IF YOU could hang high above Melbourne on Christmas Eve, like one of those spirits in a Dickens novel who observe London in her squalor and splendour, looking down through the transparent roofs you would see clots of revellers in happy upheaval in our town's pubs and clubs, heads thrown back, their epiglottises bared to the chandeliers as they guffaw and screech, whooping it up on Jesus' time. Then, look closer; you will also see a few people wending their way through the streets to church.
One would be my friend Neal, who every Christmas Eve goes to a series of pubs and celebrates strongly. The man is a fervent drinker and on a normal night he would kick on until cockcrow. But watch him on Christmas Eve stepping from a pub, a tiny halting figure; he makes his way along Toorak Road to Christ Church in South Yarra for the Christmas Eve service. He never goes to church otherwise, and will doubtless close his eyes during this service and punch out a few zeds under cover of a Bach cantata. Then, when the service is over, watch him emerge from prayer and re-enter the night at 1am, back to the relative sobriety of pub-talk.
If his seems a cynical use of religion, it differs from other Christmas churchgoers only in its blatancy. He can't say what compels him to attend church. And he has that in common with a lot of once-a-year Christians. But I think his Christmas pilgrimage has a similar motivation as a visit to an aged uncle in a hospice. Though the old boy is now mute and unresponsive, he just might be aware of your presence. So you sit awhile at Uncle Jack's bedside and tell him about your family and your work, and you sing him a little song, not knowing if he can hear any of it, but hoping your presence is bringing him some joy.
Nobody in any of the various families I'm involved with has ever mentioned Jesus on Christmas Day unless they have just touched their tongue on a flaming pudding. He has become more useful as an expletive than a Saviour to us. The Christmas Story with its miraculous birth, guiding star and wise men, has disappeared from our Christmas. And it's not just us. Christmas in this country, though now lasting longer than Ramadan, is effectively secular.
The idea that a fully realised Son of God could have his birthday hijacked by an unshaven toy-baron with a factory staffed by enslaved Hobbits so that porky kids might be coerced into behaving well or miss out on an Xbox is, even to an atheist, a little sad. But Santa has become, for a month every year, as prevalent as Stalin was in the USSR, and Jesus as invisible as Trotsky. I alleviate this cult-of-personality by seeing Charles Darwin's greyly bearded face in every Santa I meet, and thereby a memento of reason sneaks into this unreasoning season.
The Triumph of Santa over Jesus tells us consumer goods are more attractive than an afterlife until death gets close enough that an afterlife is needed. You've got to pitch to a market. Jesus sells when death is close. Santa prevails in a land of youth and plenty. As an atheist at Christmas I find myself in the same position as a Muslim, a Jew, or George Orwell's Winston Smith, ceaselessly bombarded with a belief I don't believe. Santa, holly, reindeer, fir trees and songs of snowmen . . . At the height of summer, Australia is awash with a Christian propaganda that has morphed from a Bronze Age fable into a Disney cartoon. It is plastered on every shop window, jingled through every speaker and played on every TV station.
If I were a devout Jew or Muslim I'd keep the kiddies locked up over December. Actually, if I were a devout Christian I'd keep them locked up as well. Frosty the what? But you can't blame Christians for what Christmas has become. Real Christians lost control of Christmas in this country 50 years ago when Six White Boomers shot to No.1 on the pop charts and Myer and David Jones realised a virgin mother wasn't anywhere near as good at shifting units as a sextet of albino marsupials.
An atheist might well feel like a spy at this feast. But we all hijack each other's holidays. Christmas itself was filched from the pagans by the Catholic Church in the middle ages. No one knows when Jesus was born. Or if. And Puritans, Pilgrims and Protestants thought festivities to celebrate Christ's birth to be blasphemous. I wish these competitively pious anabranches of Christianity could have seen our last year's effort . . blasphemy in spades.
They would have thought the netherworld had bubbled up and burst through the bitumen onto the streets of Melbourne as the Cameron festivity tottered away from civility and reason and became the Pogues on tour; blown speakers, forgotten lyrics, tears and vomit, our Christmas celebrations reached their inglorious peak under the lurid strobings of an ambulance at midnight as a lunatic poked his head from a South Melbourne asylum and asked if we needed a hand. We didn't. We were doing fine without him. Next day we gathered and quietly acknowledged that the way we did Christmas needed calm review.
And I have given the atheist Christmas calm review. I have designed a new one. For a while I thought we could do without Christmas altogether. But, no. We atheists still need an excuse to pause and nod at Fate periodically and admit how lucky we are. I see a psychological need for a festivity at which we can celebrate the miracle of life born through sluttish evolution. A festivity at which we succumb to the emotional need to give thanks for the wonders of deep space and love as seen through the Hubble telescope and a mother's hug. And if we don't reaffirm the power of the spiritual world and rejoice in The Lord at Christmas, that doesn't mean it can't be a potent sacrament of humanism.
So my newly constituted atheist Christmas will run concurrently with the Christian one; as that archaic prototype is already a twin public holiday at summer's height, it makes economic sense that we take our various Christmases at once. Unless the Christians take huff and stomp off with their Christmas to another more exclusive date. The following is mere suggestion, of course. But this is my attempt at a sensible, secular Christmas.
Charter for an Atheist Christmas.
1. No enforced giving. Give a gift to someone if you want, but don't feel compelled. Remember, in our scenario neither God nor Santa has you under surveillance. No records are kept. A cheaper substitute for giving presents is to return the books you borrowed throughout the year. At least you don't have to umm and ahh over whether their owners want them or not. (Wrapping them will add to the recipient's joy. And surprise.)
1b. No enforced love, either, while we're at it. Love should be real and natural. It should occur, not be proclaimed. Bugger Peace and Goodwill to All Men. Many deserve the cudgel.
2. No more than two courses at lunch, and each to consist of no more than four parts. And no woman to make more than one dish. The most common ruination of Christmas is a cold war between frazzled females who have tried to make the feast something from Flaubert's Salome and fallen short. A simple potato salad is not an insult to the family name, nor does a ratatouille slow-cooked overnight and honed with 27 herbs and spices make you a Borgia or Rockefeller.
3. No music composed after 1859 (date of the publication of On the Origin of Species) to celebrate The Lord is to be played. This includes Jingle Bell Rock and Springsteen's version of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. Try The Pogues' Fairytale of New York.
4. This is a day of detente. Your brother's mail-order bride is as legitimate a partner as your own. Your sourest uncle is just misunderstood. You have got together not to remind yourselves why you don't get together. You have got together because this incarnation of the family will be brief.
5. No Santa. Santa is just a kiddy-Jesus who killed the grown-up Jesus. Don't stuff the sack. Buy the kids blue-chip shares instead. They will hate you now, sure. But you'll be summering in their beach houses in 2030.
6. Now to the matter of drink . . . atheists routinely imbibe bear-killing quantities of wine in order to get to the fantastical headspace Christians inhabit naturally. While religious euphoria is understandably coveted by the sane, you cannot reach that height of delusion using alcohol without killing yourself young. So. Four stubbies and a bottle of wine each for the lunch. The ladies may substitute a glass of champagne for each stubby.
6b. There will be a great breathing-out and an urge to get hammered when the aunts pogo off on their walking frames in the late afternoon. But wait half an hour. One will almost certainly return for something she forgot.
7. During lunch some senior family member who doesn't mind ridicule must rise and acknowledge we are but specks of carbon with the lifespan of sparks, nonetheless if we work hard and love well and play well, this life can be a wonder beyond any miracle ever documented by the Mesopotamian goat-herds who wrote the Holy Books.
7b. To end this speech, your beloved dead must now be briefly mocked for their foolish habits and cantankerous ways. If you had an uncle with a missing finger, for instance, fold one of your own digits back and grip a glass and raise a beer in his time-honoured, three-fingered style and ask your siblings, "Who's this?" as you drink.
"Uncle Jim," they will shout. "Uncle Jim."
Laughing at the dead will naturally lead to silence, and a welling of tears, and to progressively more solemn toasts. "To absent friends." "To Uncle Jim." "To Dad." "To Mum."
Be thankful for these tears and this sorrow, it is a gift bestowed only on atheists. A Christian has every expectation of seeing their deceased again, so their sense of loss can never match ours and their dead cannot be loved as well. Our tears are for people who have gone forever. Not for people who have skipped ahead for a moment.
Likewise the people who surround us at the table are precious because we will not be together long, whereas Christians have eternity at each other's elbow. It's worth remembering as you make these toasts and your tears well, that life is especially rich with no afterlife. The things that make an atheist's Christmas are people. And an atheist's people are all the more treasurable for being as ephemeral as a blue flame on a pudding. So count yourself blessed, you non-believers. And Merry Christmas.