The Spirit Of Christmas For Non-Believers

Quite a few years back when my eldest daughter was around 8 or 9 years old, she came home from school upset and cross because her teacher had told her that people who don’t believe in God or Jesus should not celebrate Christmas. I was pretty pissed at the time, not least because it’s a rather cruel thing to tell a young child, who had no say at that age over her families choice of religion or lack of.

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I’ve never been religious. I was not raised with a religion, and neither was my mother or her mother before her. Like everyone else, I learned about the different religions at school and I understood that the predominant religion in England was Christianity. This meant that we had to sing hymns in school assemblies and say prayers.

I often wondered if God was real at that age, and I used to say the odd awkwardly hopeful prayer when I wanted something, but that was about it. Of course, as I grew older I thought about religion in more depth and like the rest of the family, I concluded happily that there probably was not a God. I won’t go into the ins and outs of this thought process, as this isn’t a post about atheism or religion. I’m perfectly happy with the idea of no God or Heaven, and though I am also prepared to keep an open mind about anything and everything, I can’t say any religion or indeed any religious person has ever been able to convince me otherwise.

This is a post about Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, as we see played out in every school nativity across the country at this time of year. (Even though I don’t buy the story, I do get tearful every time I watch small children in a nativity!) But if you’re not Christian, or indeed religious at all, then why celebrate Christmas? What’s the point? What’s it all about?

My husband finds it hard to justify. He also grew up in a non-religious household and he finds it hard to understand the yearly fuss and stress that comes with Christmas. He sees it as consumerism and materialism gone mad, and he’s probably right. Our poor planet could do without the extra plastic and packaging that goes on at this time of year. So, if we want to reject all that, and we’re not religious either, then why celebrate Christmas?

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Well, my reasons are personal and I’m going to list them below. Not because I feel I have to justify anything to anyone, but because I think it’s an interesting subject and because it’s what sprang to mind when I thought about writing a Christmas related blog post!

  1. All my favourite parts of Christmas stem from the Winter Solstice …  The way various cultures have celebrated the Winter Solstice led to so many of our Christmas traditions. Pagans, for example, would mark the shortest day of the year by slaughtering cattle so that they would not not have to feed them over the hard winter months, and at this time the wine and beer were fully fermented, hence the traditional feasting we know so well. The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian tradition from Scandinavia, and is where we get the word yule from. Fires were lit and a log was dropped into the hearth as a tribute to the Norse God Thor. Saturnalia was the ancient Romans way of celebrating the Winter solstice, and involved banquets, gift-giving and a party atmosphere. So many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are pagan in origin or have evolved from ancient cultures marking the shortest day. The Christmas Tree, wreath, holly and ivy, fires, candles, feasting, and giving to charity to name but a few. I wish I’d known this when I was younger, but I was able to explain this to my daughter when she was upset. I suppose technically if you’re going to celebrate the Winter Solstice in this way then you ought to do the whole thing on the shortest day of the year and not on the 25th. My son wanted to do this last year, but instead, we decided to mark the shortest day with pagan inspired ideas and save our gift-giving for the 25th. So this Winter Solstice we will be making bird feeders and hanging out for the birds, bringing in holly, ivy and fir cones to decorate the house, making a chocolate yule log, lighting a fire and putting together our Winter Solstice altar.
  2. Christmas is a time for nostaligia and I love a bit of that… It’s the end of the year. We all slow down a bit. The kids are off school, there are days off work, and more time than usual to sit and reflect. There is something so nostalgic about this time of year and I think it affects us all. We can’t help but look back on Christmases of the past, the good and the bad. I always think back to my childhood Christmases, and of course, over the years I have copied some of the family traditions we had then with my own kids. I talk to my kids about Christmases that stick in my mind and I smile sadly and think about the food we ate back then, the relatives no longer with us, the things we watched on Tv. It;’s no wonder I get a bit emotional this time of year!
  3. Christmas is a time for giving… My eldest daughter has just turned 16 and for the first time this year she went out shopping without us and bought us all a present using her own money. we have no idea what she got us, and I and my husband were so surprised an touched by her thoughtfulness. This is the first time one of the kids has used their own money to buy something for the family and I think it’s lovely. What’s even more lovely is how excited she was about it! I think she’s now at the age where she realises that choosing thoughtful gifts for your loved ones is actually way more exciting than receiving them. This is something that comes with age and maturity. When you’re a little kid you just want the presents! As you get older, you begin to find true joy in choosing gifts for the people you love, things that will mean something to them and let them know how you feel about them.
  4. Christmas is a time for hope… It is an optimistic time of year. People tend to be more forgiving, thoughtful and reflective. As the year draws to an end, we look forward to the next one and think about how we want it to be. Perhaps we want to make changes, try new things, make amends, and even do our bit to make the world a better place.
  5. Christmas is a crazy, often tacky, quite bizarre, exciting, nostalgic, reflective chaos and if you’ve got kids it’s even more so… Christmas changes. It doesn’t stay the same. When you’re a little kid it’s all excitement and jumping up and down and hanging out your stocking and writing to Father Christmas…Then when you grow up a bit and enter your teens and early adulthood it becomes less about family and more about friends. I remember some great Christmases around that age, hitting the pubs and clubs, all dressed up and sparkly, and swapping silly joke presents with my friends! It becomes about drinking and hangovers. Then you have kids of your own and it changes again. You bring back traditions you loved as a kid, and you create your own. You spend all year picking up things you know they will love. You thrive on their excitement as the big day gets closer. You happily feed the frenzy of Santa’s sleigh bells and reindeer and leaving out milk and cookies, and watching Elf and Home Alone. You get to do it all again! And then I imagine, as they get older and grow up and leave home, it changes again. I quite look forward that sometimes, as much as I adore the current crazy we have at this time of year. I sometimes imagine me and my husband as old people, slowing down, enjoying time together, drinking some home-made cider and wine and falling asleep in front of the TV.

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So, there we have it. Reasons I love Christmas and have always loved it despite not being remotely religious. I think this is a special, sparkly time of the year for anyone who enjoys it. I think the trick is to think about what it means to you and go with that. It can be a weird and stressful time of year, but it really doesn’t need to be. At the end of the day, all you really need are your friends, family, some good food and a drink or two! I absolutely love this time of year, although I’ve had my fair share of horrible Christmases and many moments of wondering what the point is. I don’t stress about it at all now. I do it exactly the way I want to do it and love every moment. Merry Christmas folks!! Have a good one!!

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Christmas Guest Post; Anna Lock

A few weeks ago I set my writing group a prompt, which was simply ‘Christmas Is…’ I was hoping they would come up with either a memory, a rant, or a piece of fiction based on the prompt which I could then use as a guest post on my blog. I had some amazing responses, and as usual, all very, very different! But I had to go with this one by the wonderful Anna Lock. A poignant piece of fiction on the fragility of family life at Christmas…

Christmas is …

I looked through the box of photographs the other day Dad, the ones from that last Christmas. It was difficult but I made myself do it. There you were, sitting on that shiny blue settee smiling at the camera whilst Janet and I played with our new toys at your feet. I can see it now, of course, the illness, the portents of death that were written into your face, but then, we were children and unaware. Do you remember that Christmas Dad?

The next photo is the one with Joe wearing a hat from a cracker and blowing a silly whistle – it must have been taken after lunch. I don’t recall. It’s strange that isn’t it? The way when you look at a photo you can convince yourself that you can remember that very moment in time even if that isn’t true? He looks really happy; so youthful and unworried, God, he was so young then, my big brother and I was totally oblivious of how difficult that period of his life was for him. He was rarely at home –that was the source of so many rows and bitter fights between you wasn’t it? Janet and I used to pull the blankets over our head in bed to block them out, that and the sound of Mum sobbing and pleading with you both.

Joe is pretending to be tipsy; so ironic when I think of him now, and wonder where he is. How is he spending Christmas this time? Another year in some remote godforsaken land, keeping us all at arm’s length, and in that place he goes to in his head, where the hurt can’t penetrate. He’ll be wasted and alone. I could always try texting him again, although he probably won’t reply and then I’ll get sad and worry that he’s dead somewhere and the cycle of anger with him, you, Mum, God and the world will start again and cripple me. That unbearable burden that each of your children carry, because you left us too soon.

In this photo, Mum and Auntie Audrey are clinking sherry glasses and laughing at the camera. Audrey always spent Christmas with us didn’t she; all those years, before she finally married in her 40s. How she made us laugh! Her exuberance seemed to fill the house, revelling in everything, even Julia’s dreadful mince pies and inedible Christmas cake. Looking back I can see now that we were her surrogate children but at that time, all I knew was that she was such fun to be around; the loud bubbly extrovert and contrast to her quiet sister. Mum looks okay, given the circumstances. Did you know, she mentioned that Christmas to me a few years ago? I can’t remember the context but unusually for her, the rose tinted specs were off, and she told me how Joe had lost yet another job a few weeks before, and that she had given him some money to buy his sisters a present each. Money was so tight then, and she could ill afford it, poor love. But I remember what he bought us, Dad. We had a bottle of bubble bath each and the stopper was like a Barbie head! Janet’s was blond, mine was brown and Julia had a red head.

Mum said that because you had been so ill that autumn, and hadn’t been in work for such a long time, she had been rushing around and consequently neither of you had been able to get a present for Joe – it is difficult to find the right present for an 18-year-old whose only interests are T. Rex, Slade and Manchester United I suppose. So you had decided to give him a cheque. But what with one thing and another it didn’t get written, so you had tried to do it secretly on Christmas morning and hide it in the tree. But somehow that hadn’t happened. Mum was still so sad about that after all these years you know? She had tried to tell Joe later that it wasn’t because you had forgotten him or didn’t care, but deep inside she knew that his pain that day, just added to all the other hurts he was collecting in his heart. She didn’t know then how to handle him – after all her life was so busy with the relentless struggle to make ends meet and look after four children in addition to an increasingly ill husband. And so time ticked on, and Joe gradually dropped off the edge of the family until one day, he slipped beyond our reach.

But none of this is visible in that photo. Maybe in that fleeting moment, Auntie Audrey had succeeded in resurrecting her fun-loving older sister and Kevin had captured it with a “click” – proof preserved forever that the happy, smiling mum once did exist. After you had gone Dad, that mum vanished too. Oh, I’ve seen a similar smile on occasions, when she looks at a new-born grandchild, or when they climb onto her lap for a cuddle but it’s never quite as full, never whole or secure, never quite complete again.

In the photo of Julia, I can see the tree behind her. Ah, the tree; our one luxury, always a real tree, no matter what eh? And the excitement of the trip to choose it! Do you remember Dad, the fun we had fixing it to the car roof and the drive home again singing Christmas carols in the car all 4 children squeezed in tightly in the back? Mum kept this ritual, despite the financial frailty – did you know that? We tried hard, but with just Janet and me at home, and little money the tree became thinner, subdued and less robust – a bit like us.

Do you remember the Christmases before that Dad? How you and Joe would carry the massive tree through the house and upstairs to the cosy lounge, where Mum had lit the fire in the huge Victorian fireplace, scattering pine needles in your wake. The annual drama of wedging it into the bucket and the “it isn’t straight yet” arguments between Joe and Julia, while Janet and I danced around gleefully, full of anticipation, picking up on wafts of excitement and cheer from the conversations between the adults, happy, for once, that there were no rows or slamming of doors, or tears. We inhaled the wonderful pine scent that meant Christmas was really here as the fire crackled cheerfully, impatient for Mum to finish untangling the old fairy lights, traditional red, green yellow and blue, with a nursery rhyme motif that mysteriously tangled themselves in their box each year.

For two weeks the tree shone in the huge bay window, and on Christmas morning it was surrounded by a sea of wrapped presents quietly waiting for the 6 of us, Auntie Audrey and Godfather Kevin. Oh, the anticipation of that moment, the build-up was almost unbearable for us then. I can’t find any photos of the tree Dad. I suppose that’s because only Kevin had a camera, and he liked to take pictures of people. Thank goodness he did, otherwise, we’d only have our memories and that would be unbearable. It was thoughtful too, of him to send us the photos, or bring them with him when he came to stay the following Easter. He knew of course; he was your best friend and confidant. He stayed loyal to us Dad – but you’d know that wouldn’t you, why would you have doubted that?

We found loads more photos from Christmas when we cleared his flat – he kept them all you know; we hadn’t recognised our value to him then when we were children. But we loved his expensive gifts from Harrods and Selfridges. The trip to the station to collect him from the London train on Christmas Eve was the start of Christmas proper. He was the one who bought Mum the lovely presents, perfume, expensive chocolates and silk scarves because he could see what the rest of us could not, her selflessness, and the grim future that lay ahead.

Do you remember Dad, those endless monopoly games with him that lasted the whole week between Christmas and New Year? All the arguments and negotiating that went on – that time when Auntie Audrey stood guard of the board over night because we were convinced that Kevin was cheating! It was all put on of course, for Janet and me; adults conspiring in the great adventure, and jolly larks, and, oh, how we revelled in that! Leftover turkey with bubble and squeak, cosy afternoons with the telly, satsumas and Christmas chocolates and that protracted game of monopoly. Those were the best Dad, really happy times, for us all I think because everyone joined in, battles forgotten, money worries, sickness and impending loss and grief suspended momentarily. A family united and sharing good times with a friend.

That was over 40 years ago Dad, such a long time ago, yet it’s as fresh a memory as if it was last year. The grief is less raw now of course, but it never goes away; all those other Christmases stolen from us, future photos that were never taken and happy new memories that could not be born. Just memories of that last Christmas, kept alive through those photos, and made so poignant by the knowledge that 3 of the key players were keeping a dreadful secret, and hiding it from the children. Do I wish we had known? I don’t know Dad; how could an 8 and 6-year-old handle that knowledge? You all meant well I realise that; you thought you were doing the right thing.

But each Christmas became harder to get through than its predecessor, for fifteen years. The tree lights that didn’t work and were cracked or broken came out of their box only to be put back – no money to replace them. The Chinese lanterns that we repeatedly sellotaped together and resolutely stuck to the ceiling were eventually thrown away when they became beyond repair and the decorations that we fixed to the tree using paperclips grew fewer each year. It was good that we had learned at school to make 3 d shapes. Janet and I would spend Sunday afternoons each December making a batch and eking out the remaining glitter in the Christmas decoration box, to hang on the tree when the time came to cover its bareness.

So here I am, with these photos and memories, planning Christmas with my children Dad. I shall check the boxes of decorations surreptitiously to reassure myself that everything is intact and working, so that when they open them to start decorating our tree, and I watch their excitement at discovering favourite treasured memories again, when they exclaim aloud at the ones they had forgotten, I shall know that we will not have to put things back in the box quietly and go without. I will check, double check and then check again, that everyone has been accounted for with presents and cards well in advance, and that I have some spares tucked away just in case, so no one can feel the hurt of being overlooked.

And there will be the real tree. We’ll all go to collect it, and we’ll pick a huge, bushy, scented evergreen – all of us together; my children, their boyfriends and cousins and the dog, all crammed into the car. There will be shrieks of laughter as we try to fit the tree into the car, around all the bodies and the bags of Christmas veggies, while Pip the Christmas tree man joins in the fun giggling at them all while he secures the half open boot with rope. Then we’ll drive home, boot slightly ajar, with two feet of Christmas tree trunk sticking out behind, children clutching the dog, and complaining merrily of pine needles ticking their ears and everyone will sing along loudly and exuberantly, to my old Christmas cassette tape that is saved just for this occasion each year, and marks the start of Christmas proper. Faces will be suffused with happiness and smiles at the golden oldies, groans will be heard at the corny cheesy songs and, then we will get to track seven. In that moment I will look back in the mirror and watch as my children exchange glances, nudge their boyfriends, and my nieces grin at their cousins, and, then, surrounded by the heady pine scent mingled with that aroma of satsuma that epitomise Christmas as one, we will take a deep breath and sing. We will sing at the top of our voices and slightly out of tune, to accompany Wizzard with “I wish it could be Christmas every day” and everything will be all right Dad.

Thanks so much Anna! Now, don’t forget, I am always on the lookout for guest posts and submissions for my blog! I’m looking for anything to do with writing or reading, as well as essays/articles/rants etc on being an outsider, and any short fiction or extracts from novels which are along the same theme. 

My Shit Tree…And Other Christmas Let-Downs

I blame the perfect people of Facebook and their perfect trees and decorations. I mean, once upon a time, when there was no such thing as social mediawe didn’t know what anyone’s house looked like at Christmas unless we visited them. Although, I suppose, to be fair, there have always been those treacly Christmas movies, with their perfect trees and perfect families. But these days it’s pushed into your face even more and  we know what everyone’s Christmas tree looks like. And they are all gorgeous, and evenly balanced, with matching decorations and a colour theme. The lights hang perfectly, looking like they are a part of the tree, not some extra tangled mishap that’s been thrown on in some haphazard manner.

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My tree looks like…well, it never looks like the picture I have in my head. This current one looked awesome in the shop (my 9-year-old chose it) but when I got it home, I realised the trunk was too short and stubby at the bottom and would result in the heavy tree falling over in the pot. (Been there, done that.) That’s okay, I cheered, while my cynical, Christmas-hating husband looked on, I just have to lop some branches off the bottom! He left me to it, and once I’d trimmed it, I found the giant pot that sits by the back door waiting to come in every year and started to dig the weeds out of the dirt. I released a few worms and checked there were no slugs or snails on the bottom, and then I lugged it in through the back door and positioned it proudly on the carefully laid out Christmas wrapping paper.(Every year I promise myself a proper tree skirt AND a little wooden train going around…) All good so far! I was feeling all excited and festive. I wanted to get it up with the lights on before my son got back from school, so he could do the rest of the decorations. I dragged in the tree and husband dutifully held it in place while I shoveled dirt back around it.

And inevitably it leaned a bit, so I fiddled some more, added more dirt and some bricks for good measure, and said aloud to my husband; every single year I say I am going to buy a tree stand and every year I don’t and use this same old annoying pot. Then my poorly 12 year old looks up from the sofa and claims; ‘the problem is, it is not a very neat tree.’

No. Well, real trees are not ‘neat’ are they? That’s what we love about them! They’re bushy and fragrant and real! They come in all shapes and sizes and that’s what we like! It’s interesting!

Refusing to be beaten by cynics, I set about sorting the lights. Two sets worked but had become so entangled I swear to God they have actually fused together and become one. I gave up on them before I got too angry. Another set didn’t work. I plugged in a brand new set I purchased from eBay last January (yes, January!!) when I was searching online for lights that looked really traditional. I found these beautiful lights from America, with ceramic bulbs! It wasn’t until they arrived that I realised our plugs are different. Not to be deterred I purchased what I believed to be the correct adaptor, but when I plugged it in, the whole thing blew up.

Well, I’m sure I’ll definitely get around to fixing that one day and won’t have wasted any money whatsoever.

But for now, luckily, I had purchased another set of star shaped lights this morning at a bargain price, plus they are battery operated! Yay me. I put them on and they looked fantastic. But they also looked sort of out of place among the other smaller lights. Never mind maybe I will grab another pack next time I’m there?

On with the rest of the lights. One twinkly multicoloured pack also battery operated and work! One ancient pack, they work, but only some come on, but oh well, stick it on anyway. How the hell do other people wrap lights around trees? I look forward to doing it and then start hating it right away. There is never a branch where you need one to be! You can see way too much wire. I end up with bare areas no matter how hard I try to distribute them evenly. I thought I liked it until my daughter told me to look at it from where she was sat. Where it looked crap.

Disheartened I turned them all off and decided to forget about it for now. In my head I was thinking, isn’t this the same thing that happens year after year? It’s like Groundhog Christmas for me. Every year I do the same thing. I promise myself next year I will get the best tree ever. I will buy more lights, because more lights is surely the answer and I never seem to have enough lights or remember how many lights will not work or be tangled together never to be parted again. And I think about all the lovely trees I have seen in shops, on TV and on Facebook, and I long for the same look, the same feel, and I make plans to achieve it.

And yes I actually do make plans. I have a little Christmas notebook I write in all year, adding presents when I buy them so I can tick them off. Last year I decided I wanted this year to be much more traditional and home made in look and feel, hence the sought out bulb shaped lights. It was going to be home-made this and home-made that, old fashioned and cosy. With paper chains and paper snowflakes and even home-made crackers on the list.

Why do I already feel like that picture is slipping away from me?

Because my tree looks shit.

And money has done that thing it does so magnificently at this time of year. You know, vanishing, drying up, running out, backing off, hiding. It does then suddenly start to get stressful, and I feel angry with myself again because last year I promised myself as usual that this year would be different. I would buy more throughout the year and would avoid a last minute financial meltdown.

Why am I always searching for the perfect Christmas?

I suppose they sell it to us, don’t they? In movies, and in adverts, (God don’t even get me started on those bloody adverts), and in shops and catalogues. And I’ve saved about a million different recipes about how to cook the perfect dinner because of course I will do it this year, because after last year I promised myself I would! (When serving Christmas dinner I lose the ability to count, often forgetting to serve one person, or like last year, dishing up an entire plate for an extra person who did not exist.)

When I look back on all the Christmassses of the past and I try to work out what made them great, or okay, or even terrible, it’s strange what actually comes up. I can remember some awesome Christmassses. When I was about seven or eight and it felt like the presents under the tree were a mountain. I got a Charmkins house and  My Little Pony stable, and a great big rag doll. I’ve seen the photos. We were all very, very happy. When I was ten I got a flufy tiger and sat on the landing after we’d been sent to bed, listening to the adults still talking and laughing, and feeling sad that Christmas was over. I remember sitting by the tree and staring at the lights, feeling dazzled by them, like I might cry. The best things were stuff we weren’t normally allowed like fizzy drinks and sweets and chocolates, and everyone watching TV together, and passing them around and having extra people in the house like grandparents and funny uncles.

I can only really remember two really sad Christmases. They were both terrible and heartbreaking for very different reasons. The kind of things you think at the time will mean you will never enjoy Christmas again.

But you do. Our first Christmas as a family was one of the best ever. Our first daughter was only 4 months old and everything was just so exciting. Another one I remember as being above and beyond was our first in this house, after a terrible year of things going wrong, we were finally settled and secure, and the kids all had bean bags and we had this dopey foster puppy with us, and I can just remember us all sprawled out, or cuddled up.

Last year was pretty damn good from start to finish, yet as normal, there I went again afterwards, scribbling in my book, trying to plan it better for this year, trying to achieve that elusive stage of perfection I seem to see all over my Facebook feed and on TV.

But maybe it’s good to stop and think and try to remember the ones that counted. Why they were sad, or why they were amazing, had nothing to do with trees, or lights, or crackers or food. It was only ever to do with the people you love.

So, in tribute to this and to them, my loved ones, my family, I will endeavour from this moment on to forget about the lop sided, leaning tree with its mismatched only half working lights, and forget about the plans to collect holly and ivy and spray fir cones and make centre pieces, and name plates, and I will forget about how beautiful other people’s trees and houses look compared to mine, and I will just relax. Love my shit tree and everything else that will inevitably go wrong at this strange time of year. I will accept my shit tree and concentrate on the people, knowing that in their little eyes, every Christmas tree is amazing and beautiful, and every wrapped present exciting, and that just being together is all any of us ever really want.

And when it is all over, I will try really really hard not to think about how much better it could have been, if only…