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Needles and Hymns

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Since 1983, my Christmas has largely been characterised by disappointment. Back then, the disappointment revolved around an LP-shaped gift beneath the tree which I hoped with all my teenage heart was Michael Jackson's Thriller album.

This is how I know Father Christmas doesn't exist. Smiling in anticipation, I ripped it open. But where Michael Jackson in a white suit should have been, there was only a painted sheep. With a whole painted ovine posse, hanging out in a painted field. I stared at the title: Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

I don't think I spoke for the rest of the day.

Since then, Christmas has become an exercise in expectation management and the protection of the feelings of others. I have learned not to expect Joe Malone fragrances, Mulberry luggage and Chanel jewelled cuffs and I have lied to almost every relative about how much I adore their present. 'It's not the thing, it's the thought,' I say to myself, while simultaneously battling the question, 'what the hell do they think of me?' as I unwrap another bottle of Charlie and a plastic egg timer.

This year has been particularly disappointing. First, I've had two real trees in the house, both of which had died by Boxing Day. Second, in trying to clear the fall out from the arboricide, our Dyson choked to death on the tsunami of pine needles which has submerged the ground floor. As I took solace by stroking the cashmere jumper my husband bought me, I caught it with the clasp of a cheap bracelet and created a pull which now makes the jumper look fit only for the lower rails of a charity shop. Ho, ho, bloody ho.

If I'm honest though, none of these is as dispiriting as the decision made by ITV producer Peter Fincham to axe Tim Minchin's alternative Christmas song on the Jonathan Ross show which aired on Christmas Eve. That really struck at the heart of the biggest disappointment I have with Christmas which is that it is, nominally at least, a religious festival.

This is a real problem for me. In spite of the annual let downs, I bloody love Christmas - the food, the giving, the family theatre trip, the being with people I love, the watching my children disappear in a frenzy of wrapping paper, the champagne, the random visitors, the mixed nuts, the rogue pine needles in the pants and, yes, the bad presents. Who doesn't? It's just a tragedy for us all that it has to be related to a dead Palestinian with a couple of good ideas but a complete lack of vision about how the whole equality issue might pan out in the millennia to come.

Because I firmly believe in compassion, tolerance, equality, forgiveness and love, I choose not to follow any religious doctrine, but, out of duty, I do sit through the nine lessons and carols at my children's school. Invariably, I end up raging at the misogyny of the scriptural indictments of Eve and Mary and desperate to stand up and denounce the concept of sin as bestowed by a vain and self-serving god upon the innocent heads of our babies.

Maybe that's how the midnight mass 'Almighty Fight' in St Edmond's Church in Southampton started the other night. Maybe somebody dared to ask the congregation if encouraging belief in supernatural beings and their outmoded, patriarchal ideologies is the best way of creating global unity and fending off impending environmental disaster. And maybe that's when the incensed Christians started throwing the contents of the church around. Throwing stuff is something Christians are good at, after all. Grenades, bombs, accusations... Three churchgoers have been arrested. Well, it's a start.

For atheists, this festive season started badly with the death of the coolly antagonistic Hitch and, while I am happy that he has not gone to a Better Place, I was thrust into mourning for the loss of a strong and coherent voice to dispel these persistent rumours of a superbeing.

Tim Minchin's is another voice the public should hear. His is funny, poetic and intellectually rigorous. Peter Fincham was a fool to silence it, but he is one of a breed of producers determined to keep programming inane, patronising and unchallenging. There is so much to be offended at on telly: bad writing, soap operas that reflect back the worst of our society, Anne Widdecombe and the ugly mastication of Greg Wallace, but nobody complains that these should not be inflicted on us at Christmas. Why then, should Christians have a veto on comedy on the box?

I sat through nine lessons and carols and was offended; nobody cared. After all, I had a choice. I didn't have to go to church. And the viewers of Jonathan Ross have a choice too. As for blasphemy, offence against the church and the like, even the compliance guys at ITV know that Jesus can hack it. He's endured worse than a little musical satire. I mean, crucifixion. That's worse right?

Peace. And goodwill. Amen.