Is Christmas a religious festival where you can find a relationship with God?

The Oxford Times: The Rt Rev Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester The Rt Rev Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester

YES - The Rt Rev Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester

FOR many of us, I’m sure, the religious content of Christmas is going to be pretty thin over the next few days.

Present buying, card sending, party preparation, television watching (and I speak as one who will be glued to the Downton Abbey Christmas Special), family visits and the like will dominate much of our time and thinking.

But, even in the midst of all the rush, many tens of thousands of people here in Oxfordshire will take time out to reflect on the events 2,000 years ago that took place in Bethlehem – the birth of a young child in a stable to a young couple celebrating the arrival of their firstborn son.

In many of our villages 60 to 80 per cent of people will go to church for some event or other over the Christmas period.

Carol services, Christingles, Nativity plays, Midnight Communions are as popular as ever – and that’s all before the day itself.

Add to those the many who will listen to carols, or watch a service on the television and that’s still a lot of people on anyone’s showing.

But, in thinking about this question, I googled the word religion.

There in Wikipedia you’ll find this definition: “Religion is an organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence”.

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Reading that I wanted to say “Yes” and “No”.

“Is Christmas still about religion?” Yes because the beliefs of Christianity flow from the one who was born that first Christmas Day.

But No because, at its heart, Christianity is not about a cultural system, a world view, a set of beliefs, or a value structure – it’s about a relationship – a living relationship with the one who is the creator and sustainer of the universe.

A relationship with the one who loves us so much that he was willing to become fully a human being – with all the joy and pain and messiness that involves.

So, in a sense, while I don’t want to see religion disappear from Christmas – and I’m delighted to see people in Church even if it is only for their annual visit – what I long for is that all of us will discover what Christmas was always all about: A relationship rather than a religion.

A relationship with the one who loves us all. And that is something to celebrate. God bless you all.

NO - John White, chairman of the Oxford Humanists

DECEMBER 25 is still officially regarded as the anniversary of Jesus’ birthday. Jesus is still the self-proclaimed “Son of God”, dictionaries still define “religion” as “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power” and, when I was young, most people really did seem to accept that it was.

So why, today, do so many of us simply answer “No”?

Most people who know anything about December 25, beyond the sentence above, also know that the Romans arbitrarily selected that date so that their citizens could continue their pre-Christian celebrations of the Winter Solstice, while paying lip service to their empire’s newly imposed state religion.

And even in England, our seasonal decorations – the holly, the ivy, and the mistletoe – are inappropriate for Jesus’ Middle Eastern birthplace. The all-abundant Christmas trees were unknown in England until Queen Victoria married her German consort less than 180 years ago.

But how many of us also know that when Puritan Christians seized power from Charles I that Parliament enacted a law abolishing the observance of Christmas. The Puritans who had emigrated to New England (then still an English colony) passed laws making observance of Christmas illegal and a Massachusetts law punished offenders with a hefty fine?

That’s enough history for one debate but what about religion itself?

The recent census reported that over 30 per cent of Oxford citizens no longer have a religion.

And, for the last several years, most polls which ask “Do you have a religion?” rather than “What is your religion” report a “no” count around the 50 per cent mark.

Then again, how many of us these days think seriously about our beliefs or religion, while worrying about: what to buy for Uncle Bill; how much all the presents will cost this year (and whether we can afford it); stuffing ourselves with turkey with all the accoutrements and followed by cream topped Christmas pudding, mince pies and too much alcohol?

I used to enjoy singing carols, and I still do. But when did you last read the words and blush with embarrassment over just how meaningless, or inappropriate, they are?

So, while I sincerely wish well to everyone who still believes that religion is an essential part of their Christmas, it is enough for the majority of us to enjoy being more sociable, giving and receiving presents, and adoring our children and grandchildren more than usual.

A happy Christmas to you all.

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