Can the church still enchant us at Christmas time?

The magic of Christmas, after all, lies mostly in repetition, re-enactment. We look for ways to make this time of year special - sacred - to hallow it. We seek enchantment, or re-enchantment. Can church deliver?

There are some things that only make sense at this time of year, in this brief schmaltzy window. Listening to Mariah Carey on repeat. Watching the most slenderly plotted films known to humankind. Bedecking our homes in ever more frenetic lights, bells, and whistles. Eating ourselves into a collective food coma.

They’re behaviours that can get you a lot of side-eye any other time of year. (In some neighbourhoods, you get in trouble for decorating too early).

What about going to church? In a year when the census results have confirmed a further decline in religious affiliation – 43.9 per cent Christian, 38.9 per cent no religion – we might expect Australians to be less likely than ever to darken the door of a church at Christmas (and/or Easter).

Certainly plenty of those who tick one of those Christian boxes don’t go to church regularly – only 22 per cent of Australians say they attend religious services at least monthly.
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s young people who buck this trend – 32 per cent of 18-to-34-year-olds attend a service at least once a month. The 50-to-64-year-olds are the least likely to attend, with only 11 per cent saying they go monthly.

The 2021 Australian Community Survey suggested that around 30 per cent of Australians would probably go to a Christmas church service – if they were invited by a family member or friend.
What brings people along who normally wouldn’t be interested? What can draw us out of the merry stream of (literal and figurative) consumption for this one hour of the festive season?
Family tradition, perhaps (or family pressure.) The magic of Christmas, after all, lies mostly in repetition, re-enactment. We look for ways to make this time of year special – sacred – to hallow it. We seek enchantment, or re-enchantment. Can church deliver?

Maybe, maybe not. Your experience is likely to vary quite a bit by denomination and locale – not to mention how much is in the eye of the attender. But here are some things that church is likely to deliver, should you choose to attend this Christmas, in the Year of Our Lord 2022, aka “COVID Year 3”.

Carols. Church is (alas) one of the few places where it’s still normal for grown-ups to collectively burst into song. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. Light and life to all he bri-ings, risen with healing in his wings. These old tunes sound down the arches of the years for a reason.

A sermon. The American writer Marilynne Robinson says she goes to church “in hopes of hearing something that acknowledges this deep old human intuition, this sense of the sacred. Often I don’t hear any such thing, but sometimes, more remarkably, I do.” A preacher of some kind will stand and speak to you about a baby laid in a manger long ago. If they do it well, you will find they are also speaking to you about your heart and what you long for, and about the heart of God. They will offer you a moment of pause and reflection on the year that’s been, and what’s to come. That can be a rare gift.

Rough edges. Some churches are slicker than others, but Carols by Candlelight your local church probably ain’t. There’ll be typos and awkward moments and the occasional wrong note. For those who come every week, this is family: it’s cringeworthy, and it’s precious.
Welcome. Maybe some places get tetchy about the crowds who only turn up once a year for the feelgood Christmas vibes. You know what? Go somewhere else. The Christmas story is about God going waaaay out of his way to welcome the least churchy types. Any church worth their salt will be glad you’re there. They’ll also tell you you’re welcome back any week, and they’ll mean it.

Mystery. Some churches put on nativity plays, some with actual camels and donkeys. Some have midnight services with candles and champagne and mince pies. The details differ, but I wonder if the reason a lot of people come to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day who wouldn’t normally is because it’s the place where Christmas is serious.

Even for those who adore the trappings of the season, there’s often a lurking sense, in the shopping centres and at the Christmas parties, that sentimentality and false cheer is trying (and ultimately failing) to paper over grief, worry, weariness. The Christmas story takes both the darkness and the joy as really real: the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

This Christmas, there’s a moderate-to-fair chance that church will offer you respite, beauty, and something to celebrate. Be enchanted.

Natasha Moore is a senior research fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from Cambridge and is the author of The Pleasures of Pessimism.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.