Does Christmas Still Belong to Christianity?
By now you have all probably been bludgeoned to death by the story of Jesus’ birth. After the Virgin Mary tells Joseph that she was impregnated by God without Doing the Nasty, the two of them condone animal cruelty by travelling to Bethlehem on the back of a poor donkey, and are then turned away by all of the inns and Mary then gives birth to Jesus in a stable. Now, I do not know much about childbirth, but I would say that that is pretty unhygienic. Christian tradition dictates that we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Saviour by giving gifts since the Three Wise Men gave Jesus the three gifts that every baby should receive: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Shepherds were present too, for some reason. However, as Christmas winds down, I have decided to investigate whether Christmas- at Keele University specifically- is still celebrated by Christianity exclusively, as well as the meaning behind Christmas, and whether it has simply been violated and left hollow by Capitalism.
On Christmas Day I put out a post on social media to see if I could collect data on whether people celebrated Christmas regardless of their religious beliefs. To my surprise, I had quite the response. Shannon Hillman, who identified herself as a Christian, said that she can ‘celebrate Christmas partly because of my beliefs’, going on to add: ‘But partly because it’s the time of year to spend time with loads of family and I can give presents to show people how much they mean to me’. Continuing the sentiment of using the festive period as a time to spend with family, Katie Abbott, who identifies as an Atheist, commented ‘Christmas doesn’t always have to be about the birth of Jesus. It’s about celebrating being with family and friends and giving gifts and having a break from the reality of the world’. Amongst the bleak chaos that the world is currently facing, a break from reality in the form of Christmas is not such a bad idea. Perhaps dedicating a day once a year to forget that our Prime Minister is an alien lizard in disguise would do us all some good, whether or not that day is tied to Christianity.
Similarly, Christmas appears to be a tradition that is becoming unconnected to religion. As well as talking about spending time with family, Keelite Rose Frain commented: ‘it’s a good excuse to have a huge meal, play games, watch films and put off doing work for another day, which is always fun’, in addition to uniting the family. Despite Jesus not eating huge meals, playing games and watching films on Christmas Day, these activities have become traditions amongst a lot of families, mine included. Another atheist, Steph Lonsdale, said that ‘I love the thought that there has been a continuity of celebration at this time of year, from long before the beginning of Christianity’ in order to celebrate the coming of Spring, really capturing the spirit of tradition. She and her family, too, have their own traditions:
‘We have a tree, but it is hung with baubles and representations of birds, animals and fruits (and small bottles of booze) rather than any religious representations. We don’t send cards either, instead I donate the money to Oxfam as I feel others would benefit far more from food, shelter or even a goat, than some distant relative of mine would from a piece of paper stuck on their windowsill. We do give each other presents though and do pretty much everything that everyone else does at Christmas, including eating far too much and then falling asleep in front of the TV.’
Whilst Steph’s Christmas traditions highlight that the act of giving presented in the Christian tale is still a tradition of her own, it appears that she, and many others, have taken Christmas away from its religious roots. Manisha Chauhan, a Keele Graduate says that she and her brother are both atheists, whilst her parents and younger brother identify as Hindu. Despite this, her family celebrate Christmas every year, with her telling me: ‘[I] always have since I was born, so I guess it was a western thing my parents took on when they came to the UK. The whole family does celebrate it actually for as long as I’ve known’. Miss Chauhan also has her own traditions of having ‘family over for the meal, watching Doctor Who as siblings, playing board games, cooking a roast etc., and also just having quality time’. Manisha’s point of Christmas being primarily a Western value may hold some weight in the current day. Keele Sabbatical Officer, Aysha Panter, who usually celebrates Christmas, is spending the festive period in Turkey with her Mother’s family this year, going as far as to say that she ‘forgot it was Christmas here because people didn’t mention it’ with a laughing/crying emoji attached to the message. With Christmas being everywhere in the West, it appears to be a little more acceptable to celebrate it here opposed to in a largely Muslim country in the East, hinting that Christmas may not be as global as some us more close-minded Brits may think.
Mark Reynolds, a Christian, believes that the universal appeal of Christmas belongs to Capitalism. He commented: ‘I see two kinds of Christmas. The traditional Christian celebration, with carols and most importantly: community. I then see the shops, the chocolate, the traditions which aren’t traditions we’re just led to believe they are by media and advertising. The second kind of Christmas is much more widely celebrated than the first. The second kind of Christmas does not exclude other religions.’ He considers religion to be a very personal thing, and thus says: ‘I think I celebrate the traditional Christmas where the most important thing is spending time with family, and maintaining good relationships with friends. The aspect of joy that it seems to bring to (most of) society is perhaps the common theme between both kinds of Christmases. I also (to an extent) celebrate the capitalist version of Christmas. I have 3 Christmas jumpers, there’s a giant inflatable snowman in my front drive, I’ve eaten most of ASDA’s extra special chocolate yule log (can recommend).’ Mark’s division between the two types of Christmas is an interesting observation as to what many believe Christmas once represented through the classic unhygienic-stable-birth story, and to what many believe Christmas has become: a day in which we celebrate Capitalism.
It is hard to deny that Capitalism has become strongly rooted within our festive period. As we enter December, more and more ‘SALES!’ signs begin to pop up, with an excessive amount of Lynx Africa boxsets being shipped into stores. Many are left with empty bank accounts, so why do we do it? Social expectation? Because we want to? For some, like myself, Christmas is a time in which the social expectation to be happy no matter how you feel is forced upon you, and so the holiday becomes one of the most dreaded days of the year, in which you force yourself to smile and spend time with people you may not know too well.
Yet, as I have found out upon interviewing several Keelites, and gaining a bit of response from the student body, Christmas is a time of tradition and giving. It may not be strictly Christian anymore, with many atheists and members of other religions celebrating it, but does that matter? Ultimately, what matters is that it appears to be a time of family and joy; of tradition and fun. The definition of Christmas varies from person-to-person, yet that sense of tradition seems to be a common theme in everybody’s answer. What may have started with a Christian tale has become something, like Mark said, a little more universal in the West. It may be due to Capitalism, but if it maintains the tradition, celebration and will to give that many feel for that one special day per-year, then does it matter?