The Times, 18 December 2008


Alternative Christmas Service for the Non-religious

Almost all of us celebrate Christmas, even though only a minority of us consider ourselves Christian. There are two Christmases taking place at the same time – religious Christmas for the devout, and another Christmas which is harder to define – the one held by people who may not believe in the deity of Jesus, but who nonetheless want to celebrate more than just a couple of days off work with their families and friends. This Christmas has its own traditions, which are always observed, but rarely catalogued. It is not intended to replace the religious holiday, but to run alongside it, with its own messages of love, tolerance and generosity. This is the order of service for the non-religious Christmas Carol Concert.

Christmas Song No. 1

This could quite easily be a carol, which even the godless Richard Dawkins once revealed he cheerily sings, if politeness requires it. But the favourite Christmas song of the non-religious is Fairytale of New York, by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Actually, that isn’t true – the most-played Christmas song of the last five years is Last Christmas, the Wham classic. In second place is Do They Know It’s Christmas?. But the non-religious Christmas service boycotts these, for being too eighties. It’s bad enough there are puffball skirts in the shops and rising unemployment. Although Fairytale of New York was released in 1987, it doesn’t have synthesisers, and no-one shrieks about thanking God it’s them instead of you. What it does have is two people shouting and swearing at each other in song, clinching proof that, sometimes, other people’s disappointment reminds how lucky we are.

Christmas Message inspired by doctrinal propaganda

Everyone has a favourite Christmas movie, that they watch every year. It might have religious subject matter – It’s A Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife are two of my favourites. But it doesn’t matter at all if they don’t – Miracle on 34th Street, Gremlins and The Muppets’ Christmas Carol are all excellent choices. The first teaches us that Father Christmas is real, the second that if you are going to get a pet for Christmas, you should follow the rules laid down for its well-being slavishly, otherwise you will have to blow up a cinema. The muppets are the best choice, obviously – be kind, be charitable, love your family, cherish your friends, know how to keep Christmas, if any man does. Did I mention there are singing cabbages?

Philosophical Message

This is what would be a prayer, if you were the praying kind. Which you might be. But even if you weren’t, you might still want to reflect on something which isn’t entirely godless. I would use the word spiritual, but it’s been hijacked by people who consider yoga an acceptable alternative to thinking. So let’s go with the Delphic oracle instead. One of the phrases carved outside it read gnothi seauton – know thyself. Two words to tell us a complex truth, that only by knowing ourselves, can we hope to understand others.

The second phrase outside the temple read meden agan – nothing to excess. Or, as Miss Piggy put it, never eat more than you can lift.

Christmas Song No. 2

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town? Rocking Around the Christmas Tree? Nope, it has to be Baby, It’s Cold Outside – pick your version: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews, Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart. First released in 1949, it harks back to a more innocent time, when a woman being badgered by a man to stay with him could sing ‘Say, what’s in this drink?’ without anyone thinking ‘Rohypnol.’

A Humanist Moment of Wonder

Rationalists can seem unimpressed and inimpressable, always looking for the conjuring trick behind every miracle. So let’s give a moment or two to the late astronomer, Carl Sagan, and his pale blue dot.

‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot… It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.’

Brief Nostalgia

Christmas is about going home. It’s why so many of us travel back to where we grew up, listening to Driving Home For Christmas as the traffic builds. Find something to take you back to your childhood Christmas. The BBC’s adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box Of Delights does it for me. And to read? Susan Cooper’s peerless The Dark Is Rising. NB The book, not the film. The film would make the most ardent atheist believe in the existence and ubiquity of Be’elzebub.

Christmas Song No. 3

It’s A Marshmallow World, sung by Raul Malo. Where Miami Latin meets snow. Get in.

Final Christmas Message

The last words of the service shold be something you can take away with you. Firstly, the warning against hubris, whispered in the ear of a triumphing Roman general, ‘Remember you are mortal’. So don’t get too cocky. And for the less fortunate this Christmas, the words written on the gold ring of King Solomon, ‘This too shall pass’.