Although believing Christians are celebrating an important religious event at this time of year, the majority of us in Britain who are not are celebrating something older and more timeless.
Every human being so far has been born and died on earth and its landscapes and seasons define us. In the cold midwinter of our Northern hemisphere, this is as true as anywhere else and ever since our ancestors first brought in green branches to remind themselves of the spring that would come again and lit fires to warm the darkness, this time of year has been a festival.
Research last year found that (in order) the five most important things to people about Christmas are: spending time with family; giving presents to friends/family; eating Christmas food and drinking Christmas drinks; and putting up Christmas lights and decorations.
These are pretty much the things that matter to me about this time of year, and what they all represent is warmth in the coldness: being with those we love and celebrating that togetherness with food and light and generosity.
This is also the time of year when people give most to charity and that’s an important part of Christmas to me too – a heightened sense of empathy and compassion as we enjoy the things that so many do not have.
What’s true of Christmas is also true of life. Much of our fulfilment, meaning and purpose can come from others, from our relationships with friends and family. These are the sort of relationships that are affirmed at this time of year by being together, by giving and receiving gifts, cards and good wishes. And the meaning that we find in our relationships with family and friends is not the only meaning we can find in people.
If we extend our thinking and our sympathies, we can see ourselves as part of a global continuum of people; this continuum also stretches through time. The human story is millennia older than the Christmas story, which cannot hope to contain the grander narrative that history, biology, anthropology, geology and all the sciences of human ingenuity have unveiled.
I also use Christmas as a time to think. At the turning of the year, we can contemplate the past and look to the future. The traditions we keep and fall into like second nature at Christmas emphasise the continuity in our lives but they also give us pause to think about change.
We may think of the person who was with us last Christmas who now isn’t and won’t be again, and be grateful for the times we had for them. Or it may be the opposite: the new person enjoying their first Christmas whose future joy we anticipate.
Times like Christmas structure our lives and help us make meaning out of them as their events progress. At Christmas, we remember last Christmas, and the Christmas before; such moments in the calendar that let us look back and forward order our lives as we take stock, and we weave them – as we weave all our experiences – into the narrative of our life. Our own lives are stories, after all, which we give a shape and purpose as best we can.
Some religious people like to bemoan non-religious people like me for celebrating at this time of year while forgetting the “real meaning” of Christmas.
But for me, as for most people in the UK, this time of year has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with celebrating the life we have with the people we love. The real meaning is the meaning we make ourselves – and it’s for life, not just for Christmas.