December 22, 2011
God has blessings, even for atheists. Chief among them is the British Christmas. Cleared of its commercial and religious clutter it has become the nation's collective version of a Buddhist sabbatical, an increasingly extended retreat into family and self almost devoid of externalities. It is a time when Britons behave quite unlike they do for the rest of the year. In other words, they behave quite well.
The preliminary clutter is ever more dire. Compared with any other city in Europe, London's decoration is tatty and hideous. The archbishop of Canterbury contributes a platitudinous musing on riots and St Paul's protesters, with no hint of meaningful conclusion. The prime minister declares desperately that "the United Kingdom is a Christian country" and that "we should not be afraid to say so", as if we were. His seasonal intervention recalls HL Mencken's maxim that "people say we need religion when what they mean is we need police".
Even Christmas shopping, once deplored as an irreligious commercialisation, has morphed into a public service duty, a dig for victory. "Hopes of Christmas boost for economy," cry the headlines. Analysts examine the returns from M&S and John Lewis like priests round sacred geese. Will Christmas save us from double-dip recession? The din of collective misery is insufferable.
Suddenly all goes quiet. Britain now stretches what in the US is one day off into 10. There seems nothing else to do. The volume of public life is silenced. Family is acknowledged before colleagues and friends. Duty is paid to household gods in an annual census of filial piety. Family quarrels are supposedly suppressed, while children and old people acquire a brief moment in the spotlight. We know of the strains and stresses of Christmas, but I wonder how many families have been repaired and rescued through its ritual kindnesses. What if there were no such moment?
Throughout history, church charity boards record the gifts to be made to the poor at Christmas time. They record the communal services to be performed, the visits to be made and donations acknowledged. Christmas is more than just a much-needed rest, it is a ceremony of domestic and communal pleasantry.
The festival may have replaced Easter in pre-eminence largely thanks to the Victorians, but it is none the worse for that. Charles Dickens' demolition of Scrooge's cynicism – A Christmas Carol is a harder-edged novel than any of its dramatised versions – captured popular imagination the world over. Like the Muslim obligation to hospitality, the Christian obligation to generosity at Christmas is near universal. It is not enforced or even formalised, but it is, and deep in Britain's cultural gene.
Millions of Britons do at Christmas what they never do at other times in the year. They become "pray-for-a-day" worshippers. They see in their church a repository of good neighbourliness without which the community would be poorer. The Anglican church has a genuine talent for sustaining this communal centrality through thick and mostly thin. This role in the local "establishment" is far more plausible than the state version.
Going to church at Christmas keeps alive a sense of what the Germans call heimat , an attachment to home and place of birth, a refreshment of roots, an acknowledgement of continuity and tradition. This Christmas is deeply conservative. As Roger Scruton argues in his forthcoming book Green Philosophy, it reflects a "desire to live among things that endure" that should, in his case, be harnessed to the challenge of climate change.
I constantly find myself in churches. I find them aesthetically appealing, a constant source of pleasure (or sometimes pain). They were designed for a liturgy of contemplation and repose. They are good places to sit and think, in a landscape where such places are in short supply. As Philip Larkin wrote, they are temples where our "compulsions are recognised and robed as destinies/ And that much never can be obsolete". This may have nothing to do with religion, but it is undeniably a religious legacy and I do not mind thanking someone's god for it. The world is full of unintended consequences.
As government continues to enervate and disempower communal life in Britain, churches retain their physical and emotional centrality. In most settlements, rural and urban, churches are hopelessly oversized for their congregations. Yet the great medieval buildings remain a dominant presence in the community, the architectural expression not just of its ageless faith, but of its ceremony, its history, its family life, its arts and crafts, its tithes and taxes. They are increasingly reborn as theatre and concert halls. Where else would one want to hear The Messiah?
The parish church is thus the one building in any neighbourhood that is worth saving, together with God's acre, the churchyard. Since there will for sure arise a movement within the church to abandon such monuments – under the cry "we are a church, not a museum" – there will be a corresponding need to champion their survival. I have no trouble with the German system of taxing parishes for the upkeep of the church (with a voluntary opt-out). The Germans, like the French and Scandinavians, enjoy a civic tradition that permits them to keep their mayors and town halls. In Britain an increasingly faithless land finds itself ironically turning to faith institutions as symbols of local cohesion. Long may such places survive. At Christmas we salute them.