Peter Rhodes on optimism, Santa and the 20th anniversary of a bright new star in the sky

Read the latest column from Peter Rhodes.

Blazing – the International Space Station
Blazing – the International Space Station

Exactly 20 years ago, in December 2000, millions of us gazed up at the heavens as the International Space Station deployed its immense solar panels and became one of the brightest objects in the sky. This is what I wrote two decades ago. I came across it recently and, in today's lockdown times, was surprised at its optimistic tone. Don't despair - the good times will come again.

December 2000: Binoculars, please. My daughter fetched them. Since her tiniest times she has been the only one who knows where everything is.

Now, let us focus on the southern sky where they told us on the radio that if there is a break in the cloud, and it isn't raining, and if you're very lucky, you might just catch the faintest glimpse of . . .

Hell's teeth! Have you seen it? You don't need binoculars. The International Space Station, 180 miles high and manned by three astronauts, has just spread its first array of gold-leaf solar panels and hangs like a blazing ingot in the sky.

My first thought was, how did they get planning permission for it? I have probably been on local newspapers for too long.

My second thought was as profoundly Christmassy as we born-again atheists can hope for. The space station shines at Christmastide, a golden emblem of a godless, but generally pretty good, sort of world.

These are great times to be alive. We live longer and healthier than ever before. Having avoided a world war for two generations, mankind is doing pretty well. We have never been so rich or so secure and there, up in the sky , is the ultimate image of what money and reason and human will can do. A station in space. Our golden platform to the stars.

Yes, I know there are bad bits in the world. Something needs to be said about the bad bits. I would generally avoid such stuff, were it not for the silly vicar in Northamptonshire who told the kiddies of his parish last week that there is no Father Christmas.

(Actually, kids, there is more evidence for the existence of Santa than there is for God. Someone must be leaving all those presents and eating the mince pies. Right?)

Curiously, the vicar who preaches that Santa is a myth seems to believe in a sky-god who lives in heaven and offers eternal life to all who believe in him. This poses one rather big question: if God created us in His image, why did He give us the option of not believing in Him, and thereby going to hell?

It may have struck you that the best parts of this planet are the bits where they take Santa more seriously than priests, and the worst bits are where they do not. If you want peace on earth, then believe in Santa.

And if you really must have something to worship (and God alone knows why) then gaze in wonder into the southern sky and ponder if the old carol writer was right in a way he never imagined:

For lo! The days are hastening on

By prophet bards foretold

When with the ever circling years

Comes round the age of gold.

The centuries turn and, behold, a new and golden star has risen and the three wise men are on board, and who can guess where it will lead us?

After 2,000 years of superstition, needless guilt and hopeless prayer, maybe we have at last reached the age of gold. All by ourselves.

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