, that the days were starting to draw out again. This was far more relevant than an imaginary child being born.

Dan Croitoru
Dan Croitoru
2 years ago

No, the clip you mention is not hope in Darkness but cynical virtue signaling of the cultured class.

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Croitoru

i took that to be his intent in highlighting the video, as an example of the empty on substance but high on gesture secular christmas.

Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe
2 years ago

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s name Ebenezer comes from 1 Samuel. It means the stone of help. Used as a Christian name, Dickens is suggesting that Scrooge always had the potential to provide the help that he does in the end.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

That little guy turning up dressed up as Batman at the Christmas nativity play, he wasn’t that Del Boy, was he?

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
2 years ago

Ecclesiastes already said it
“A good name is better than good oil (annointing oil for a hereditary title) and the day of death than one’s day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a party, as it is the end of all men, and living can learn from it.”

Gareth Rees
Gareth Rees
2 years ago

‘How sentimental.’
‘And also presumptuous of you’
‘It’s just a jump to the left!’

Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
2 years ago
Reply to  Gareth Rees

“I was walking down the street, just a having a think, when a snake of a guy gave me an evil wink…”

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

Isn’t all this confusion between Jesus and Santa Claus just the natural evolution of the Christian appropriation of Satunalia? As a Christian I wish we could disentangle the two but the decision was a political one back then and it’s too late now. Nothing to stop me doing it in my own life though. That’s the only way forward.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

Have we all forgotten the middleman in this? Poor old St Nicholas, the erstwhile patron saint of children, could have bridged the gap between secular and religious celebrations, had the Vatican not downgraded him years ago.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

Every year, someone moans that the country is forgetting what Christmas is about, in other words, that it celebrates the birth of Christ.
I have no problem with it. I have many years of happy memories both of enjoying the feasting, presents and decorations at Christmas, as well as the carols (most of which mention Christ or God), and attending church.
The former is highly useful in the dead of winter, with the coldest part just ahead, but soon to be behind us. In our climate and much of the northern hemisphere, this may well have been helpful to the ‘mental health’ of everyone for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and I don’t resent non- or slightly-Christian people enjoying it. They miss that extra dimension open to me, but can nevertheless feel goodwill to all men, whether Christian, Jew, atheist, Hindu, Muslim, or whatever.
That said, I don’t at all like early manifestations of Christmas. In my youth, my family treated Christmas as starting on 24th December and ending on Twelfth Night or the Epiphany, but carols and celebrations at school naturally started sooner.

Kirsten Walstedt
Kirsten Walstedt
2 years ago

I think only the pre-Christian Yule holiday that Christianity co-opted makes sense. It’s a celebration of light in the middle of darkest winter, a time to feast with your friends and family and exchange gifts.It’s a vote of hope that the light will return in Spring. What could make more sense than that?
As a third generation atheist I don’t see why glomming someone else’s god onto it makes it better.

Andrew Daws
Andrew Daws
2 years ago

What an outrageous article. The Christian Church hijacked the Midwinter Solstice, which was a time for celebration, a time to focus on the family and community, as against birthdays which celebrate the individual. In the US they celebrate family with Thanksgiving; here we celebrate it with Christmas. This idea that WE are trespassing on YOUR festival is arrogant nonsense.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

God bothering nonsense.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago

Wonder if Giles is really aware that the whole Nativity story, as told in Matthew and Luke is an unhistorical fabrication, almost certainly added to both gospels later?

Last edited 2 years ago by andrew harman
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

Of course he does but faith eh?

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

None so blind as those who will not see?

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

Can you reference this suggestion?
In Luke 2: 7 Jesus is laid in a manger (where we would presume that nobody had lain before) and is wrapped in bands. In Luke 23: 53 after Jesus’ death he is wrappped in cloth and placed in tomb where no one had ever been laid. This central and intimate connection between Jesus’ birth and death are such that it is almost impossible to believe that it came from a later editor.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

There is no relationship between the birth narrative and the rest of the gospels. The idea of a supernatural birth was added to reflect the Hellenised sensitivities of Gentile readers. In particular, Matthew’s references were entirely divorced from Jewish tradition. The universalism that develops in both gospels reflect this. Plus there is no reference back to the narrative – the quote you supply does not provide a convincing counter-argument.
There are all manner of other problems. There is contradiction as to where exactly Jesus came from with one saying Nazareth and the other suggesting Bethlehem. Matthew touches up spurious OT texts to try and depict Jesus as being of Davidic descent.
Also the history does not fit. There was no “census” decreed by Augustus. For one thing, Judea was ruled by Herod the Great and would have had its own arrangements for taxation. Moreover, the only record we have of such a process is one ordered by Quirinius, governor of Syria in 6AD when Archelaus (son of Herod) was deposed and Judea became a Roman province with its prefect subordinate to the governor of Syria. The Bethlehem story was a device invented to place the birth of Jesus there. Equally the “Massacre of the Innocents” was simply to try and place the whole story in the context of Jewish messianic prophecy. It never happened.
Nothing of the historical value of the gospels really survived Rudolf Bultmann’s form criticism in the C20th. I would also refer you to the work of that splendid sceptic Geza Vermes As WD Davies and DC Allison noted: they are “not the stuff of which history is made”

Last edited 2 years ago by andrew harman
Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

The use of Inclusio in writings of the time was a common practice, the example I gave from Luke’s Gospel fits that pattern thereby supporting the statement that the birth narrative was an original part of the Gospel.
Matthew’s gospel is considered to have been aimed at Jewish Christians (see, for example, the Word Biblical Commentary, page lxiv). To suggest that the narrative is divorced from Jewish tradition is simply unsustainable.
As for contradictions between gospel accounts, this is good evidence for the overall reliability of those accounts. No two witnesses ever see the same events in the same way. If they claim to have, then they are lying.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

So if the Gospels were to agree entirely then you would dismiss it as lies?
The sheer disparity between the Synoptics and John make it impossible to see the 4 of them, taken together, as history. For example John has the crucifixion on a different day in order to further his theme of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

Your assertion that the idea of a supernatural birth was added in order to reflect “Hellenized sensitivities,” and that such references were divorced from Jewish tradition, is hilarious in view of Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

I would refer you to the work of that splendid scholar, N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Why don’t you spend the holidays taking it apart, and post the autopsy here in mid January?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

It was possibly added based on the Dionysius myth, which has the same virgin birth idea / survival-of-death ideas. The market for religions is quite conservative, and it would have helped to sell Christianity to Greeks and Egyptians if it resembled the existing market leader; an evolutionary rather than revolutionary rethinking of God.
Another feature of existing religions was that they weren’t expected or considered to be documentary truth. It is not true that the star in the sky the Egyptians called Osiris used to be a man who walked about on earth. Obviously there never was any such person, and probably nor did any Egyptian think there had been. All religions of the day were about people who had never lived.
Christianity just worked out what it had to do to appeal, and having a nativity was one of the things it needed to do – it gave Jesus equal status with his competitors. This is also why it is far from conclusively clear that Christ ever actually existed. The Apocrypha contains books discarded from the NT because they were unreliable. In many cases, though, the unreliability is because they feature someone who had a “vision” of Jesus saying something off-message. Visions were the usual way you spoke to the gods 2,000 years ago (and Islam is based on a vision). People were having “visions” of Jesus all over the place and asserting that he’d told them X.
To trump these spurious visions being put forward, and regain control and authority over the official message, the Church required an authoritative, definitive source for all the teachings of Jesus. So accounts were duly put together that set him in the recent past (so they could appear to be eyewitness accounts), but long enough ago that there’d be no counter-witnesses around to refute it. In this reading, the reason the gospels were written 50 to 100 years after Christ’s death is because this is how long ago the events described needed to have taken place.
The complete absence of extra-Biblical corroboration of any event in the gospels tends to support this. Contrarily, the idea that a small cabal of clerics could make up an entire religion that has survived 2,000 years, by fabricating a sort of mediaeval mystery play avant la lettre, undermines it.
I don’t really know, but I do know that there is nothing unique about the claims of miracles set out in the gospels. If you want to be persuaded by the NT’s moral logic, supposed miracles are not good grounds for any faith; they’re just what congregations 2,000 years ago expected to hear about their god, in the same way that you’re not a proper magician unless you can apparently saw a woman in half.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Outside the New Testament, there are very few references to Jesus. There is one in Tacitus, in the context of the fire of 64 AD where he is referred to as “Chrestus” This was written in the early(ish) 2nd Century. The other is Flavius Josephus, writing around 75 AD so a good deal earlier and about 5 years after the first Gospel (Mark) was written and about 20 odd years after many of Paul’s epistles. Many scholars believe it is an interpolation and given that it does not fit at all well between what precedes and what follows, they could well be right.
I think it highly likely a person called Jesus did exist and was executed by the Roman authorities (most likely for sedition) around 30 AD. He clearly made an impression, as is evidenced by the fact he had followers but we cannot with any certainty know much more about him than that.

Last edited 2 years ago by andrew harman
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

As Tacitus was born in about 60AD wouldn’t he have been writing early in the second rather than first century?

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Yes – I corrected it before you posted. Spotted my error! Too much wine last night…

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

The date becomes quite important in parsing what Tacitus wrote. If we go with the academic consensus that he really did write that, in roughly 110AD or 120AD, then the ex post accounts of Christ having been a real person (when possibly he wasn’t) were already in existence at that date. The gospels are thought to have been composed between about 70 and 110AD, i.e. 40 to 80 years after the death of “Chrestus”.
It thus seems quite possible that the source of the account Tacitus gives of the person who originated “Chrestianity” was Christians’ own account, now 40 years established.
If so, then Tacitus’ account is not an extra-Biblical account at all. All it confirms is that the Christian account was established by the time Tacitus was writing. This doesn’t make his account more reliable or an authoritative independent source, because his own source is itself the intra-Biblical one that he is being used for in corroboration.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I suppose it depends on how much the NT accounts were in general circulation and whether Tacitus referenced them. It is possible he had it from Josephus if the reference in Antiquities was not an interpolation? Or he had access to some other source, now lost? But I take your point which is itself entirely possible.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

Jesus was quite a common name, Yeshua, is the same as Joshua.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Yes, Jesus / Yeshwa is a name, whereas Christ is a title. Quite surprising that Tacitus would know of him through Roman sources by his title.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

If it wasn’t a later Christian insertion ala Josephus.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

I’d say it was an impression. It seems to have gotten even more play than Get Back, proving that word of mouth can run Disney+ a good race.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

There were other reputed performers of “magical deeds” such as Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa. They did similar things.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

Except having been unequivocally dead, then Resurrected, then taken up into Heaven in the sight of many.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Spend the holidays dissecting N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. Get back to us in mid January with the report from Pathology.

Oliver Elphick
Oliver Elphick
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman
Andrew Harman gives no evidence for his assertion. It simply reflects the refusal of sceptics to accept any possibility of God's interacting with mankind.
Luke is a careful historian, who did his research. All the objections to things that he mentions in Acts have been disproved by more recent archaeology.
He will have talked to Mary herself, not to mention Jesus's half-brothers.
1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us,  2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us,  3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. 
Last edited 2 years ago by Oliver Elphick