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Christmas is not just for Christians

20 December 2013

THE Revd Simon Tatton-Brown will not be the first or the last cleric to be accused of ruining Christmas by questioning the existence of Father Christmas. His misdemeanour, reported in the papers, took place at a school assembly in Chippenham. Apparently he horrified staff and parents, although any sympathy I might have had for them vanished when I learnt that the worst outcome of the vicar's address is that children might also now question the reality of the tooth-fairy.

The row is an expression of a genuine unease, as the Christian festival becomes more global, more diverse, more materialistic, and less the exclusive possession of Christians. The roots of this are in the way that Christmas built on earlier Roman festivals such as Saturnalia. Christmas has never been purely Christian, which is why the Puritans tried to banish it. There is always a streak of chaos waiting to break out.

Today, Christmas symbols are interpreted in astonishingly novel ways. In Japan, the Christmas crib on display in department stores is often occupied by Father Christmas. To Christians, this seems gross, but we should not miss the resonances that even these bizarre interpretations can strike with the Christmas story. After all, the baby in the manger is also "the ancient of days - an hour or two old", as H. R. Bramley's Christmas hymn puts it.

Father Christmas is a universal version of a real Christian saint, as his name Santa Claus still testifies. Borne from the North Pole on his reindeer sleigh, he comes down the chimney. Christmas, pagan or Christian, looks to a gift-giver who comes from beyond this world, and has no truck with conventional entry points such as doors.

For children, the whole point of Father Christmas is that he is not a parent, and when they finally discover that he is Daddy or Mummy creeping in with a full stocking, the disguise helps preserve the hope that there is more than Mum and Dad caring for us in the universe; that on this one night, generosity spills over from another place.

The whole process of enchantment and disillusion which goes with Christmas is an inevitable part of growing up. That there is some tension with the Church in all this is not surprising. But Christmas is not only for Christians. The subversive, semi-pagan, and materialistic elements of the festival should not simply be dismissed. They are a bridge into the wider world. God's gift of himself at Christmas is for everyone.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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