VERY year I set a wee competition. When will I first see Christmas in the shops? This year, an Inverurie grocer won. Christmas crackers in July, though probably last year's stock.
For me, the real start to Christmas is Advent, the time of waiting for Jesus's birth. The best Advent service I ever attended took the Guinness advert "Good things come to those who wait", and not a biblical text. Being a Guinness drinker, I was impressed. Of course, being a good Presbyterian, I don't like Guinness; I just drink it because it's good for me.
The theme was that, despite the increasingly impatient nature of society, waiting is not time wasted but time to prepare, to reflect, to step back and drink in the complexity of existence. Advent is not the countdown to Santa, but time out to see the world as it really is and, for Christians, how in Christ it might be - vulnerable, full of hope and new life, full of potential for peace.
One of the things that I miss about not being a parish minister is the build-up to Christmas. Like many others, the schools that I was chaplain to had great traditions of music and drama, much of which I would use in the Christmas services. I did that for two reasons. First, there's nothing like drama and music to bring alive the wonder of the Christmas story, although I avoided as much as I could the tea towel on the head nativity scene experience. The schools took a much more contemporary view and I encouraged that. One year the high school looked at the issues of teenage relationships and pregnancy, which was a powerful perspective.
Second, by enabling the young people to lead with material they had developed, their engagement with the experience as a form of worship was far more meaningful.
My objective was not to fill the pews of my church; that would have been dishonest. But to understand any faith community we need to engage at some level in the worship life, whatever our perspective. One of the best examples I saw was a primary school service with a Sikh Herod, turban et al.
To understand the world, we need to understand the nature and meaning of belief and faith. And that means finding ways of engaging not just with Christian traditions but in the worship experi-ences of all the faiths in society and the experiences of those with no religious faith. That means more than just attending worship; it means participation. But that also has real dangers. And any feeling of being compulsory means it loses the essence of the worship moment.
This is the tension that the present consultation on religious observance faces. Worship is what separates belief from ideology and shapes so much of the world. How do we explore that experience in a way that makes the observation active and yet not place young people in difficult situations?
The consultation paper offers "opportunities for the community to reflect, with help, upon values, beliefs, commitments and hopes which are implicit in being human" and for "opportunities for the community to have space, stillness and time to respond to this reflection". The proposals don't suggest re-creating each faith's worship life but drawing on the many insights about the human condition of religious communities and others to create these reflective opportunities.
For me, they need two further elements. First, these opportunities need to be regular and distinctive, built into the rhythm of the school year, both "whole school" and small group and seen as important parts of the whole education experience - not necessarily weekly, or even monthly, just with regularity and status.
Second, there needs to be a space set aside in schools for quiet reflection. This need not be a chapel or sanctuary that can't also be used for other activities, but a room whose primary design should be to set the atmosphere for time for reflection. It does not mean that the consultation paper's idea of "whole school" gatherings would not be possible, but it would embed the need and opportunity for reflection into the infrastructure of the school community, making a powerful statement about the importance of this task. And it would make the task itself much easier to deliver.
It might only be initially achievable in new schools, but it is worth aiming for. We'll just actively have to wait and see.
Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.