Bemoaning the secular celebration of Christmas seems to have become an Advent tradition. Inches of column space and radio phone-ins are given over to local councils banning cribs, Starbucks not having Christmas cups, the Lord’s Prayer being banned, schools not having Nativity plays and high streets losing their Christmas lights. Christians see this as losing ground, but I am jaded by these campaigns and the curmudgeonly complaints of my fellow believers. This is because I love the secular celebrations and all the paraphernalia that goes with them.
This may seem an unusual admission for a priest to make, but I just can’t help it. I, like many others in our churches, get swept along with all the festivities. Each December 1 (not before then – I have some standards) out comes the 100 Hits of Christmas CD, as I fly around the parish singing along with all that Mariah Carey, Slade, Cliff Richard, Wham!, Roy Wood and Noddy Holder have to offer in their festive jingles.
Even my household decorations go up more hastily than in most presbyteries. Visits to the high street to see the ‘‘winterval’’ decorations, or whatever they are called this year, are part of my annual routine. Dancing Santas, Christmas parties, visits to the grotto, avoiding that auntie under the mistletoe and Christmas jumpers (never in a clerical combo) will all add to the experience for me.
Growing up in a secular household and the power of nostalgia may explain my desire to embrace the season in the way that I do. It is not that I ignore the celebration of Our Lord’s Nativity: I can do both. Jesus is big enough to allow that.
What are campaigning Christians actually missing? My worry is that Catholics who campaign against the secularisation of Christmas are misapplying their efforts. Forcing society and commerce to nominally keep Jesus in the forefront of the season only gives a false sense of security to the Church.
I remember a few years ago a local priest running a one-man campaign against Royal Mail Christmas stamps that didn’t contain Christian images. He objected to Father Christmas, snowmen, Christmas puddings and holly gracing his Christmas cards. The battle even reached the dizzy heights of the Wednesday edition of the Coventry Evening Telegraph.
It made him appear foolish and out of touch, while having no lasting impact whatsoever. Even his own congregation were a little embarrassed by the attention that this brought on them.
What difference does our campaigning make? Look at all that churches have said about Halloween in the past. Despite some creative and concerted efforts, Halloween this year has overtaken Valentine’s Day as Britain’s third most important trading time after Christmas and Easter.
My frustration is that during this season the most vocal seem to ignore the secularisation that is taking place within the Church throughout the rest of the year. The removal of Jesus from Christmas is only the tip of the iceberg when considered against the demise of devotion within Catholic family life.
If we are not careful our efforts to keep up appearances at Christmas divert us from the real problem. How can we be so passionate about the place of Jesus in our seasonal high streets when we are so passive about creeping secularism in our churches?
If our campaigns were to fall on listening ears, what would they achieve? Throwing a Jesus veil over commercialism and secular celebrations won’t make our nation any more Christian or the message of the Incarnation any more meaningful.
At best, we would reinforce cultural Catholicism, but this would not be a successful strategy for making disciples and effecting transformation in people’s lives. By arguing for more religious content in the secular celebrations we can actually cheapen the sacral nature of the Nativity.
For many years I have admired the high street retailer The Entertainer. Founded and owned by an Evangelical Christian, it has an impressive record in staff care, charitable giving and praying for competitors. It also maintains Sunday closing despite the loss in revenue this must bring. I have been touched by its decision each year to display a crib in all of its shop windows in the run-up to Christmas.
However, last year when I visited the shop my opinion changed. I felt that seeing the Holy Family in the context of a shop selling Barbie dolls and Nerf Deluxe Blasters actually debased the image of Jesus a little. The admirable aim of providing a simple witness left me feeling that Jesus was just another accessory in the effort to sell even more lorry-loads of toys.
During this season I live a dual life, celebrating the sacred, marking Advent and enjoying all that the season has to offer. A purely Christ-centred Christmas would be counter-cultural. Celebrating the Nativity amid the dazzling secular Christmas can actually emphasise the incarnational nature of Jesus’s coming. He arrived in a world full of indifference and cynicism.
The death knell of cultural Christianity opens up important possibilities for us. People who want to sing carols and visit Nativity scenes should come to church. The shopping centre was never the place for that anyway.
As communities of faith, we should work to make the experience we provide in our churches more meaningful and positive. Communication of our services and activities should be our priority at this time of year. I am full of admiration for what the Church of England has sought to achieve through its Lord’s Prayer advertising campaign, which was simple yet moving. Where was the Catholic attempt?
As a priest under the spiritual patronage of Blessed John Henry Newman, I am aware of the priority that we should give to evangelising culture. But merely giving this time of year a light dusting of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is not evangelisation and will not transform the present culture.
We need to be far more creative, and that should start with our own families, schools and churches, developing as agents and beacons of transformation.
We have to be aware of the privatisation of faith and ensure that we don’t retreat into the safety of our churches. If we stand tall, our message can actually become crisper, more focused and more meaningful as the world gets jaded with what is on offer elsewhere. The uniqueness of Christ can gain more emphasis.
Despite my love of kitsch, plastic holly and cheesy Christmas pop music, I am forever moved by the beauty of a God who casts aside metaphysics to identify with and save humanity. This amazing reality has a new freshness and poignancy for me every year, even after the fifth Mass of the two days.
We don’t always have to choose between Jesus and the world that he came to save. It is quite possible to keep a holy Advent and a meaningful Christmas while still enjoying the prolonged festivities beforehand. We have such a powerful message to communicate at this time of the year. It is a shame if the voices of the Good News are lost among the party-poopers.
Fr Pittam is a priest in charge and school chaplain in Birmingham archdiocese
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