Surviving Christmas
5 min read

How to ruin Christmas

Actor turned vicar Natalie Garrett, recounts the perils of being a Christmas Pro.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

A nativity seen with wooden figures and hay, amidst which a cat sits in the manger.
Nativity cat, Warsaw, 2012.
Kacper Pempel.

So, during the years of my acting career, I always avoided Panto (oh yes I did). Not because I don’t like Panto, I love a good Panto. But because I didn’t want to work over Christmas. How God will have chortled at that great irony, knowing as he did that as of 2005 (the year I got ordained), I would be working every Christmas for the rest of time. 

Christmas is different now. Not only am I ordained, I’m married to a vicar. I’m completely immersed in professional Christmas. And Christmas is a bit different when you’ve turned pro. I won’t go so far as to say that being ordained has ruined Christmas, but it’s certainly changed it. But so has (supposedly) being a grown up.  

My “Proper Christmas” will always be the Christmas that I grew up with (is that just me?). I had traditional preparing-for-Christmas jobs that I did every year on Christmas Eve eve: polishing the special cutlery we only used once a year, making the brandy butter (which is a bit odd now I think about it, being that heavily involved with brandy from the age of six) and decorating The Tree. And having the annual argument with my sister about whose turn it was to take the present to our neighbours across the road. And eating a lot of satsumas. And chocolate. And seeing my cousins and playing Trivial Pursuit. All of which looks very rosy seen through the eyes of a child. Christmas is different when you’re ordained and you have to work, but it’s also very different when you’re the grown up. 

I used to think my mother made a ridiculous amount of fuss about Christmas. I am now that same mother. I think it’s Michael McIntyre who does a whole routine about women starting to write their Christmas To Do lists in October and endlessly shrieking, “there’s so much to do!” That’s me folks. Christmas as a grown up – or at least for this grown up – feels like there’s so much to do! 

I always imagine (unhelpfully fantasize) that Other People’s families are living the Christmas dream – the relaxed, cosy evenings drinking hot chocolate or eggnog in front of a roaring fire; laughing and playing wholesome games happily and peacefully with their angelic children, wearing matching Christmas jumpers. In the cold light of day, I realise that, actually, most people find Christmas stressful for a million different reasons. It’s not all twinkly and bright. 

For many people, Christmas means seeing all the family that they avoid during the rest of the year. It means spending money they can ill-afford on presents that may not be wanted. Christmas means missing the people who aren’t with us anymore. It means endless advertising campaigns suggesting that you aren’t living the perfect life – but that if you buy a new sofa, you’ll salvage the ruins of your life just in time for a perfect, twinkly Christmas. 

And so the life of the mythical twinkly, “magical” Christmas lives on. With little or no reference to its origin story. 

I was the chaplain at a Church of England secondary comprehensive school for seven years. In my first term, putting together the carol service, I asked a class chapel rep if she would do one of the Bible readings. “Oh, is Christmas in the Bible?” Huh. Another conversation I had went along the lines of, “Miss, I don’t believe in Jesus and all that religious stuff. But I believe in the spirit of Christmas.” Huh. 

There’s a song in the staged musical version of the film Nativity, which is to all intents and purposes a Christmas prayer. But instead of the prayer being directed at God, it is directed at Father Christmas; 

Dear Father Christmas, make our wish come true 

Dear Father Christmas send your spirit through 

There are Children in the world who need you way more than we do 

But Father Christmas, we still believe in you 

Dear Father Christmas make our wish come true 

Which brings me to a difficult moment in my Christmassy life. I have a parenting policy that demands that I tell my children the truth. Whatever the question, if I know the answer, I will give it to them honestly. So, when my children were around the ages of four and six, in the middle of Sainsbury’s, with both children piled into the trolley, in mid-November, surrounded by early Christmas-abilia, one of my children asked me, “Mummy, does Father Christmas really exist?”. (SPOILER ALERT!!). I had to give an honest answer. If the question had been less straight, if there had been any wriggle room at all, I would have fudged it. But a straight question deserved a straight answer. Which, wide-eyed, they went and shared with their friends. A crowd of angry parents from their Primary school came to church to complain that the Vicar’s children had ruined Christmas. 

But my point was that if I were to tell my children that I believe Father Christmas exists and that he grants Christmas wishes, were they ever to find out that I had lied (ahem), how would they trust me when I say that I believe Jesus does exist and that he does answer prayers? The challenge has lived with me ever since: how to keep Christmas rooted in Christ without ruining the Christmas magic. 

Well, my saving grace is that I’m still a sucker for a bit of Christmas schmaltz. The theologically sensitive part of me absolutely abhors Away in a Manger (“no crying he makes”? Really? He was a new-born baby, of course he cried!!) and Little Donkey (in the Bible accounts there is absolutely no mention of donkeys at all. Not a single one – not on the road, not in the stable. No cows, no donkeys.) But light some candles, get the children singing and I have tears pouring down my face with the best of them, loving every moment.  

But that still doesn’t mean that the essence of Christmas is the twinkly magic. Because, of course, the first Christmas was neither twinkly nor magic. Nor did it involve a perfectly curated tablescape (which I also love at Christmas). It didn’t involve any the stereotypical Christmassy things that we all get stressed about and love in equal measure. The first Christmas was messy and difficult. But it was also the most real, most genuinely joyous event in human history. Apart from Easter. Don’t get me started on chocolate bunnies….

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?