It’s that wonderful time of the year again: when conservative columnists and headline-writers tell us about the war on Christmas. Perhaps there should be “Happy War on Christmas” cards, since according to these yuletide moaners actual Christmas cards are virtually unavailable. Total nonsense of course, proving that the complainers either don’t look very hard or – important, this – spend little if any time in Christian or church circles. Important because it also explodes so many of their other claims. There are carol concerts, Christmas trees, nativity scenes and services everywhere in church land. I have to wonder if there are very many conservative writers there though.
Yet the Christmas paraphernalia is pretty apparent everywhere else as well, and I’ve never encountered any shock or opposition when I wish friends or even strangers a happy Christmas. Even in Advent, but that’s another story altogether. Those roars of impending Armageddon because some over-zealous shopping centre manager has banned carol singers – it’s rare, and almost always overturned – or because a Christmas tree, largely pagan in origin, is renamed a Holiday Tree are merely yet another front in a reactionary culture war, and a phoney war at that.
One of the most absurd examples of all this came in 2017 with the great sausage roll heresy. The bakery chain Greggs produced an ad depicting a nativity scene with not the baby Messiah but a sausage roll being worshipped. It was part of the company’s Advent calendar, entitled “Merry Greggsmas”. They hadn’t reckoned on the tabloid press, that model of Gospel values, and after the screaming an apology was forthcoming. The campaign was crass, as are so many advertising stunts, but there’s no war on Christmas. There is a war on Christmas values.
The story itself, whether you believe it or not, is of the most mighty power of all, God, becoming the most vulnerable being possible, a baby. Babies depend on the goodness and kindness of others, on love and selflessness. That baby, probably born in Bethlehem but probably not in December, goes on to lead a group of marginalised people, to own no property, to live outside of mainstream society, and to preach forgiveness, social justice, peace and redistribution of power and wealth.
His harshest words are for the rich and those in authority – multimillionaires having as much chance of entering Heaven as a camel going through the eye of a needle, and telling a rich young man, perhaps the ancient version of an investment banker or even tabloid editor, to sell everything and give it to the poor. He says not a word about abortion or homosexuality but speaks endlessly about inclusion, equality and turning the world upside down.
His central command? Love God with all of your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbour as yourself. Love others as yourself. This is communal care at its most pristine and demanding. These are Christmas values, the virtues taught by the man whose birth we are about to commemorate.
Even the secular aspects of Christmas reflect this. What we regard as the traditional Christmas was in part created, or certainly resurrected, by Charles Dickens. He was the loosest type of believer, but in A Christmas Carol gave new life to what was a season increasingly relegated and derided. Consider Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation, from money-obsessed misanthrope to jubilant altruist. He is presented with deprivation and poverty, has his eyes opened to the suffering of others, usually through no fault of their own, and is, if you’ll forgive the phrase, born again.
What is universal healthcare, the welfare state, increased minimum wage, guaranteed income, the welcoming of the stranger, the struggle for peace, the liberation of the oppressed, and the protection of the planet if not the contemporary manifestation of Christmas values?
There is, as I say, a war on these. There are people who argue that there is no such thing as community, that we must all look after ourselves rather than others, and if we don’t we only have ourselves to blame. They argue that cynicism is simply wit, profit a sign of righteousness, indifference a form of style, and worldly success a noble phenomenon. Jesus, that first-century Jewish rebel who so terrified the religious and secular government alike that they tortured and executed him, would have been incredulous.
The Brazilian Catholic archbishop and self-identified socialist Dom Hélder Câmara once said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Quite so.
I shall take three Christmas Eve services, sleep at my church, and then take another one on the morning of Christmas Day. No talk of war, no complaining, just hope, joy and love, and four homilies on what the season genuinely means. Merry Christmas, and merry Christmas values.
Michael Coren’s new book “The Rebel Christ” (Canterbury Press) has just been published in Britain.
[See also: The best Christmas films of all time]