Article
Comment
Surviving Christmas
9 min read

Navigating your reality of Christmas

Recounting how Christmas changed for her, Lianne Howard-Dace re-evaluates the story and experiences of the season.

Lianne Howard-Dace is a writer and trainer, with a background in church and community fundraising.

A shopping street is crowded by taxi cabs and buses while above it a Christmas illumination of an angel hangs over all.
Jamie Davies, via Unsplash.

When I became a Christian thirteen years ago, I had to figure out how I might blend the sacred and the secular and rediscover what Christmas meant to me. 

Each December, millions of people celebrate this occasion, without faith or religion necessarily playing a role. Nearly 90 per cent of people in the UK celebrate Christmas each year, despite only around 46 per cent of people identifying as Christians and only 5 per cent regularly attending church.  These people create memories for their children because they cherish the ones their parents created for them. They decorate their house because it feels good to break up the darkness of winter with a riot of light and colour. They gather with their loved ones because it’s great to have an excuse to catch up. They eat and drink together because there are few pleasures greater than enjoying Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes with your nearest and dearest. These experiences may even be quite spiritual, though they won’t always be recognised as such. 

Of course, the secular Christmas has taken on a mythology of its own. The image I have painted above is true, but it is not the whole picture. Whatever our beliefs, we need to be careful not to make an idol of the “perfect Christmas”. Not every family can afford to eat lavishly. Not everyone has people to celebrate with. For some, late December may mark a different anniversary altogether, and be a hard time of year. Even as someone who would readily say they love Christmas, I have had my fair share of family and romantic dramas that have made some years hard.  

If all you’ve ever known each Christmas is a turkey roast and visits from Santa, how can you look beyond the gift-giving and feasting which you have previously focused on, to discover the Jesus narrative within Christmas? You do not have to discard all those other things if they bring you joy, but you will start to notice that there is more going on in the marking of this holiday than you had previously considered.  

Underneath the tinsel and baubles you will find Mary and Joseph in a cattle shed, with the infant Jesus lying in a manger. Perhaps there will be animals, and visitors bearing gifts as well. And you will think that you know the story. You’ll remember your role as a shepherd in a school play and playing silent night on the recorder. You’ll remember that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus. And Jesus is the son of God, or something like that? 

An all-powerful God could have revealed themselves to the world in an infinite number of ways. They could have come as a giant, towering over everyone. They could have arrived in a fiery chariot pulled by snow-leopards. They could have come riding a robot, ready to overthrow the Romans. 

If the school nativity play is your primary reference point for what Christianity has to offer your life, what does it really tell you about Jesus, and why he matters? Familiarity breeds contempt. So, many people see the nativity scene year after year and dismiss it out of hand. The son of God being born as a baby 2,000 years ago is just a fairy tale. It blends in amongst the snowmen and reindeer, as just another motif of the festive season. 

The nativity has become deeply sanitised and is so far removed from our modern way of life in the Global North, that for most it can be hard to see what it is trying to tell us. And if you never enter a church or meet any Christians, who is going to show you? Even as someone who was inquisitive and interested in spiritual things, for a long time, I compartmentalised the ‘churchy’ bit of Christmas as something for other people.  

In looking again at Christmas I have found that yes, it tells us a lot about Jesus. But also, it tells us so much about God the Creator. An all-powerful God could have revealed themselves to the world in an infinite number of ways. They could have come as a giant, towering over everyone. They could have arrived in a fiery chariot pulled by snow-leopards. They could have come riding a robot, ready to overthrow the Romans.  

But instead, at a time when 30 per cent of infants didn’t live to see their first birthday, God comes to earth as a baby. A tiny human with a soft bit on the top of his head and blurry vision, who can’t stay awake for more than an hour or so, and needs his nappy changed every half hour. That speaks to me not of a God who is far, far away in some magical realm, or a God who wants to control and oppress us, but of a God who deeply understands and respects the human experience. Who is right in the amniotic fluid, and the blood, and the crap of life, with us. 

Believing that Jesus is not just the Son of God but also, somehow, Godself at the same time, can take some serious mental gymnastics when you approach it as a cerebral exercise. But when you allow yourself to see and feel the stories afresh, and ask yourself what each of them is revealing about God, God’s relationship to us and God’s relationship to our world, it can start to make an odd kind of sense.   

I remember how full my heart was when I learnt that the name you’ve maybe heard Jesus called in carols – Immanuel – actually means ‘God with us’. For me, discovering this gem hidden, tucked away beneath what I thought I knew about Christmas, was extraordinary. Because, God had been with me all along. 

God was with me that first disorientating Christmas after my parents’ divorce. God was with me when I was 19 and randomly went to Midnight Mass after four gin and tonics. God was with me when the dog ate our gingerbread house, roof and all. And God was with me when I laughed at my nephew trying his first Brussels sprout. 

But the incarnation – the humanity of Jesus – being so pivotal to my faith, I actually find great comfort in envisaging Jesus’ birth as messy and complicated, as the rest of us. 

When I think about what it means for God to become a flesh-and-blood person, I find it can be helpful to imagine the humanity of the nativity. To add a layer of realism we don’t often see. Now, I have never given birth, but unlike many childless, or childfree, people in the West, I have witnessed a birth. With the confidence gained from having endured childbirth twice already, when my mum went into labour with my brother, she refused to go to hospital. I think her exact words to my dad were, ‘The midwife can ******* come to me’.  

This happened early one June morning in 1992, and I, aged six, was awoken around 6am by my mum’s screams. Going to investigate what on earth was going on, I was surprised to find my nan open the door to my parents’ bedroom. She told me that the baby was coming, and that I should go and occupy myself by getting ready for school.  

Having had the birds and the bees talk at a relatively early age, I was quite keen to get a good look at what was going on. I couldn’t see much, as there were four or five adults crammed into the modest master bedroom of our terraced house. But I could see my mum in the birthing position, I could sense the intense nature of what was happening. And, even after my nan closed the bedroom door, I could hear the noises. Few on-screen depictions of birth have come close to really capturing what happened in our house that morning, even on my beloved Grey’s Anatomy.  

I went downstairs to make myself a bowl of cereal. I have no idea what my then three year-old sister was up to at this point, but it’s quite possible she slept through the whole thing. After watching some classic 90s kids’ TV (Playdays, anyone?) I went and changed into my little grey skirt, white polo shirt and navy sweatshirt to get ready for school. I then went to brush my teeth, only to be confronted by a disembodied umbilical cord in our bathroom sink. I must have made a commotion at this stage, because I remember the midwife coming to explain what this peculiar mass of blood and veins and tissue was, and suggest that I brush my teeth over the bath on this occasion.  

My mum couldn’t avoid hospital completely, and she and the baby went off in an ambulance; she for stitches and he for routine checks. As they were bundled off, my nan and dad came downstairs carrying the double mattress which had just welcomed my little brother into the world. It was practically soaked through and they balanced it on top of the rotary airer in our garden to dry in the spring sunshine. Of course, I delighted in the opportunity to regale my whole class with all the graphic details of this experience when I eventually arrived at school. 

It seems to me that if Jesus himself is not spared a painful, bloody death, it’s unlikely to me that Mary would be spared a painful, bloody birth. Let’s not forget that the gospels were written by men, who were likely removed from the messy women’s business of birth, and perhaps wouldn’t have seen how powerful including this might have been. 

Perhaps people find it respectful to narrate the birth of Christ in a clean and painless way. If Mary is the virgin mother of Christ, or even immaculately conceived herself, then surely she would’ve been spared the birth pains which Eve inflicted on her sisters? But the incarnation – the humanity of Jesus – being so pivotal to my faith, I actually find great comfort in envisaging Jesus’ birth as messy and complicated, as the rest of us. Perhaps Mary had terrible morning sickness throughout her pregnancy like my sister, perhaps Jesus was born earlier than expected like my cousin, perhaps he had the cord round his neck like me.  

We can take what is good and true and life-giving from wherever we find it during the Christmas period. 

It would be easy to end this article by saying that once you become a Christian and you know what Christmas is really all about, you should become worried about it being secularised and not taken seriously. You should drastically change your own behaviours and practices around Christmas. But this would miss the fact that God was already with us all along, even if we didn’t realise it.  

For those of us with a foot in both camps of the sacred and secular Christmas, the journey doesn’t end when we find faith. There are certainly things we’ll want to re-evaluate - the rampant commercialism of Christmas for one thing - but we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Having unpicked what we thought we knew about the Christian Christmas, we can rebuild, reconnect and redefine what Christmas means to us now. We can create our own traditions and work out how to interweave them with those of our friends and family who may not share our faith.  

I’ve never actually been to church on Christmas morning, because there are traditions in my family that I do not want to miss. The croissants and jam we eat for breakfast in our PJs every Christmas morning are a sign of God’s abundance. I will find a lull in the day, when others are snoozing or watching TV, to pray a prayer of gratitude for them. I will have spent the month leading up-to Christmas attending services and events to help me reflect on and anticipate the coming celebration of Christ’s birth. I’ll also have eaten a chocolate every day to help me count down to the day itself. And after we’ve had our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve (very Scandinavian, I know), I will go to Midnight Mass. That is the moment when it works for me to really immerse myself in the faith aspects of Christmas. 

We can take what is good and true and life-giving from wherever we find it during the Christmas period. We can celebrate loved ones reuniting, and that the days will soon become longer, not in spite of what we now know about God and Jesus, but because of it – because of the richness and new dimensions it adds to our lives. When we know that everything is a gift from God, it makes the presents our friends and family have chosen for us all the more significant, not less. 

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.