One of my favourite Christmas songs is The Holly and the Ivy but I remember as a child feeling that the lyric was a bit unfair to the ivy!
It starts off with some wonderful universal imagery: “The rising of the sun and the running of the deer.” But the verses quickly become all about the holly and Christianity: “The holly bears a berry . . . and Mary bore sweet Jesus.”
Religious people sometimes claim that only Christianity protects our Yule from becoming a default consumerist, materialist nightmare. Why should this be? The spirit of the season needn’t be framed by religious belief. In addition to a few simple gifts for my family, the only things I bring into the house are cut from the garden.
We often hear that “aggressive secularism” is attacking religious belief in itself. Not so. We have the greatest of respect for everyone’s private beliefs, but those for whom religion is the answer should not assume that God is good for all. To continue with the plant metaphor, no-one has the right to jump over the fence into the church’s garden and disapprove of its dahlias, but equally the church has no right to suppose that we all want dahlias in our gardens!
Our winter solstice festival was going on for many thousands of years before Christianity adopted it as the birth of Jesus. The Christian nativity is a lovely story and a welcome contributor to our modern turning of the year but we all know that holly and ivy have been kept from much older versions of the same celebration. Christianity has added many beautiful carols and memorable imagery but it doesn’t own the “real meaning” of Christmas any more than Thor owns the real meaning of Thursday. Christmas is a time for giving and Christians must learn to share.
So as we huddle round the fire with friends and family in December sharing affection, memories of those we’ve lost and hopes for the coming year, let us remember the ivy and not forget that there’s more to Christmas than the holly . . . or the holy.
Neil Barber is a spokesman for the Edinburgh Secular Society