Christmas                                                                                                                                                                  Posted 8th December 2013

IT'S that time of year again when sleigh bells ring, but only on television, and a tree blooms in almost every window and men and women of the cloth get a bit desperate trying to establish some kind of meaningful relationship between Christianity and Christmas. Listening to the clattering hooves of shoppers stampeding down the high street, they must wonder if religion has evaporated completely into empty materialism, was here today and gone Gomorrah. They must feel like a board of directors who have lost control of the patent. Having connections with the boss's son isn't helping.

It's enough to make you hot under the dog collar. No wonder so many of them at this time seem to lie awake in the dark, with the lonely night-light of the mind for company, desperately waiting for one of those sudden I-know-what-I'll-do moments. We all have them, those times when we think of the precise physically impossible terms in which we'll tell that obnoxious boss where to put his job or to explain to that impossible woman how she can go and make love to her own incredible shape. I think we should have such moments and then forget them, for they are the devil appearing to us in the night, suave in evening dress, with his hair carefully coiffed to hide the horns. The inspirational instant fix is usually total breakdown in disguise.

Consider the vicar who decides to hit on Santa Claus. The Rev Lee Rayfield of St Mary's Church in Birkenhead gives this very heavy sermon about the corrupt lie that is Santa. He delivers 378 million presents to 91.8 million homes in 31 hours? He travels 3,000 times the speed of sound without his reindeer vaporising? Who's going to believe this? He's just a big fat front. Something shady is going on here.

He really scatterguns the old guy. Okay, so he has a point. Claus is the Mr Big of commercialism. He's Don Corleone in a neat red coat with funny white trimming. He can force people to buy any kind of junk. He leaves a lot of families more or less destitute for months after Christmas and then turns up again the next year, just in time for people to have recouped enough money to make the pickings lush. And he walks away, still smiling. The way things are going, you could be forgiven for thinking he's got Jesus in his pocket.

But somebody should have told the Rev: "Don't do this, Vic. This guy Claus, he got people everywhere. They'll be coming out the woodwork at you. He may be crook but he's also a nice big portly guy. And he got a white beard. And he keeps going Ho, ho, ho. Them kids love him. You hit on him, what's achieved? The guy's bullet-proof. He's still ho-ho-hoing. You? You eat crow the rest of your life."

And so it has proved. Even as I write, the Rev Rayfield is probably still composing letters of apology to more or less the whole world. They'll probably bury him with his fingers on his laptop.

Then there is the Rev John Carter. He's something called "spokesman for the Churches Advertising Network". That's an interesting one. Religion advertises just like any other conglomerate? This is like God saying "Please". And the burning bush spake and it said: "I've got some really nice offers here you might like to hear about."

And how it advertises. The Rev John has announced a series of holy advertisements to "enhance product recognition" among the young and entice them into church at Christmas. For example, they print a detail from The Adoration of the Magi. But here's the kicker. They put a caption under it which reads: "At this point, the first king realised he'd left the price tag on."

Product recognition? The stigmata as logo? And that hilarious tagline. Can't you just imagine how it could cram every holy building with teenagers who have suddenly realised what fun places churches are? (And when they get there, how many laughs they're going to have?) This corny trivialisation of the Nativity is more likely to leave today's teenagers - many of whom probably think that the word 'Genesis' originated as the name of a pop group - wondering if Christianity isn't just some naff brand name, whose product they wouldn't be seen alive in. They'll probably decide to stick with Nike and Tommy Hilfiger. Apparently, the money-changers are no longer just in the temple, they are running the place.

Then there is the Bishop of Lichfield. At least his inspirational moment makes a kind of sense. In a Christmas message e-mailed to the media, he comes out strongly against "cute donkeys" and stables (stuffed full of cuddly animals). He may well find his church picketed by wild-eyed animal rights activists, demanding that he retract and acknowledge the unquestionable cuteness of donkeys and the inalienable right to being cuddly of all animal species. But you can see what he means.

It's just that I feel he takes it a bit far. He says that the Holy Family were asylum seekers, Mary was an unmarried mother and the Magi were three hitmen hired by Herod. This may help to make the Nativity seem relevant to our time but it simultaneously fails to suggest any relevance it has outside of time. I thought the point of the story was that something utterly unique and world-changing happened at a specific point in history. To make it just another episode out of EastEnders is to lose the plot slightly. At this rate, God's just one of us. And if He is, He should do the honourable thing and resign. He's a charlatan. "The bishop, who is due to retire at Easter" the piece I was reading said. Maybe that's not a bad idea. Maybe he's not the only one. If this kind of backing off from saying anything that might offend the children or abject toadying after contemporary acceptance is all Christianity has to sell, it might be time to shut the shop. It doesn't even seem to understand the terms of its own existence any more, never mind ours.

Religious faith plays hardball. It's the only game it can play. It doesn't seek to ingratiate itself with the passing fashions of contemporary life, it declares them to be irrelevant. It doesn't tell you you might want to believe this, it tells you that you fail to believe it at your peril. It doesn't offer the scriptures as the written record of some funky Palestinian deejays busking away the time, it says they're the word of God. You listen good now.

For Christianity to survive meaningfully, it would have to rediscover the nerve to be uncompromising instead of trying to pitch itself at the level of a theological fashion accessory. Its numbers might diminish but they're diminishing anyway. And didn't they begin small? A few people with convictions so tough they didn't break in the mouths of lions turned out to be not bad proselytisers for the faith.

'Tis the season to be jolly. But as you celebrate Christmas, digesting the turkey and wondering where you'll hide those unbelievable socks your auntie gave you again this year, raise a wry glass to churches so raddled with relativism that they don't know how to have faith in their own faiths any more.

(First printed SoS - 22nd December 2002)