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I am an atheist, but I still love Christmas

21 December 2012

The comedian and writer Robin Ince turns off the phone, and celebrates a godless Christmas


Getting Christmassy: Robin Ince on stage at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

Getting Christmassy: Robin Ince on stage at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

OH, TO be an atheist at Christmas, hurling snowballs at the angel-faced children singing "Silent Night", letting down the tyres on the bicycles of the old ladies who have cycled to midnight mass, and then stealing all the snowmen's noses and turning them into soup.

That is what some people might like to believe. Atheists, much like vegetarians, are wrongly thought to have taken their position owing to a vehement desire for a life without joy or hope. Just as vegetarians at banquets are served up a small pastry parcel that contains hints of the memory of vegetables, "because you don't like food", so atheists are expected to be Grinch-ish, grouch-ish, and generally grey-clouded when Christmas comes around.

Some years ago, I made the mistake of appearing on a TV debate show about "Winterval" and other popular Christmas-theft legends. As with the majority of these TV events, it was not a debate, just a pub slanging-match, without the excuse of inebriation or the advantage of peanuts. One fundamentalist kept telling me: "You want to ban Christmas." I don't know where he got the idea from. It was from nothing I said. I can only presume that I looked particularly like Alan Rickman that day.

Counter-instinctively, the more faithless my Christmas has become, the more "Christmassy" it has become. In reaction to the TV-show fundamentalist, I decided that something must be done to prove that the godless enjoyed celebration as much as anyone who dwelt in pews and porches singing carols. I came up with Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People - a night that celebrates the universe and its contents with scientists, musicians, comedians, and, occasionally, hula-hoopers and tap dancers.

Soon, the one-night event spanned two weeks. A few Christians started buying tickets in error, having read only the first four words of the title, and they were surprised that - rather than a bolshie attack on believers - it was a night of experiments with giant test-tubes, ogling at deep-field images of space, and an occasional gag about neutrinos.

HAVING spent years performing at drunken office parties, trying to make myself heard above minds in alcoholic despair, spending ten days talking about stars with wise men sets me up for a Christmas break.

For the parent of a young child, Christmas really starts with the visit to the school nativity (the one that was banned, according to that TV debate show). Last year, my son was a star so as long as his cardboard and tinsel stayed hung around him, and his performance was a success.

This time, he is a grumpy soldier with lines; thus there is an upping of the tension. Will this become the bit of footage that is stored in the cupboard, ready to play as punishment when he is older?

As for worrying about my child's taking part in a play about the birth of Jesus, well, I don't. Children are bombarded by myths, histories, and anecdote as they learn. The discussions about why people believe what they do can be saved for when the questions occur to him. As he grows up, I can only hope to give him the opportunity of free thinking, and critical thinking, and then he can use those tools as he wishes.

I am fascinated by how many Father Christmases a child is likely to meet, nowadays. Within the first three days of December, my son had met three Santas, and there are many more to come. His four-year-old brain has rationalised why he encounters so many Santa Clauses. They are not the real Santas, but the franchise he has had to set up, while he is busy at the Pole preparing for chimney slides - the body-doubles for a hectic man.

BECAUSE Christmas advertising begins while I am still packing away my beach ball and flip-flops (I do not actually wear flip-flops because of my ugly toes), I forget about all the preparation bits. I rarely see television; so I am not racked with anxiety by all those adverts that constantly remind you that, if you do not spend enough money buying everything, you will have failed as a human being.

I usually start shopping on 22 or 23 December, carefully mapping out where I need to go, and what I wish to buy. My wife does not disguise her disgust and disappointment when presents are not what she wants; so the most important thing is the envelope to put the receipts in, so that she can exchange everything in January.

I believe that last year's toasted-sandwich maker was one of my finest gift choices (honestly). This has trebled the number of hot meals we have time to eat in an average week.

I normally walk off the stage for the last time in the year at about 11.30 p.m. on 23 December. One of the joys of the Christmas season is the enforced holiday. I usually work seven days a week; so I enjoy being forced into a rest status.

My family are very relaxed about Christmas. The regular churchgoers go off to the Christmas Day service, but I am afraid my atheism buys me a lie-in. It is not really a lie-in, just a brief lie-back, after the hurricane of stocking-dispensing excitement.

My side of the family is nonchalant about presents; we are the sort of people who forget birthdays for years on end, and, once in a while, someone might say, "Did you ever get that bicycle we were going to buy you for your 35th birthday all those years ago?"

My wife's family are Christmas-present experts, and a flood of parcels surround the tree - everything from jumpers to piccalilli. My mother-in-law thinks of all possibilities for you - and, fulfilling William Morris's advice, they are either practical or beautiful.

I HAVE been accused by religious friends of being a hypocrite for enjoying Christmas. But I see this time of year as all the positive clichés - a time for family, where I have no need to leave the room suddenly to finish an article, or do a show in Aberystwyth.

Without the religious element of Christmas, there can still be days of relative calm, rural walks, and minds not needing to be as frantic as much modern living seems to engender. This is why I dislike the increasing pressure to create some kind of illusion of the perfect Christmas through consumerism.

Sitting around, talking, inhaling the aroma of mince pies, and observing the peace of deadline-free days, is enough for me, especially with a new jumper and jar of piccalilli.

Then it's paper hats, bad jokes, and sprouts. I am careful with pulling crackers, as, many years ago, I sent my grandmother to hospital after over-zealously pulling a cracker, desperate for a cheap plastic puzzle or fortune-telling fish.

Once bloated, and barely able to move, I place myself on the floor so that I am at the correct height to play with whatever car or train is my son's new favourite - uncertain if I will ever be able to rise up from the ground with this new potato-and-pudding-based centre of gravity.

If I have time, I will also throw in a viewing of Alastair Sim's Scrooge, and possibly an M. R. James ghost story. I may be one of those rational atheists, but a well-made 1970s ghost play at midnight will have me believing every shadow and half-reflection to be an angry spirit, until it is morning.

Dennis Potter, in his haunting and provoking last interview, talked of "the blossomest blossom". Knowing that he would never see the blossom again, he saw the beautiful details of the world in a way that he hadn't before he was so directly confronted with his imminent death.

As someone who believes his existence is finite, I grasp any moment to stop, stare, and contemplate. I hope that I may have 40 years more of seeing Boxing Day frosts, and looking at blue tits feasting on yesterday's lard. But I try to make the most of knowing that the phone can be switched off, and the laptop put on sleep.

Then, as the cacophony of family and new toys rises, the duffle coat is toggled up, and, with a boy on my back, the long country trek - to try and walk off a newly found belly - begins.

So, happy Christmas - or, as we atheists like to say, happy Christmas.

For details of Robin Ince's 2013 tour The Importance of Being Interested, visit www.robinince.com.

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