Fiona Ness: Religion has no place in our home - but no baby Jesus at Christmas is going too far
'What's the point of having Christmas without the baby Jesus?"
You'd think I'd have the answer ready for the seven-year-old. After all, hadn't I been vehement, back when she was a zygote, that she would not be brought up in any religious faith? That she would not be fed the Christian doctrine her parents had imbibed as children; a doctrine we now considered to be false?
We reasoned that she could grow up to be a kind, good and humble human being without the teachings of the Church. That she could find meaning in her life without believing everything she did counted towards living out the afterlife with Our Lord in Heaven. And that if, at the end of everything, there was a good, kind and all-merciful God, we reasoned that he wouldn't have her fry in Hell simply because her parents hadn't gotten her baptised (despite my mother's insider knowledge to the contrary).
Back then, I'd actually mooted the idea that, if we weren't doing Jesus with the children, we shouldn't do Santa Claus either. But despite our high-minded ideals, no one actually had the stomach for that.
Looking back, things up till now had been too easy. Explaining to the children about the facts of life, marriage equality and Donald Trump had passed without a hitch. But Christmas without Jesus? The problems were multiple.
I mumble something about "having to think about that one", and feel the pang of something missing and lost.
The seven-year-old looks up at me with my father's eyes. "I mean, I don't even know what a manger looks like," she says.
So then I say it, the dreadful thing. I say the point of Christmas without the baby Jesus is that there was no Son of Man born in a manger on December 25 in the first place. I say that December 25 was chosen by the Church to coincide with a far more ancient celebration of the earth. And that, essentially, is what we are celebrating when we celebrate Christmas.
"Well you're WRONG. He WAS born on Christmas day," pipes up the six-year-old, an ardent God supporter. Proof that religion flourishes in the face of adversity.
The next day, the homework comes back from school. Her copy book includes the sentence: "Jesus wasn't born at Christmas, despite what everybody says."
'Despite' is a big word. The teacher has given it a tick.
We go back to preparing for our family Christmas. A Christmas that is quite clearly about nice trips, presents and family time and chocolate, with a smattering of thinking of those less fortunate than ourselves, on the side. I resolve to start reading them 'A Christmas Carol' at bedtime.
But all the time it's gnawing away at me, the thought that in avoiding religious instruction in our home, I have perpetrated a crime of omission. All that money spent ensuring they don't miss out on everything from ballet to basketball, when they have been missing out on something more vital - and free.
Truth be told, I have been hankering after an audience with the baby in the manger myself. Because despite the fact that science, logic and genocidal wars poke holes in the possibility of the existence of God, it's hard to shift, isn't it? The beauty, expectation and wonder of the child in the manger remains.
I resolve to smuggle all three children into the church before Christmas, for the full-on crib experience.
I underline to them that this will be a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated experience. That even though the church around Christmas and Mass on Christmas day is really special, I'm not one of those people who only uses religion for the good stuff.
"Jesus does not want us as fair-weather friends," I say, to their great confusion.
So we go, and we sit.
The initial chatter about the donkey and the straw and the Three Wise Men subsides. They start to squirm in the pew but I'm not for moving.
"This," I say in a whisper, "is what Christmas is all about. It's about…waiting."
I tell them that 'Christmas' is actually just one day at the end of a much more exciting and useful time called 'Advent'. Advent has wonder and expectation and preparation for something you haven't quite figured out yet. In Advent, I say, "we learn to wait".
"I want to go home," says the three-year-old who, despite having moved with us all to a new house three weeks ago, is in denial about the existence of our new abode.
Since the move, it's been a mnemonic we've adopted. He says he wants to go home, I tell him we are home.
"Okay," I say, suddenly weary of it all. "Then I'll bring you home."
"No, mummy," he says. "We are home. We are home."