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Page last updated at 06:48 GMT, Wednesday, 31 December 2008
Christmas without the Christ

By Tom Colls
Today programme

A boy looks into a bag, package at Christmas
Not everyone received presents this Christmas
Carol services, turkey feasts and crackers make up Christmas Day for most - but for some there is no such celebration.

Atheists, for instance, might feel as unwelcome on the 25th December as a soggy Brussels sprout.

"Most years I just stay at home and pretend that it isn't happening," says Ian Jackson, an atheist living in London.

Between the stress of preparation, the "puerile drivel" on TV and "the dead bird in the kitchen", Mr Jackson says that there is very little to celebrate on the day he described as "the hypocrites holiday".

"As a child I was told that it was the season of good will to all men and I always just thought - what is wrong with the rest of the year?" he says.

The celebrated author and atheist Richard Dawkins celebrates Christmas; his family gives each other presents and has a family lunch. There may not be a church service, but there is recognition of the day, he says.

"We celebrate Christmas. In America, there is a move to downplay Christmas but it comes from other religions, it doesn't come from atheists.

"I'm perfectly happy on Christmas Day to say happy Christmas to everybody I meet, sing Christmas carols, once I was privileged to be invited to King's College, Cambridge for their Christmas carols and loved it.

"We're not killjoys, we're not scrooges," he says.

The doing part

Richard Dawkins' Christmas plans are similar to those of many atheists, says Glen Slade, who runs a group for non-believers known as Brights which meets in London.

Christmas dinner
A good winter feast is a part of many non-Christian Christmases
For most atheists, he says, it is very easy to enjoy Christmas without the religious connotations. Many even go to religious events, but treat them in a non-religious way.

"It boils down to the doing part. What you actually do is exchange gifts, have feasts, relax, and see your family."

Mr Slade likens the way we now think about Christmas to the way we think about the weekend. Just as many people who take Saturday and Sunday off do so for a rest - and not because Sunday was the day the creator was supposed to have stopped work - so believing in the Nativity is not a pre-requisite for celebrating Christmas.

"What we call Christmas no longer means celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It's just a common word used to mean the holiday period around the 25th December," he says.

The spiritual side

But for philosopher Dr Stephen Law, the Christmas message still retains a deeper meaning for non-believers.

A new interpretation of the Nativity, by Andrew Gadd, which features on a poster campaign by the Churches Advertising Network
An advertising campaign is hoping to remind people about the Nativity
"A lot of the Christmas message is something you can sign up to whether you believe that Jesus was God or not. All the stuff about love and peace, we all agree with that," he says.

Dr Law argues that human beings have evolved to have a spiritual side which it is important to express every now and then, but that as classical religious traditions have withered away, Christmas is one of the few times left for people to get together and have powerful communal experiences.

"This is really the last great opportunity for many people to get together with other human beings and engage in vaguely ritualistic activity," he says.

Anything goes

Reverend Canon Ann Easter, a vicar in the Church of England, agrees that people can take part in Christmas whether or not they are believers.

"I think the problem is that religion and culture have been joined together. Actually, things like carols are part of our culture," she says.

"It's quite alright for people to come to a carol service without making a statement of faith, and you never know what might strike them when they're there."

Canon Easter says that some people have an idea that there are things you have to do at Christmas, like a friend who asked whether her Christmas ritual - to go to bed with a bowl of porridge and watch a schmaltzy film - was OK with the church.

But as far as she was concerned, there is no prescribed way in which Christmas should be celebrated.

"Christmas is about having a lovely time and rejoicing in all the good things in life," she says.

"Things change and develop as time goes on but God is in everything. You should just have a big celebration in whatever way turns you on."


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