Three hundred and fifty years ago, it was Christmas in England.* It was the first Christmas after the Restoration: Oliver Cromwell was dead, the republic had collapsed and Charles II had returned to popular acclaim.
England was a monarchy again.
And one of the things people most welcomed with the return of the old order was the ability to celebrate Christmas again.
Christmas celebrations had been frowned upon during the time of the puritans. The now-familiar figure of Father Christmas rose to popularity as a representation of tradition and merriment, contrasted with the severities of puritan rule. In puritan New England, Christmas celebrations were prohibited until 1681, and did not become widespread until the 19th century.
The puritans disliked Christmas because of its obvious pagan origins; it smacked of idolatry and Roman Catholicism (which in their view amounted to much the same thing). They also disliked the opportunity that it gave for feasting, dancing and other worldly pleasures.
This historical background renders all the more remarkable our modern “Christmas wars”, in which the positions of the 17th century have somehow been reversed. It’s now the religious fundamentalists who feel the need to defend Christmas: instead of condemning it as a pagan festival, they insist on its religious nature and regard the pagans and secularists as its enemies.
Hence Lord Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, launching earlier this month a campaign to defend “Britain’s Christian Culture”, claiming that the “attempt to ‘air-brush’ the Christian Faith out of the picture is especially obvious as Christmas approaches” and attacking moves “to rebrand Christmas, empty it of its meaning and ignore its significance”.
It’s an interesting tactical switch, but the attempt to claim Christmas as an exclusively Christian celebration is doomed to failure. From the Roman saturnalia and the anti-puritan reaction down to Charles Dickens and Coca-Cola, Christmas as we know it is the product of a bewildering and mostly non-religious variety of traditions.
But after being told that Christmas is only for the Christians, some secularists have started to take the fundamentalists at their word and replace some of the traditional Christmas symbolism — in other words, engage in exactly the “rebranding” that Carey complains about. Faced with the choice of giving up the holiday’s inclusiveness or giving up the name “Christmas”, most people will take not the former (as the fundamentalists want) but the latter.
I think that’s a mistake, because the choice is an artificial one.
Christmas has always been a secular festival, and should be celebrated accordingly. As Dick Gross argued in Monday’s Age, “Christmas has, in a Darwinian fashion, evolved to suit almost everyone … It is sufficiently secular to appeal to the non-Christians and it is sufficiently Christian to provide spiritual inspiration for believers. Take your choice.”
Amanda Marcotte put it more succinctly last year: “Secular Christmas won. Atheists should relish the victory and mull some wine.”
*Strictly speaking, not quite yet, since England was still to adopt the Gregorian calendar and so was ten days behind the rest of western Europe.