Overview:

My children know very few Christmas hymns and Christian rituals and traditions. Are they missing out on something? Something valuable?

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I am a fully-fledged secular atheist. I also love Christmas. It is probably a learned thing involving decades of cultural normalization following a childhood ensconced in an at least nominally Christian Christmas tradition.

What I mean by this is that I, like many people of my era, spent Christmases at school singing carols and hymns, getting involved in the traditional rituals of the Christian winter solstice celebrations. I went to the odd Midnight Mass, and participated in Christingle celebrations in candlelit school cloisters.

The other evening, I was prompted to sing along with a Christmas song—a carol or hymn that was on TV. One of my twins looked at me oddly. “Don’t you know this carol?” I asked him. “Haven’t you sung this at school?”

“Er, no…”

This was on the back of an experience from the week before. Wham’s “Last Christmas” was playing. Because Christmas. I told my twin 12-year-olds, “You know, up until only relatively recently, I thought that, instead of ‘This year, to save me from tears, I gave it to someone special’ he was actually singing, ‘This year, on the semi-frontiers, I gave it to someone special.'”

I guess the idea was that George Michael was exploring or fighting out in the wilds, or the not-quite-so-wilds, and gave his heart away there. This started the obligatory conversation about misheard lyrics.

A further one of mine was, “I used to think ‘Dance then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance, said he’ was actually, ‘Dance, then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance Settee.” I had to explain that, as a child singing the wrong lyrics, I imagined Jesus dancing on a sofa in front of his disciples.

“I mean, stupid, eh! Of course, you know that hymn, right?”

Wrong. They didn’t. The misheard lyric was completely lost on them.

And this is where I had a pang of the “Well, I experienced it, so your life would be better if you experienced it!”

I am wondering if there is, however, actually something in this. My children, in their modern secular lives, are not experiencing the prayers and rituals, the buildings and songs, of my albeit nominal Christian upbringing. It’s not the rabid fundamentalist religiosity of certain communities in the US, but the quaint Church of England experience of dirges on a Sunday morning punctuated by the occasional uplifting, quick-tempo hymn, like “Lord of the Dance” or “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and certainly the stirring passion of the William Blake-penned “Jerusalem.”

My children know none of these songs. They haven’t sat in a variety of aged church buildings, taken a kneeler to kneel for prayers that they knew by heart. They haven’t sung hymns that would sear themselves into their cultural memories or experienced Christmas songs sung by carolers or choirs, echoing off the sandstone walls of weather-beaten holy houses.

Their own songs that will stick with them, audibly etched into their consciousnesses, will be songs of generic culture and even materialism, lacking a certain historical or locational context.

“So what?” one might ask. “Are they any the worse off for this?”

Indeed, am I any the better or more rounded? Am I a more cultured human being for having these experiences as part of my cultural DNA? The ego-chauvinist in me thinks that perhaps they are lacking something, that what they are replacing my experiences with are cheaper, tackier stand-ins.

As an atheist, of course, I am not yearning for a lost theology or spirituality that I took part in, because it was never that for me. At most, I became a Christian adolescent who had such a bastardized understanding of Christian theology as to be almost embarrassing. When I sang these songs and took part in these Christian traditions, there was rarely if ever an interaction with Christian theology.

These were just nice songs in a quaint cultural setting.

Is this, then, just nostalgia getting the better of me?

I can’t help but think of Michael Gove, a former Tory Education Secretary in the UK who changed the curriculum for British children, making them learn certain poems off by heart because he had to as a child, and look what wonders it did for him

Is there some intrinsic or extrinsic value to the Christian Christmas traditions, or even the wider cultural projects of singing such songs, sitting in such places, partaking in such rituals?

Am I forgetting the hours of fidgeting, sat bored on uncomfortable seating, wondering what all this nonsense was about (more likely thinking about almost anything else)?

Questions, questions. So, one more.

Is it me who is just missing something, or are they?

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...