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Commentary

For the children

Agnostics anonymous

'Barmy Council Bans Christmas' roars tabloid. Actually, as I'm writing in November, that hasn't happened yet. But it probably will - despite the fact that nobody actually opposes Christmas, apart from cartoonish figures like Montgomery Burns, Scrooge and Cromwell. Even Christianity's cartoon villain Richard Dawkins sings Christmas carols, though he 'can't bear "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"'.

Christmas has an easy inclusivity that Christianity itself entirely lacks. Easter draws on ancient traditions in the same way, but its doctrinal message is highly specific, less cosy, and less easy to reconcile with the ritual practices that the festival maintains. The incarnate god is tortured and murdered and rises again, here are some rabbits and chocolate eggs. It is nonobvious, as patent lawyers would say. The primal themes of Christmas are obvious, but that makes it correspondingly harder for Christians to claim exclusive rights over it.

Not that some Christians don't try. In 2011, the British Humanist Association ran a case study of an eight-year-old whose teacher told him that if he celebrates Christmas, he's a Christian. My childhood memories of Christmas are that its images are interwoven with Halloween's  glowing skeletons and the savage bonfires of November as a continuous  thread of colour and excitement in winter's heavy blankets. The diction and vocabulary of Christmas carols mean you hear only incomprehensible snatches of words: 'of orient are', 'morrow masters all', 'round yon virgin', and other baffling phrases form a patchwork of magic incantations. That's before you get into the subject matter which variously takes in Bohemian Kings, twining plants and a partridge in a pear tree.

This pleasant chaos of images centres on a newborn child. People who harm children remain the gold standard of malevolence in a culture which generally gets by without metaphysical concepts of Good and Evil. The blameless child unites everything: the upper and lower reaches of society (kings and shepherds), the animal kingdom (ox and ass), and even the heavens in the form of a star breaking its usual routine to go and hang around a bit of Bethlehem. In a touching bit of pre-modern multiculturalism, mediaeval European art makes one of the kings black to represent all corners of the world.

What's wrong with this picture? Only that it has nothing to do with Christianity, currently undergoing a mini-renaissance of banning, excluding, discriminating and loudly upholding the right of B&B owners to claim there's no room at the inn when homosexuals come knocking. The Christian story starts well, but seems, in Britain at least, to be ending badly.