It was the last day of Hanukkah yesterday, and I listened to a man on the radio his morning (he was a writer from the Jewish Chronicle) discussing how his family didn't celebrate Christmas at all because it's not a Jewish festival. Apparently, there's some concern that the Jewish festival of lights - which generally takes place around November/December time - is in real danger of being swallowed up entirely by Christmas, with Jewish children and parents under pressure to take part in the all-consuming traditions of the Christian holiday at the expense of their own customs and exchanging presents and so on. This chap was saying that he enjoys carols and the lights and things, but he's Jewish, so tries not to get too caught up in Christmas.
It got me thinking: I'm atheist, although brought up in the Christian tradition. I don't believe in God and have no desire to worship anything or anyone, but I very much enjoy this time of year. Late December is a time when people seem to be generally just a bit softer around the edges than they are the rest of the year. Perhaps it's just that most people have been out on the sauce, but I prefer to think that it's a time of year that has people thinking about their friends and family and other people who are near and dear to them, and this smooths off a lot of our prickles and edges as we huddle together in the depths of winter. I like the lights (be they for Hannukah, Diwali, Christmas or whatever) and I like the songs (well, some of them) and I like much of the rest of it too.
As Tracey Thorn sings in "Joy"
"It's because of the dark
We see the beauty in the spark"
It's no coincidence that pagans celebrated at this time of year too. (Yes, OBVIOUSLY Jesus was actually born on 25 December and it JUST HAPPENED to be an existing festival). People like a party in the depths of Sister Winter. Can you blame them?
I don't believe in God, but I do exchange presents and I do wear a Christmas jumper and I do eat mince pies and have that extra glass of booze. The fact that this all happens around a Christian festival is neither here nor there to me... although I suppose that's an easy thing for an atheist to say. Is it much harder for someone brought up in the Jewish faith to hand presents over when it's part and parcel of a different tradition? I think back to when I used to help primary school children with their reading on a Wednesday morning. At this time of year, most of the pupils I would be reading with were the children of Jehovah's Witnesses from the Kingdom Hall over the road. Why was I reading with them? Because assembly would now mostly consist of singing carols in the run-up to Christmas, and their particular brand of religion wouldn't allow them to take part in that. I always thought that was a really hard sell to a small child, and I imagine that many Jewish children also find it difficult that they don't get Christmas presents.
Carols are overtly religious, I suppose - even if the Holly and the Ivy demonstrates just how much the Christian religion adapted pagan rituals... the rising of the sun and the running of the deer? Where's that in the Bible? - but presents? Does the ritual of exchanging gifts at Christmas really have anything to do with the Three Wise Men? And Santa? Where does Jesus stand on Father Christmas? It's a constant source of irritation to me that otherwise sane people seem to get genuinely excited at the first time they see the Coca-Cola "holidays are coming" advert on the television each year, and that traffic grinds to a halt when the truck visits our town. They really do seem to think that Father Christmas as we currently imagine him was an invention of a corporation rather than a reflection of the red and white bishop's robes worn by Saint Nicholas in the Fourth Century. You can buy Coca-Cola Christmas jumpers, of course.
So Christians didn't invent the party at this time of year, but frankly, what does Christmas really have to do with their tradition any more anyway? Remember that Donald Trump made a huge song and dance in his campaign about how his administration wasn't going to be messing around with any of that "Happy Holidays" inclusive nonsense. Oh no! Christmas was coming back in a big way and political correctness could go hang.
Well, guess who made a point of saying "Happy Hannukah to our Jewish brothers and sisters" the other day? (read the full statement here: you won't be surprised to learn that it's entirely crass and tactless).
I suppose that I can understand why some people feel that their own traditions are under threat, and why that Jewish chap on the radio was worried about the erosion of Hannukah traditions.... as John Lennon once sang:
"Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace..."
And, lest we start thinking about what can be so wrong about children dreaming about receiving presents at this time of year, remember what Lennon went on to say:
"Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people"
Lennon was a damn fool idealist, of course. Ha! World Peace? What are you jabbering about, man? Still, how about we just try and live our lives for the next week or so by the prime directive: don't be a dick. That's basically what all religions boil down to, isn't it?
We can at least try that, can't we? Even if it's just for the next few days until the turning of the year. Who knows? Perhaps 2018 will be the year we finally make it stick past the end of December.