O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel . . .
Advent, we learned at school, was a time of anticipation: of looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. But we boys knew better. Advent was looking forward to something a lot more interesting – Christmas. That great processional tune, played on the organ to announce the Advent hymn, still stirs my depths, fifty years on. It meant that Christmas, which was the main thing each boy had been looking forward to since his birthday, was really coming – and what bad luck on poor Jesus, having his birthday on Christmas Day.
The Advent hymn anticipated the excited sleeplessness of Christmas Eve, then the knobbly weight of the stocking, distended and crackling with promise of the “real” presents to come after breakfast or, in unlucky years, after church. That heraldic minor-key theme, on the trumpet stop, was a fanfare for Hamleys, for Meccano and Hornby Dublo, for overeating in a wasteland of coloured wrapping paper.
We knew little of the theology of Advent. “Emmanuel”, we gathered, might be a rather daring misspelling, but it really was just another way of writing “Jesus”. How else interpret the familiar words of Matthew (1:22-23)?
Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying/Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel . . .
We never wondered why God would go to such lengths simply to fulfil a prophecy. Nor, indeed, why God would go to the even greater lengths of sending his son into the world in order that he should be agonisingly punished for the sins that mankind might decide to commit at some time in the future (or for the past scrumping offence of one non-existent man, Adam) – surely one of the single nastiest ideas ever to occur to a human mind (Paul’s, of course). We never wondered why God, if he wanted to forgive our sins, didn’t just forgive them. Why did he have to scapegoat himself first? Where religion was concerned, we never wondered anything. That was the point about religion. You could ask questions about any other subject, but not religion.
We’d have been intrigued if our scripture teachers had come clean and told us that Isaiah’s Hebrew for “young woman” was accidentally mistranslated as “virgin” in the Greek Septuagint (an easy mistake to make: think of the English word “maiden”). To say that this little error was to have repercussions out of all proportion would be putting it mildly.
From it flowed the whole Virgin Mary myth, the kitsch “Our Lady” of Catholic grotto-idolatry, the sub-paedophile spectacle of young girls in virginal white First Communion dresses, the goddess status of not just Mary herself but a pantheon of local “manifestations”. Pope John Paul II thought he was saved from assassination in 1981 not just by Our Lady but specifically by Our Lady of Fatima. As I have remarked elsewhere, presumably Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Medjugorje, Our Lady of Akita, Our Lady of Zeitoun, Our Lady of Garabandal and Our Lady of Knock were busy on other errands at the time.
Our scripture teachers could have gone on to tell us that Isaiah’s “Emmanuel” verse was really nothing to do with Jesus, but referred to a temporary problem in Jewish politics seven centuries earlier. The birth of a child called Emmanuel was a sign to King Ahaz of Judah, to encourage him in his little local dispute with the neighbouring kingdoms of Syria and Israel.
It is typical of the religious mind to force a gratuitous symbolic meaning where none was intended. Christian writers later saw Judah’s oppression as a symbol for mankind’s enslavement to death and “sin”, and ended up unable to tell the difference, like people who send Christmas cards to the Archers. An even funnier example is the late Christian gloss on the “Song of Songs”, a frankly erotic document headed, in Christian bibles, by hilariously euphemistic epigraphs such as “The mutual love of Christ and his church”.
The desire to fulfil prophecies is where our most heart-warming Christmas stories come from. There is no actual evidence that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, let alone in a stable. But he must have been born in Bethlehem, because the prophet Micah (5:2) had earlier said:
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou
be little among the thousands of Judah, yet
out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel . . .
So, Luke has Mary and Joseph starting in Nazareth, but forced to go to Bethlehem (“everyone into his own city”) to pay a Roman tax (ancient historians rightly ridicule this tax story). Matthew, by contrast, has Joseph’s family starting in Bethlehem, but moving to Nazareth after returning from the flight to Egypt. Matthew turns even Jesus’s relatively undisputed con nection with Nazareth into a strained effort to fulfil yet another prophecy:
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:23)
Mark, the earliest Gospel, doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus at all. John (7:41-42) has people saying that he couldn’t really be the Christ, precisely because he was born in Nazareth not Bethlehem, and because he was not descended from David:
Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee?
Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the
To add to the confusion, Matthew and Luke, though theirs are the only Gospels claiming that Jesus had no earthly father, both trace Jesus’s descent from David through Joseph, not Mary (albeit through very different intermediates from one another, and very different numbers of intermediates).
Most but not all scholars think, on balance, that a charismatic wandering preacher called Jesus (or Joshua) probably was executed during the Roman occupation, though all objective historians agree that the evidence is weak. Certainly, nobody takes seriously the legend that he was born in December. Late Christian tradition simply attached Jesus’s birth to a long-established and convenient winter solstice festival.
Such seasonal opportunism continues to this day. In some states of the US, public display of cribs and similar Christian symbols is outlawed for fear of offending Jews and others (not atheists). Seasonal marketing appetites are satisfied nationwide by a super-ecumenical “Holiday Season”, into which are commandeered the Jewish Hanukkah, Muslim Ramadan, and the gratuitously fabricated “Kwanzaa” (invented in 1966 so that African Americans could celebrate their very own winter solstice). Americans coyly wish each other “Happy Holiday Season” and spend vast amounts on “Holiday” presents. For all I know, they hang up a “Holiday stocking” and sing “Holiday carols” around the decorated “Holiday tree”. A red-coated “Father Holiday” has not so far been sighted, but this is surely only a matter of time.
For better or worse, ours is historically a Christian culture, and children who grow up ignorant of biblical literature are diminished, unable to take literary allusions, actually impoverished. I am no lover of Christianity, and I loathe the annual orgy of waste and reckless reciprocal spending, but I must say I’d rather wish you “Happy Christmas” than “Happy Holiday Season”.
Fortunately, this is not the only choice: 25 December is the birthday of one of the truly great men ever to walk the earth, Sir Isaac Newton. His achievements might justly be celebrated wherever his truths hold sway. And that means from one end of the universe to the other. Happy Newton Day!
Richard Dawkins, FRS is Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His most recent book is “The God Delusion” (Black Swan, £8.99)