I attended my university carol service recently because Christmastime means examinations for students and I badly needed a revision break, and because the town cathedral provides free central heating. Afterwards I wondered what, if anything, I could take away from the service as somebody with no religious belief. (The spectre of exams returned and added the word 'discuss'.)
The 'War on Christmas' debate gets dusted off every December; in fact it's fast becoming as traditional as mince pies. Fellow Huffingtonner Jeff Sorensen denies here that it exists; blogger Catholic League couldn't disagree more, but regardless of who wins the debate I know that my local Christingle will have at least one less person in the pews this year, and atheism in America is on the rise according to many sources which you can find with a quick internet search. But Christmas continues to be celebrated, so its meaning must be evolving.
As I left the cathedral I thought about which parts of the service were relevant to me. Obviously the triumphalism of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", the proclamations of love in "Away in a Manger" and the religious awe of "Stille Nacht" bounced right off. The opening verse of "Once in Royal David's City" didn't hold much resonance either, since I'd written essays only the previous year arguing that Jesus was probably actually born in spring, not winter, in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. I did manage a chuckle at "We three Kings", mainly because, like you I bet, when I was a child I thought that "Orient-ar" was a real country. (It's just between Iraq and a hard place.) But the reading of Luke 1.26 about Gabriel's visit to Mary - a passage that places a disturbing emphasis on virginal purity in which a woman is told (not asked, told) to have a baby and then passively submits to this cosmic uterine hijacking - positively made the feminist in me shudder.
But I still think that Christmas can have meaning for the irreligious. The maxim "peace to all men" I can get behind, though I would change it to "peace to all" rather than exclude non-males. Indeed a toast for peace is thought to have been part of the pagan festival of Yule, which was hijacked by Christmas. Incidentally, the reverend giving the sermon had a Scottish accent that at one point led me to think that he had prayed for "peas to all men", an unusually vegetal wish but one that gelled well with his opening remark "Lettuce pray."
"Good tidings we bring, to you and your kin" I can support as well: one of my favourite parts of Christmas is reuniting with the family, especially after a stressful period of exams and especially with a family as geographically dispersed as mine.
The nostalgia factor too can play a significant role in an irreligious Christmas. It helps if, like mine, your holiday is highly ritualised - stocking presents in our house are always opened in the same room, every Christmas Eve must feature a viewing of Home Alone, etc - this helps provide the general feeling that Christmas is actually only one event that recurs every year like a festive Groundhog Day.
I do think that Christmas can have significant meaning, including moral meaning, without religion, and though the carol service wasn't particularly stirring I will continue to look forward to each December with much enthusiasm. I'd love to hear your views and feedback on this, be ye a religious believer or not, and indeed whether or not you celebrate Christmas. What makes December special for you? Do you think that removing the religious elements detracts from it in any way? Leave a comment or find me on Twitter, and have a Merry Christmas.