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