17 December 2020, The Tablet

Christmas can't be cancelled, but it is our Christian duty to help keep others safe

Christmas can't be cancelled, but it is our Christian duty to help keep others safe

Oxford Street in London earlier this week.
WIktor Szymanowicz/PA

As Boris Johnston and his Ministers contort themselves to ensure the public can enjoy a somewhat “normal” Christmas despite the worrying Covid figures, an argument is brewing that this reveals a preferential treatment for Christians that isn’t afford to other religions. 

Indeed, Mr Johnson proclaimed that “we need some kind of Christmas” as he signalled an easing of Covid restrictions over Chrismas.

While pressure had been put on the Government to reverse its decision to relax restrictions over Christmas, Johnson will still allow three households to meet.

It’s lead to denouncements like this one from Sathman Sanghera. He’s an author and writer with The Times, and he tweeted: “It was hard, but millions got through Diwali, Eid, Yom Kippur without family gatherings. I do not want to throw a year of sacrifice into the bin because (Boris) Johnson cannot bear giving bad news about Christmas.”

But such an argument ignores the reality of the first lockdown in March. Easter, the most important celebration within Christianity, fell during this lockdown which was the most severe and restrictive. The Pope literally “cancelled” Easter and held ceremonies in a damp, dark, and deserted St Peter’s Square.

Mr Sanghera, however, didn’t add Easter to his list of “cancelled” religious holidays.

But the argument nevertheless gathers pace that a desire to relieve restrictions over Christmas is some sort of appeasement to Christians that isn’t offered to other religious groups.

As already noted, the most important Christian holiday has already been cancelled. It’s also an incredible stretch to claim that a move to lessen restrictions over Christmas would be a move to appease Christians. 

When governments talk of a “normal” Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth is certainly not foremost in their mind. In many respects, Christmas nowadays has little, if anything, to do with Christ’s birth and is increasingly secular and viewed more as a time for friends and families to gather.

This simply cannot be said of any of the religious festivals Mr Sanghera mentions. There are millions of atheists the world over who profess to love Christmas. They can even say, with some success, that Christmas for them has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ’s birth.

Instead, it is an opportunity for them to share quality time with loved ones and they travel the length of the world to celebrate a completely irreligious Christmas with their family.

While millions of atheists celebrate and look forward to an irreligious Christmas, no atheist will ever celebrate an irreligious version of Eid or Yom Kippur. Indeed, a non-religious version doesn’t exist.

Millions of people celebrate Christmas in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with Christ, but there are no celebrations anywhere of Eid or Yom Kippur that don’t revolve around Islam or Judaism.

Many view Christmas merely as a time to “eat, drink, and be merry”, a celebration that is devoid of religion.

As far as I am aware, there is no documented case of an atheist saying, to nods of approval, that Eid for them is about gathering with friends and family and has nothing to do with marking the end of fast during the month of Ramadan.

Nor has an atheist ever successfully argued that Yom Kippur, for them, is all about the food and game nights and nothing to do with atoning for one’s sins.

For right or wrong, irreligious people celebrate Christmas and have successfully cleaved Christ from the celebrations. This doesn’t happen with any other religious festival and it’s incredibly disingenuous to claim that the easing of restrictions is solely to please Christians and to allow for a full celebration of Christ’s birth.

The lessening over restrictions over Christmas is for the purpose of preserving gatherings that people of all religions and none enjoy. It has little, if anything, to do with letting people celebrate the birth of Christ in a more open manner.

The UK Government is much more concerned with allowing big family gatherings than they are with allowing churches to open for Christmas services.

However, perhaps the Christian option should be for families to behave as though the severe restrictions are still in place over Christmas. Everyone loves the gatherings that take place over festive period but the virus is just as potent in late December as it is at any other time.

In order to preserve these gatherings with all of our loved ones (especially those who are vulnerable) for years to come, we need to take the incredibly difficult decision to limit it for one year.

A nightmare scenario faces the NHS in January, and it is hardly “Christian” to contribute to this. One of the greatest gifts we could give this Christmas is to make this gut-wrenching decision to keep our space to keep those we hold dear safe.

But while there is a scramble to maintain the more secular parts of Christmas, there is good news for those who celebrate Christ’s birth first and foremost at this time.

That good news is the fact that Christmas can’t be “cancelled”, much like how Easter was never truly “cancelled”.

Yes, it will not be a normal Christmas and a physical presence at a religious service may be impossible for some, but Christ’s birth will still be celebrated by clergy and laypeople all over the world.

Nothing can “cancel” the importance of Christ’s birth and nothing can prevent us from celebrating it. It’s just that for one year, we should make the difficult decision to celebrate it differently.

What do you think?


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