I woke up and skipped at least three steps as I ran down the stairs. I was perhaps a bit too excited to read David Cameron’s Christmas message, which has become one of my highlights of the year. I only know it’s officially the season to be merry once Dave’s statement has hit the back of my eyeballs, traversed my optic nerve, and found that sweet spot in my visual cortex where all the fun begins. This year’s statement certainly contains some of the most fun yet and you will be forgiven if you start popping a few party poppers as you read the following…
And that is what we mark today as we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.
Now, if you think there’s nothing funny about that statement, then let me stop right here, wish you a very Merry Christmas and hope you have a prosperous New Year. I now humbly point you in the direction of the mince pies while I also ask you to stop reading. I really don’t want to diminish your good cheer by provoking you into leaving some grumbling comments below. And, frankly, I’ve heard them all before. Why can’t I ‘get into the spirit’ and why do I have to be ‘so bloody miserable all the time’? Yes, yes, I know about brightening things up and doing it for other people. I should just eat my sprouts, shut the hell up and watch Mrs Brown’s Boys on the TV.
But I get immensely bored during Christmas (and judging from web traffic I’ve monitored over the years, I know I’m not alone. The boredom usually kicks in around 1pm on Christmas Day). Sure, the tree looks great and now that the presents are out of the way, the emotional stress has gone leaving only the financial stress behind. I also really like sprouts, though find it shocking that we’ve gone from Morecambe and Wise to Mrs Brown in just a few decades. Yet the PM’s message is one of the few things to brighten my Christmas week. It allows me to escape to my Slade-free office and bang my head against my keyboard.
This year’s message goes a little further than that of 2014 when the only controversial claim was that ‘we celebrate the birth of Christ’. Hate to be the bearer of bad news but I don’t think we do. In February 1582 Pope Gregory XIII changed our calendars from the Julian to the Gregorian system, which is why more orthodox Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on January 7th. It’s a small detail but, I think, important if you’re one of those people who like to get the timing right. Yet irrespective, I don’t sense that Christmas is even a spiritual holiday and hasn’t been one for at least three decades or more. Judging from the queues at Tesco this week, Christmas is a time for inebriation and a high fibre diet, which is surely not the best combination on cold days when all the windows are closed.
But putting all of that to one side, let’s just note that this year’s message is bit on the Evangelical well-muscled side and certainly more overt than that of 2013 when Dave wrapped his faith in a quote:
For me, this season is also a time to think about the meaning of Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ and the hope that gives to millions. In Handel’s Messiah, these words from the Prophet Isaiah are brilliantly put to music: “His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
From the guy who thought Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie’ was so brilliantly put to music that he included it among his ‘Desert Island Discs’, quoting Handel’s Messiah seems to be a bit of a reach.
In 2012, we found Dave being more ‘on the nose’ (no doubt reindeer and red) about his faith:
But Christmas also gives us the opportunity to remember the Christmas story – the story about the birth of Jesus Christ and the hope that he brings to the countless millions who follow him. The Gospel of John tells us that in this man was life, and that his life was the light of all mankind, and that he came with grace, truth and love. Indeed, God’s word reminds us that Jesus was the Prince of Peace.
[Quick quibble: ‘countess millions’. There are (according to Wikipedia) 2.2 billion Christians in the world. That’s a lot but hardly ‘countless’.]
There was not, as far as I can see, a Christmas message from 2011, nor any year before. In fact, the PM’s Christmas Message looks to be one of the innovations brought in by Cameron in order to make the British Prime Minister look a lot more presidential. It’s perhaps churlish of me to point out that he is not our Head of State but it does make me wonder what Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents would have said if he’d tried to steal the limelight from HM the Q. I imagine the phrase ‘Just who does he think he is?’ would have been uttered just once or twice over a Christmas Day sherry.
You might have noticed a lot of similarities between Cameron’s past Christmas statements, particularly the bit about the ‘Prince of Peace’ by which I assume Cameron was describing himself. Yet what I found most striking about this year’s message was the introduction of the phrase ‘as a Christian country’. It is new and worries me for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, why mention it? And why first mention it at the end of a year when immigration has been the biggest issue? ‘Christian country’ is one of those euphemisms you often hear adopted by thick-set bald guys with bulldogs and knuckles tattooed on their necks. It is a euphemism for ‘white Anglo Saxon protestant’ where the emphasis is on the ‘white’. The politics of the phrase are fascinating and worthy of an entire study. It is at once easy to deny (it can literally mean ‘Christian country’) but it also means something else. Dare one suggest that Cameron is playing dog-whistle politics? I’ll leave it to you to decide and/or discuss below.
Secondly, is the UK really a Christian country? In the 2011 UK Census, 26.13% of the country said they were of ‘no religion’ and 7.18% did not actually state any religion. That is, admittedly, about 33.21% and still well short of the 58.81% of people who described their religion as Christian. (Incidentally, 33.21% is definitely higher than 24.3% who voted Tory, so on that score we’re more of a non-believing country than we are Conservative.) Yet I suspect that 58.51% is misleading. I’ve filled in a few Census forms in my life and, on most, I probably listed my own religion as Church of England. I was baptised CofE (I still don’t believe I was there but I trust those that were) but have never once in my life been a believer. I attended church a few times in my childhood but largely at Christmas, as many children do as part of their school ritual, when I quite enjoyed playing with my Satsuma with a lit candle stuck in it. About the age of 12, I probably started to say ‘no’, which was not easy at a school with a deeply religious headmaster. By the time I was in sixth form and actively refusing to attend his morning assembly/Bible studies lecture, I was probably pushing to be expelled and that might have happened had it not been for a wonderful sixth form tutor who didn’t make too much fuss about my sitting behind the blackboard in her form room until the nonsense was over.
I suppose these things are now written into law and every student has the right to choose an atheist path. Back then, it wasn’t so clear and, even when I knew I believed in science more than I believed in superstition, I didn’t actually formalise it on written forms. I was born into the Church of England so in a technical sense I always assumed that’s what I was and, in a strange way, I suppose I feel that in some official capacity I still carry that brand.
By the 2011 Census, I’m pretty sure I was ticking the ‘no faith’ box but I know family members who still marking down ‘Church of England’ despite never having attended church in thirty odd years. My father was a pure atheist but I think ticked ‘Church of England’ because he’d suffered so badly in the hands of a strictly Roman Catholic mother. And I expect that is the deeper truth of these figures. Most people are probably secular non-believers who still tick the required boxes for other reasons, some in the hope that by doing so they fall on the right side of Pascal’s Wager.
In other words, the Census data probably does not accurately reflect the true nature of faith in the UK. By some estimations, only 1.5% of the UK population attend their local morning church service and those numbers are dwindling.
Yet I say that with no pride. In fact, my criticisms about Christmas are precisely criticisms that I would hope that Christians would recognise and share. Atheism does not mean anarchy. In my case, I just prefer to justify morality through science, anthropology, philosophy and literature. Goodness in the world is a human goodness and I feel no shame in wanting to attribute that virtue to the people who express it the best. Kindness, compassion, and charity are not solely Christian values. They are human values.
To give Cameron the benefit of the doubt, when he says that we are a Christian nation, he might be trying to say something positive about those values; about how we watch out for each other, feel compassion towards the poor and vulnerable, and support the freedoms of thought, belief and expression. That wouldn’t be so bad had this year not seen many of our liberties threatened by some draconian laws and politics fuelled by ideological hatred. Compassion has been largely absent on both the domestic and international stage.
Irrespective of your faith or non-faith, I do hope you have a good Christmas and a peaceful New Year. But, then, I hope every day is as good and as peaceful as you deserve because expressing our moral belief is a job for life and not just for an annual Christmas message.