THIS is my plan for Christmas Day: at around 8am in our household we will all get up, our three little kids rampaging about the place in their usual excitement. But by 10:30am our aim, amid the debris, is to have all of us dressed and ready to make the half-hour hike up the country lane from our house to our village church.
As old-fashioned as it sounds, I want my family to spend at least a part of their Christmas Day in a place of worship. Such a thing was ingrained in my grandparents and my parents and the tradition has been passed down and it endures. I love the Christian church on a point of principle, but I love it especially at this time of year.
My earliest instincts were shaped around the church, and my earliest Christmases were shaped around the sea. One infamous Christmas Eve in Anstruther my late father, a Baptist minister, was conducting some kind of outdoor children’s nativity scene – in fact, it was along at Cellardyke – when the baby Jesus somehow got pushed over the harbour wall and fell into the drink.
I was four years old at this point but I can remember it as if it was yesterday. The faithful of that wee Baptist kirk stood around that harbour setting and their Christmas hymns wafted up into the clear night sky.
The fishermen of the time, whose lives by their very nature involved risk and unpredictability, recited solemn but beautiful prayers, more often than not unscripted.
I loved this setting, the ambience of it, the sense of the story and the faith which seemed to bind our lives together. Even as a little kid I knew I’d never want to leave this environment.
Down the years I’ve had some ludicrous nativity experiences in church. I’ve been a sheep, the hind legs of a donkey, a soldier, a shepherd (with time-honoured tea towel round my head), an innkeeper and much else. Alas, I’ve never been a wise man.
But I now look back on all these church experiences and realise how bereft my own Christmases would have been without them.
Each to his own, of course, but take the Church out of my life and so much joy and fun and meaning would be stripped away.
My kids are still too small to have developed the traditional “I don’t want to go to church” protest. It may come in time, as it did in me during my teenage years. Right now, they seem to enjoy the setting of the church, the love and friendship, and the nativity play shenanigans which they immersed themselves in. I’m pleased to say that, under our roof, the much-publicised demise of the Church in western culture has yet to take hold.
Nor am I alone in Scotland in this context. Despite what secularism keeps telling us, quite a healthy cross-section of Scots still see the Church as something worthwhile and meaningful. Recent studies have shown that around 10 to 12 per cent of us still go to church either regularly or occasionally.
The other day, indeed, I noticed that Davie Moyes, the Manchester United manager, remains a typical example. Moyes, who was brought up in a church-going family, keeps his faith pretty private, but he said: “I go to church whenever I get the chance.”
I am surrounded these days by Richard Dawkins-type zealots. You can’t be at a party or stand in a pub without someone at some point telling you how discredited the Church is. In many ways the science argument has overtaken the faith argument as the narrative by which our society orders itself.
In our schools, too, comes the pressure not to “indoctrinate” kids with faith-teachings which many view as inappropriate in 2013 and beyond.
Well, let me tell you this. My oldest wee lad, who is five, has been coming home excitedly in recent weeks, singing Christmas hymns which he has been practising in our local school, and asking me about how and why Jesus was born, and what the wise men and the huge star were all about.
In other words, it has triggered wonderment and searching in him; it has fired his imagination. At night, as our Christmas hymns blare out and I’m opening my bottle of beer, up he’ll pop with another question about the story.
Long may our faith-tradition continue. People say the Church has a lot to answer for, and it surely does. But it is also a great institution.