Wonderful Winterval

I canít help it, but sometimes I just love it when our dear old Church of England awakes from its slumber and gets its cassocks in a twist over something. This time itís Birmingham Council whoíve excited the bishops in a way not seen since the entertainmentís manager at the Coliseum decided to combat falling ticket sales by putting the lions and the Christians on the same bill. All the councillors have done is rename Christmas "Winterval" on grounds of something called "multi-culturalism". The thing is, theyíre right to change the name, but theyíve got the wrong reason.

Everybody knows the story about the carpenter with the pregnant wife who has to go to Bethlehem, canít find a room at the Holiday Inn and beds down in a stable where his wife gives birth to a baby son and . . .Well, you all know the rest, whether you believe it is up to you. The problem is that this tale of deep midwinter and celebrating the birth of the baby on 25 December owes at least as much to ancient spin-doctors as it does to reality. What really happened is far weirder and far more fun because Herodís census was in October, not late December.

Christianity has always been good at obliterating earlier feast days with its own. Even if Easter and Passover usually donít coincide because of a confusion of calendars, the crucifixion happened at Passover and the celebration of the resurrection meant that converting Jews didnít lose out on a major religious feast day. The Harvest Festival is another one, only this time it replaced pagan celebrations of the autumnal equinox. Which brings us to Christmas.

When the early Christians set about converting the tribes of Northern Europe they hit a couple of unexpected problems. Unlike Jews they didnít believe in a single god and unlike Romans, there was no one ruler who could order an entire empire to convert, but a whole load of feuding chieftains, each with his own agenda. In addition, the hangover from Judaism about eating pork wasnít going to go down well in parts of the world where the pig was so popular that theyíd even invented a way of using up the unmentionable bits of entrails by mincing them up, stuffing it all into a pigís intestine and frying it. In fact, in fifth century Germany there were more types of pork sausage than days of the year.

As central to life as the humble porker, was a midwinter blow-out at the winter solstice, so any bunch of religious zealots who came along and said "sorry itís got to stop, but you celebrate the birth of Jesus in October" were likely to end up as target practice. The solution, as suggested by an early Christian PR consultant, was to give Jesus an official birthday like the Queen and make damned sure it was pretty close to the pagan midwinter piss up. Oh, and not worry too much about the eating of pork.

All this was fine when most people were Christians, but with less than ten per cent of the population going to church, this business of Godís sonís official birthday is a bit pointless. So I reckon we should praise Birmingham Council, but forget this stuff about multiculturalism, what Winterval is really about is us pagans getting our midwinter piss up back, even if we have to celebrate it four days late.