Revelling in the dual identities of Christmas and Easter - district council leader

East Devon District Council leader, Councilor Paul Arnott. Picture: Paul Arnott

East Devon District Council leader, Councilor Paul Arnott. Picture: Paul Arnott - Credit: Archant

East Devon District Council leader Paul Arnott writes for this title.

It’s a foolhardy politician who goes near the subject of religion. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s infamous spin doctor, protected his (later, Catholic-convert) PM by saying to journalists, “We don’t do God”.

You can see why, especially in the multi-faith United Kingdom. Any Prime Minister seeming to side with the Christian view of faith risks alienating Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and many more. It’s why Prince Charles longs to be called the Defender “of Faiths” rather than “of the Faith” when he is king.

And there are many who long for an atheist world in which gods are regarded as delusions used by the powerful to suppress those weaker than them, arrogantly putting their pews and coffins in pride of place in churches, or plastering their fundamentalist images all over the streets of Tehran. Many say, what has faith done but divide and conquer?

Despite the above, I’m going to dip a toe in anyway. Whilst it is true that the 25th December has existed as a mid-winter pagan festival since long before the Christian religion, it cannot be denied that the pagan and the religious sit side by side.

The pagan comes in the shape of Father Christmas, whose aerial prowess and omnipresence as a deliverer of presents are right up there with the most exciting Hindu deities. And what a look. Red outfit, white beard, black boots. Gaudy and glorious and, of course, benevolent. A good spirit.

Meanwhile, Christians have everything else. Midnight mass, the music, the nativity play.

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There is a difference though. The Christian story is rather more than a chubby chap on a magic sleigh granting Christmas wishes; it’s one of the greatest stories ever told.

An unmarried couple becomes pregnant, and at a time when the local King fears that any babies at that time might contain a Messiah who’ll end his cosy dictatorship, orders the murder of a generation of new borne. The parents flea, in great poverty, and their child is born in a stable of animals.

It’s as inauspicious a start as a human could have, and yet as the child grows to be a man he challenges the wickedness of both Roman rule in Palestine and the hypocrisies of High Priests. At Christmas, the birth of this special person is marked, but we all know that four months later we will be marking his murder by crucifixion by the people he has exposed.

Again, in Britain the pagan and the religious are wonderfully conflated on Easter Day. One contingent are tucking into eggs to mark the end of winter, the other is meditating and praying on the idea that the destroyed rebel called Jesus will be resurrected – that his moral courage and refusal to compromise will be recognised by his rising again. He kept the faith.

To me, I love it that both Christmas and Easter can have these dual identities – pagan & fun, or spiritual & profound. Shouldn’t we be free to do one, or the other, or neither, or both? We may even walk life’s path in and out of personal faith of many kinds. Tolerance of this, as in tolerance of all diversity, marks a great country.

Politicians need to be circumspect but ought to be truthful too. My Christmas will mainly be about the reunion of family and all the fun and love we can muster. I am exhausted after a deeply trying seven months as council leader, as are many of our terrific officers, staff and councillors, so being amongst family for a few days off will be a blessing.

But part of me will be thinking about that tiny child, protected and nurtured, and the incredibly difficult life he then had to lead, and of all those who will pray, through him, on Christmas Day for a better world.

All of the above makes sense to me. Happy Christmas.

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