But for longer than I care to remember I've heard people wish me "Merry Christmas!" or "Happy Christmas!", and I've done the same. I did go through a rebellious phase when I refused to use the word, and would stick to "Compliments of the season!" or some such desperate contrivance. It must have sounded so phoney, especially to those who knew I was studiously avoiding words with a religious significance.
But these days we get people urging us to say "Happy holidays!" and we get perennial stories (many of them in the likes of the Daily Mail, it has to be said) of councils who are "banning Christmas" by calling the season something else, or schools who are refusing to do the Nativity play because it might "offend" kids whose parents follow a different religion.
I looked gorgeous!
However, a Nativity play is just a piece of kiddy kitsch that dramatises a myth. It's part of school life. It's a bit like a pantomime without the laughs, really: it has animals, magic, humanoid creatures with wings and a seemingly happy ending. But no dame! Shame! It ain't nothin' without a dame. Half the kids taking part don't understand the religious significance of it, anyway. The events depicted are still just stories to them.
I played one of the Three Kings in the one my own school put on when I was 15, and had to wear a turban and black up for the part. It took days to get that stuff off my face, arms, hands and lower legs.
But I looked gorgeous. Not only that, Miss Hyam, the adorable and very pretty young domestic-science teacher, was the one applying this stuff to various bits of me – including the lower legs – and I, along with most of the boys, had a crush on her.
Anyway, I digress. Yes, doing the Nativity play could reinforce silly ideas about virgin births in the minds of impressionable youngsters, but, if they're from that kind of family, they'll have that nonsense as part of their worldview already (until they can shake it off, as many do). I just got on with being as camp as Christmas in a gorgeous outfit of lamé and goodness knows what they made the turban out of.
And the black greasepaint.
Which took days to get off.
I know there's been a lot of exaggeration in the tabloids about how this or that council has forbidden this or that, but there are those among us who are so PC that they'll ban – or at best avoid – the use of language that isn't "inclusive" of all the "guest" religions to be found around us, especially in the cities. Or at least language that is so neutral it's as bland as Bernard Matthews assembly-line turkey meat. So "Christmas" might well be out, in favour of "holidays" or "Yuletide" or "midwinter".
But this is pisspottical. It's part of our culture. It just happens that most of the population don't give a tassel of tinsel for its supernatural significance, and just get on with the pagan pleasures and decadent delights. Eat, drink and play merry hell with the relatives.
Certainly, I usually choose Christmas cards that don't have religious significance. I think here we're into a slightly more formalised communication, and a card may well seem to wish the recipient the best of whatever is depicted. The choice of a card could well appear to imply something about the sender, even if such an inference on the part of the recipient just isn't true, and the card came from a mixed box you bought at half price at Tesco just after Christmas last year. So I go for Santas, reindeer, Christmas trees, snow scenes, art, jokes, whatever. No so-called wise men. No babies in straw.
From reading some of the many column inches devoted to this a year or so ago, I gather that many of those who aren't Christian but still bang the drum of religion actually don't mind Christmas. I read of a Muslim who said he even joined in. Not for the religious bits, obviously, but he probably had non-Muslim friends and was happy to share a bit of festive fun (although he probably laid off the hooch and gave the glazed pork a miss).
Would I shy away from wishing a Hindu a happy Diwali or a Thai Buddhist friend a joyful Magha Puja if that person were an acquaintance and I knew he was going to be marking something that was part of his culture? No. I might take issue with (a) the belief system and (b) his wish to see it given any greater status than secularism (if that were the case, and often it isn't), but it would be churlish not to wish him some cheer.
Similarly, I know most people who call Christmas "Christmas" do so because it's convenient. We've called it that for several hundred years. I think of it as a time of welcoming friends and family (occasionally leading to wishing that they'd just go home) and of indulging a little more than usual in the appetising comestibles associated with this time of year (unless you buy everything from a supermarket, then more fool you!)
I, along with the atheist author and clever professor chap Richard Dawkins, don't even mind singing carols, or hearing them on a CD soothingly insinuating their way into the spaces in the house while spicy smells of busy culinary activity emanate from the kitchen. At our house we have such a CD, and on it are pagan songs and Christmas songs from shows, some of which are associated with Christianity. It's naff but it's Christmassy (and nobody sings "Silver Bells" quite like Bing).
When I hum along to "Silent Night" I'm not really thinking of a bunch of shepherds trudging to some stable somewhere to "quake at the sight" of a little sprog "so tender and mild" with "radiant beams" projecting from his "holy face" and asking "yon virgin" if they do good room service here. It's a nice tune. It summons all kinds of memories of childhood. It's evocative. In terms of spiritual connotations, it means no more to me – possibly less – than, say, "Deck the Halls", which is a song of jolliness and the natural (ever)greenery pagans use to signify continuation.
And it has the phrase "Don we now our gay apparel". I just wish I had that black king's costume with me.
But you can keep the greasepaint.