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. 

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?