Faith is a hard thing to come by. It’s not sold in the supermarkets nor on the Internet, and it certainly isn’t given freely by our fellow human beings. The best we can hope for when collecting dropped change is that no one will kick us in the seat of our pants. It’s a hard world, a cruel world, a world where words can kill and killers walk free.
And yet . . .
At the end of every year, on the deepest, coldest days of the deep midwinter we celebrate a festival of light. Faith has brought us here–directly or otherwise–to a feast born earlier than our earliest religions. When tribes gathered ‘round the campfire burning, huddled for warmth and breaking winter fasts, they shared a faith that wolves nor bears nor frosts nor plague would consume them. They would make it through hardships we in our Snuggies and Gorilla Feet can only dream of, and in their darkest hour they sang their strongest praises to the world that would, that must allow them to survive.
And though that world took some of their number as toll, the majority made it through unscathed to see another dawn–and beyond it, another year.
Our faiths have become more complicated over the years. Robbed of such ancient dangers our laws rule our conduct, not our survival. We pray in different directions–or not at all–and celebrate different festivals each with their own unique menus.
Yet for every one of us not jaded, faith sees us through these dark days. It needn’t be faith in anything specific: a deity or deities, the warmth of human goodness. Sometimes the only faith you need is faith the sun will rise tomorrow.
I’ve been dispirited for a very long time and areligious for even longer. The second thing isn’t a problem but the first is a condition I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. As is so often the case with my adult doldrums it wasn’t always the case. Christmas–let’s give the festival a name, shall we?–used to mean everything to me. There was more to the day than the presents, the turkey, the TV, the whatever. Pressed together every facet formed a diamond sparkling in winter’s night, as bright as any star or stable light, as jolly as any fat man.
Aging drains one’s festive spirit–it’s only to be expected. But as the Advent Candle grows dim, so the rest of each year burns low. Other events interceded. I learned pain, as has every person who’s ever grown older. I lost friends. I lost family. Somewhere between the two, I lost myself.
And I’m lucky to have replaced or reclaimed so much of what once was, to be loved on these cold days, to occasionally have hope. But faith-so essential a human tenet–fled me long ago. I’ve become a child who’s stopped watching his clock in the belief Christmas will never come.
Now I’m an adult, it never will.
And so I look to my children–amorphous, undetermined and unborn as they are–and wonder if their faith will warm me. I wonder if–as I did, so very long ago–they’ll believe in Father Christmas.
Because he was always Father Christmas when I was young, not Santa Claus until much later. The difference between the two was marginal: Father Christmas wore a hood, not a hat, and was wise rather than merry. Santa’s always seemed too eager to hand out Christmas and act the jolly imp; in Father Christmas’s beard were tangled snowflakes from an ice age and a certain Nordic wildness. Santa could be found in every supermarket, in every department store, on every street corner while Father Christmas was in the very air.
Santa was a magic trick while Father Christmas was magic.
Things have changed a lot between now and then. Now, I’m not so willing to believe in Christmas miracles. I don’t believe in the divinity of a baby born in the Middle East–if I believe any of his story at all. We all tell stories that are half real and half not; whatever the truth about Christmas, two thousand years of telephone whispers and a book full of unreliable narrators won’t be as accurate as the most faithful of us might hope.
Knowing what I know now, I wonder how I could allow my children to believe in one lie when I refuse to let them believe in so many others.
I don’t want them to be religious. If they find religious faith later in life and choose a path different to my own, so long as it doesn’t do them any harm I don’t have a problem with that. Ask me again when the situation comes to pass but I want them to live their own life, I want them to be curious and questioning, and if they feel religion holds answers the scientific world does not, I’ll trust to it.
I’m quite happy partaking in many elements of the Christian faith to which I was raised, which I abandoned but which formed the basis of so many of my childhood memories. I enjoy some Christmas carols very much, will watch It’s A Wonderful Life every year, stick stars and angels on the top of my Christmas tree and pull out the old clay nativity I made when I was a boy. The stable’s ramshackle, the three kings look more like slugs than wise men, the virgin Mary has an idiot’s grin made by two pen points and a small, grubby thumbnail, and the back of the scene has a hole through which a tiny light-bulb was supposed to protrude, but in all the years since I sculpted it, never has. I’m sure there are lots of other Christian traditions and symbols I borrow, and I do so lightly, treating them with as much fond irreverence as I do Santa.
Tonight, saying goodbye to a visiting friend, she said on her way around our Christmas tree that she’d always wanted one herself but being Muslim was forbidden from having one. We pointed out that neither of us were Christian but we still had a tree. I went on to say that we hope to commandeer religious festivals of all creeds and colours so our years together are full of wonderful food.
Maybe it was insensitive–if it was, she didn’t comment–but not being tied to any particular religion I see us in the perfect position to pick and choose. Whatever certain neo-atheists might say, not all of us think all religions are bad. As I might pick a festive dish from this or that religion so I might choose a certain tenet of that belief, a certain parable–a certain anything. I might view them as fiction to some degree but I’m equally at home selecting moral lessons from novels, TV shows and other fictions.
I’d like our kids to grow up believing in Father Christmas, as I did. My wife’s not so keen on the idea. She doesn’t want us lying to our children–something I can understand her not wanting to do–and if it’s something she’s truly averse to of course I’ll defer to her will.
Maybe we won’t run into this problem. Children seem to have grown too world weary since I was young. Our niece has worked out that ‘Santa’ visits regardless of her behaviour; any threats that if the kids don’t listen Santa won’t give her presents are met with “Last year we did not listen and we still got everything we wanted” A harsh adjustment in parenting seems unlikely. In her case, it would probably be better if she knew the person buying her presents was the same person she was being disobedient in front of.
When it comes to Father Christmas I see faith as a good thing. Perhaps it’s because, areligious as he is (you can say Christmas is a Christian festival but Santa and Jesus aren’t exactly mates, are they?) the lie in which we encourage our children to believe represents a morality we all can get behind: be good and you’ll be rewarded. For all the laws religions lay down there are few that have a moral message so simple. There’s always some caveat, a ‘oh, and you have to worship this god before you get into Heaven’. For kids too small to realise being good can be its own reward presents are the carrot and cole the stick. For the rest of us, well, it’s still a pretty good lesson to learn.
And it’s a good one to abide by. Morality becomes ever greyer the older we get. Emotions become complex; half the time we don’t know if we’re doing what’s right or not, and it’s times like those we need faith to keep us going.
It needn’t be religious–indeed, from my perspective it’s better if it isn’t–but faith that things won’t always be bad is powerful, and necessary, and needed in our darkest hour.
After all, things get better. They always get better.