What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary.
Hillel, c.80 BCE to 30 CE
Christmas is coming and we are surrounded by the ever growing paraphernalia that goes with it. It's an annual ritual that many people find deeply stressful of course but personally I love it. For me it's a very important time of year, second only to our annual family summer holiday, when work stops and we actually have time to spend with each other.
This evening my wife and I are out with a group of our closest friends. Next week it's the book club Christmas dinner and so on. The run up to Christmas is when we all make an effort to be sociable with just about everyone we know in the intersecting circles of our lives. That's a good thing I'd say.
The stress that we all feel to some degree arises as expectations are put on us by hugely expensive 'event advertising,' by carol singers, by charity tin shakers and by children, but most of all, by ourselves. In amongst all the images of Santa, the Christmas trees, the outrageously expensive Christmas lists that we stupidly try to fulfil and the crescendo of the reality TV shows we're told to remember the true meaning of Christmas.
And what is the true meaning of Christmas?
Naturally, it depends who you ask, but the phrase is generally taken to be a reference to the story of Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem in order to satisfy the demands of the Roman occupiers' census and there to give birth to the son of God in a stable because there was no room at the inn.
I've been an atheist all my adult life and therefore place no such religious meaning on Christmas. The true meaning for me is that sense of community, of shared friendship, of making the effort to be nice to each other even in the depths of winter, and of families bothering to travel to spend time with each other. My brother in is cock-a-hoop that most of us are travelling to his home in the Netherlands this year (not sure my sister-in-law is quite so enthusiastic but hey – that's families!) It's the buying, wrapping and posting of presents for nieces and nephews whose birthday you marked with no more than a note on their Facebook wall earlier in the year, of the infectious excitement of young children, the Christmas box for the paper boy, the school concerts and Christmas Fairs, the Salvation Army playing old familiar tunes, of feeling deep sympathy for shop workers who have been subjected to Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody day in day out for weeks on end.
And at Christmas itself? — oh boy… the Nine Lessons and Carols from Cambridge (I may be an atheist but I love a lot of religious music), the delicious food and wine, the ritual reading of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas as our over excited children attempt to settle down on Christmas Eve, the paté and bucks fizz my wife and I habitually enjoy on Christmas morning, that incredible sense of love and happiness as the children bring their sacks in to open their presents with us… it's a time that touches me deeply every year.
Half a millennium before the Christian era, Confucius phrased his Golden Rule: Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you. This was rephrased by Hillel in answer to a challenge to explain the entire meaning of the Torah while standing on one leg1 and has been recycled endlessly over the centuries. It's an idea that we're told underpins much of all religion. I readily subscribe to the Golden Rule – and the idea is made manifest at Christmas. If you want to think of that as a religious thought, OK. But please don't tell me that Mary riding a donkey into Bethlehem, an event that almost certainly never happened, is the true meaning of Christmas.
1. Quoted from The Case for God by Karen Armstrong. An excellent and detailed account of religious thought over the millennia.