Imagine being in love with someone who ignores you eleven months of the year, then suddenly seems really into you. Instead of elation you feel a weird form of pain as your beloved finally smiles on you, and finds you interesting, for you know that it is just a seasonal thing, and that frosty indifference waits in the wings.
This is a bit like how Christians feel at Christmas. Our ruling culture finds the idea of worshipping Jesus Christ embarrassing, absurd, offensive. Or in fact it normally doesn’t bother feeling these things, it just shrugs with boredom. And yet for a few weeks it gives the appearance of venerating the little guy in the manger, buying into the myth that he brings hope for the world. It’s not a matter of going through the motions, pretending to believe, for there is no motive for such outward conformity these days. At Christmas a large proportion of atheists and agnostics really do experience a sentimental sort of semi-belief, though they wouldn’t admit to it.
Of course it’s mainly thanks to carols. Almost anyone who is familiar with this musical tradition has a deep love of it. Even, by his own admission, Richard Dawkins. Maybe even Jeremy Corbyn.
In fact it is our most authentic folk tradition. For what other form of culture has centuries-old roots and actually unites people in fellow feeling? The other day we had a Christmas party: a neighbour played some carols on the piano and we sang along. We all joined in, including various village atheists and neo-pagans, who have often told me what an oppressive thing Christianity is, compared to the benign New Agery on offer. But once they hear that familiar tune, they change their own familiar tune and demand to go and adore him.
It is only an outward performance of piety, you might say, but in fact that is the essence of worship, it’s a communal performed thing, and they are doing it. And doing it is never entirely hollow – even if one is pretending to believe as one sings the words, one is entering into the world of belief, dipping a real toe in.
I suppose I should rejoice that people still have this little glimpse of Christian feeling, this window onto worship. In theory, it shows that people have a latent love for this ritual tradition, despite their scorn for it the rest of the year.
Surely here is a seed that can be nurtured? Surely here is proof that Christianity’s cultural revival is possible? But in reality my feelings are less upbeat. It only underlines their scorn for religion, that they glimpse its purity and wonder, and then go back to their half-baked prejudices about it. Happy Christmas anyway.