I’m not a big fan of religion. For the most part, what annoys me is judging, alienation & the moral superiority. Not everyone, obviously, but it’s there. A minority. Out of context biblical quotes, for example, leave me with a sour taste in my mouth, especially when presented on my Facebook feed. Since when was religion about sharing platitudes on social media?
Recently, I’ve seen a post circulating suggesting that, if you don’t go to church, you shouldn’t be celebrating Christmas. That really angered me, not least because it appears to go against any open, tolerant, respectful idea of spirituality. Surely it’s what you do outside of the church that matters?
I grew up in the north-east of England in a family heavily involved with the Methodist Church. My memories are of old women singing in shrill voices, a musty, damp smell and a Sunday school boring me in an unheated hall. My grandfather played the church organ and my gran organised events for “the old ones”, even when she was well into her 80s. That was the good thing about it – family.
Any religious beliefs I had then were more of a mantra. After all, you believe what you’re told when you’re a kid. Hardly any of it felt spiritual or even religious. At that age, it felt to my young mind that people were going through the motions. The wooden pews, the old hymn books and the creaky floor felt like an old school and the congregation were old pupils, hoping to pass the final exam.
The exception to this was Christmas. There were still oddities. I remember some of the church’s decorations included fake presents under a small tree. There are few things more disappointing than an empty gift to a child’s mind. The church was colder than ever and, no matter how much you protested, you still had to leave your warm bed to go.
But, the Carols. The wonderful Christmas Carols. Therein lay the magic. The worshippers were a ramshackle bunch of singers with a dubious level of talent, but one thing they didn’t lack was enthusiasm. Not at Christmas. Even I, one of the best hymn-mimers in the world, went for it at Christmas. We rose our way through Hark! The Herald Angels. We belted out O Come All Ye Faithful. The children sang Away in a Manger and Silent Night and everyone adored Once In Royal David’s City. That was my favourite.
We even went Carol singing, door to door. It had snowed and the whole event was insanely picturesque under the orange glow of the streetlights. I don’t remember if people in the houses liked it or joined in, but it obviously left an impression on me.
The consequence of this is that, thirty five years later, I still get a tingle down my spine when I hear these tunes. I don’t think there is a religious overtone to this. It’s more about music adding an extra depth to the emotions that Christmas brings. Christmas Eve must involve tuning in to Carols from Kings, even just for the haunting solo at the beginning. Magic magic magic.
My childhood has left me with a love for Christmas. The colours, the living room full of presents, the magic of Santa, the family. This stopped somewhat when we moved away when I was 13. Things weren’t quite as satisfying. When I was in my 20s, I worked six Christmases in a row in a busy pub and the magic all but disappeared.
Then, I met Emma, got married and inherited a wonderful family of in-laws. It’s back to the most fantastical Christmases full of gifts, love and music. Only this time, I get to be on the other side. Us parents get to see the kid’s faces when they open the gifts. We all go to Emma’s parents for Christmas dinner and celebrate together. It doesn’t get any better.
There’s no church in my life now. It doesn’t mean I’m not spiritual. I didn’t ever get anything from church that stayed with me to the point of wanting to return. What had stayed, though, is the music. The carols are still there as a staple. You get different levels of accumulating Christmasness as you go through December, and carols are definitely one. (Putting up the tree is another, as is the first time that you hear “Fairytale of New York” or eat a mince pie).
And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with loving Carols while simultaneously not having any involvement in the Church. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The whole point of this is surely that you get from it what is appropriate for you? Someone else’s interpretation of spirituality might work for them. Might not work for you.
So if you see something on your Facebook feed that is meant to chastise or antagonise because your view of Christmas is different to someone else’s, block them, go make yourself a cup of eggnog and sing along to a Christmas Carol. And then remind them that Christmas is a Pagan festival.