O come on all ye faithful, away with the manger

December 25, 1998

Peter Atkins rejoices as Christmas's religious trappings are overwhelmed by the tidal wave of commercial excess

Thank goodness it is Christmas. For those of us who regard Christianity (like all religions) as puerile nonsense, a dangerously misleading corruption of the intellect and an intrinsic evil of society, it is a great pleasure to see the religious trappings of this ancient festival dissolving in the vitriol of commercialism. The frenzied multitudes in Oxford Street are reverting to the dance of life and, unknowingly in the most part, by giving gifts encouraging the sun to rise from its seasonal nadir. Which is as it should be.

There are some who mourn the passing of the religious aspect of Christmas,but the rest of us can thank goodness that hocus-pocus is being submerged in the tidal wave of secular excess that now distinguishes this apparently joyous season. Even the street decorations have given way, acknowledging God's defeat at the hands of Mammon, now openly and gloriously celebrating fizzy drinks from the orient rather than offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Nascent, ancient secularity has finally burst through the curtains of religion and claimed the stage.

The pressure of secular commercialism, though, has squashed rather than completely wiped away. Like all ripe fruit at the bottom of a pile, the juice and pips of a Christian Christmas are still to be seen running out from underneath.

The noise of squashed Christmas is the most difficult to avoid, and the worst of its juice, dripping from the ceilings of the stores is a banal stream of aural syrup, chocolate-box renditions of candy tunes so familiar and so awful. Even Radio 3, one of the few islands of culture left in the country, rolls over and bleeds seasonal tunes, haemorrhaging ever more incontinently as the day approaches. As to the day itself: buy CDs, young man, and isolate yourself in a cocoon of your own making.

Is there anywhere in the world where adults can get pure Yule? My wife and I have sought escape around the world, without success. Bali has its reindeer; Jamaica its snow-clad Christmas trees; Hawaii has secular cribs and perpetually recycled godless Jingle Bells; West Africa has its shepherds herding goats amid emulated tropical snow. Perhaps Christmas Island is free of contamination. Easter Island, I would like to think, has remained aloof.

I am not opposed to Christmas itself, provided its activities can be detached from the religious babble that purports to give it meaning. There are good grounds for celebrating the return of the sun from its winter sinking, although why one should simultaneously celebrate in Australia is beyond me. Let us strip away the last remnants of the religious contagion that have for hundreds of years concealed the true delight of the season, and let us restore an open recognition and celebration of the sun's notional rebirth.

I am happy, I suppose, for the general populace to allow itself to be fleeced, conned, cajoled, and pressed into impoverishment if that gives it and its children pleasure for a fleeting moment in winter's deeps, but suspect that central heating, television and computer games have rather reduced the need for such aggressively enforced amusement. I suppose I should be happy, too, for the tiny and, I believe, diminishing percentage that falls to its knees for the day, if that gives them pleasure, for there is nothing wrong with private pleasure. It is the imprint the search for private pleasure makes when it tramples on the faces of the rest of us that is so repugnant.

What I really object to about Christmas, though, is the false face it presents and the intellectual seduction its religious activists seek to achieve under the cover of sugar-plum fairies. Seduction of the young, of course, is what we all seek to achieve and why we set up schools and universities, and is perfectly valid as a sociological tool. But when one stands on the good side of the fence that divides innate truth (that is, science) from wishful-thinking falsity (that is, religion) and sees the gush of sugary balm poured on young minds at this time of year, one can only regret the incipient perversion taking place in the name of pleasure and fun.

Still, all that is happily coming to an end. Now that Mammon has sunk his talons into the season and is using his well-honed marketing skills to whip the people into a month-long feeding frenzy, assaulting their eyes, ears and consciences, urging them to spend, perverting their judgement about what is appropriate, fanning greed into grossness, encouraging consumption beyond the point of breaking the human frame, we can look forward to sheer, unadulterated pleasure knowing we are getting what we are paying for and what we see. Gone, Christian Christmas, thank God. Come,New Christmas.

Peter Atkins is professor of chemistry, University of Oxford.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments