On the 1st December, when many people open their advent calendars, the countdown to Christmas has begun. Television adverts are Christmas themed, shop music plays Christmas hits and Christmas jumpers are proudly on display. However only 60% of the population of the United Kingdom are Christian. The Gryphon investigates what Christmas means for the remaining 40% of the country.
I am by no means Christian, but yet here I sit typing this article, donning an ugly Christmas jumper and sparkly gold lipstick. My premature excitement isn’t caused by the thrill of celebrating Christ’s birth, but is more symptomatic of the rampant commercialisation of Christianity’s premier holiday. I revel in the German markets, a piece of chocolate every day, and presents under the tree on Christmas Day, but violently resist Midnight Mass with every fibre of my being. Who’d have thought that a socialist like me would revel in so much capitalism?
Although Christmas seems like an almost irreplaceable part of British winter traditions, it has not always been at the forefront of our calendar. Despite the 13 year ban on Christmas during Britain’s brief stint as a republic, Christmas wasn’t really celebrated in the manner we know it today until Queen Victoria’s reign. It wasn’t until this era that trees, greetings cards and turkey dinners were introduced into our Christmas celebrations.
‘I don’t feel excluded, in fact its quite the opposite.’ Zayd continues, ‘It’s always fun to see the Christmas lights going up and hearing the Christmas songs on the radio. I associate it with winter, holidays and general merriment!’
However, while I still celebrate Christmas, there are millions of people across the country – either atheist or of non-Christian religion – for whom Christmas day will be nothing more than another winter Thursday. When mince pies, carol services, and the Doctor Who Christmas Special are as much a part of British culture as tea and imperialism, is it intimidating or excluding to be surrounded by something you’re not a part of? Zayd Rehman, Vice President of LUU ISoc, thinks not. ‘I don’t feel excluded, in fact its quite the opposite.’ Zayd continues, ‘It’s always fun to see the Christmas lights going up and hearing the Christmas songs on the radio. I associate it with winter, holidays and general merriment!’ He concedes, however, that there are downsides to being a Muslim at this time of year, ‘… admittedly it does start to get a little tiresome closer to Christmas time itself, but I wouldn’t say I feel excluded.’ We also spoke to Max Sherrard, president of JSoc, who had this to say, ‘I don’t really feel intimidated but I suppose it’s just something I never really thought about. Maybe Christmas has been commercialised to the extent that it is no longer a religious holiday as much as a national festive season; so the celebration is similar to Thanksgiving in the US, Guy Fawkes Night in the UK or New Year’s Eve.’
While many non-Christians celebrate Christmas in some small way, whether it be eating a Christmas dinner or watching the Queen’s Speech, this isn’t the case for Zayd. ‘Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are essentially regular evenings and days for me. I don’t really do anything for them, but there’s always nice stuff to watch on TV!’ Max also has a fairly low key day, ‘On Christmas day we, as a family, gather together and just simply have a family day, be it go for a walk, chill at home, have other families round for tea or have our extended family round for a big meal.’
But do people who don’t celebrate Christmas buy presents for people who do? ‘I never buy people Christmas presents’ says Max. ‘As a Jew we celebrate Chanukah at a similar time, and as custom we give presents on each night of Chanukah. Our equivalent of Secret Santa is Mystery Maccabee’. Zayd also rarely buys people Christmas gifts, ‘I don’t normally buy Christmas presents other than maybe a box of chocolates, but I do give Christmas cards most of the time to my friends celebrating Christmas.’ However, he still gets stuck in with some Christmas festivities, ‘I get involved in Secret Santas, sometimes Mum makes a Christmas themed dinner, sometimes we listen to the Christmas songs on the TV. We never really exchange gifts between ourselves though, or go to the mosque.’ Max comments on his involvement with Christmas festivities, ‘Getting involved in festive things, such as Christmas markets, I suppose comes down to the commercialisation of everything. Also it is somewhat hard to not get involved in all the Christmas sales, festive markets, seasonal food menus in bars, etc.’
‘As a Jew we celebrate Chanukah at a similar time, and as custom we give presents on each night of Chanukah. Our equivalent of Secret Santa is Mystery Maccabee’
When asked about the possible commercialisation of Islamic religious holidays, Zayd expressed doubt, ‘As much as I would love to see adverts on TV for Eid-ul-Adha and Eid-ul-Fitr, it wouldn’t really be practical as their dates differ from year to year between countries. This is because Islam follows a lunar calendar and the date of both Eids is purely dependent on the position of the moon in your area.’ However, Max sees a possibility in the commercialisation of Jewish religious holidays, ‘I suppose we could have some of our festivals commercialised, but that is because there is a lot of symbolism around them. Family time and community are central to our festivals, and so in a similar way to Christmas being a day for families to get together, Chanukah could -together with the tradition of present giving- be commercialised.’
A notable exception of Christians celebrating Christmas is Jehovah’s Witnesses, who abstain from Christmas festivities due to the holiday’s origins in pagan traditions. Our Jehovah’s Witness source says that while she isn’t intimidated or offended by the Christmassy imagery around this time of year, that she does feel like it is far too over commercialised. However, she does admit that she would buy presents in the January sales for her children if they felt left out of the celebrations.
In many ways, Christmas is about as secular as Christianity can be. Even the staunchest athiests will celebrate with their loved ones around the winter solstice. Richard Dawkins himself has even admitted to breaking out into a carol or two around this time of year,
So it appears that regardless of beliefs, the 25th December is a good excuse to eat copious amounts of food and spend time with family. With Christmas Day and Boxing Day being Bank Holidays, almost everyone is off from work and school, and if you have no major religious holiday to celebrate, you may as well use these days to reconnect with loved ones. However, the pure saturation of Christmassy things for practically the whole month of December comes at a price. Are the endless parades of sales, Christmas markets, and premature decorations devaluing one of the most significant days in the Christian calendar?
Christmas Day may well be being ‘devalued’ as a religious holiday, but maybe we should be considering how non-Christians feel about it? I propose that we should only start being worried once the Christmas juggernaut starts erasing other religion’s and culture’s traditions. Despite the excess of Christmas spirit, non-Christians remain unintimdated by the mid-winter capitalist behemoth, and that can only be a good thing.