I hate Christmas, New Year’s, and holidays in general. What could be sadder than the obligation to be happy on an assigned date? What could be a greater lie? This accumulation of garlands and cheap decorations, the displays of lights in windows, the crass promotion of it all. The perpetual appeal to consume, to binge, to be a part of the bustling crowds in stores. The overflowing of optimism and good feelings on our television screens, along with the sudden increase of pollution, injustice and stupidity, I can’t wait for it all to be over. Bring on the new year, bring on the real world, its struggles, its efforts, and the ordinariness of each day, which always begins again!
It is easy to blame children for some of this. Christmas is their holiday, you say. But that’s just an excuse. Christmas is not the holiday of children. It’s the holiday of retailers, of familial selfishness, of greed, of the child consumer and the childish consumer. It basically represents the opposite of what we need to teach our children.
Just look at Santa Claus, bearded and pot-bellied, entertaining the passersby on the sidewalk. The man who dresses as Santa gets paid to do it. I can excuse him for this – one has to earn a living – but I cannot excuse his employer. In fact, I’m surprised that our churches don’t criticize this. The belief in Santa Claus is worse than heresy, which at least has good faith in itself. Santa is just a superstition for children, a lie for adults, and a generally stupid concept. When my three sons were little, I didn’t have the courage to resist the pressure from society. I pretended, like everyone else. Am I wrong? I don’t know. But what a relief when the truth was revealed; when the boys, very early on, indicated that they didn’t believe in this nonsense!
And what is the opposite of Santa Claus? A child rather than an old man. Poor rather than rich. Hidden rather than exposed. He who has nothing to sell, nothing to give, nothing more than his life and his love. The opposite of Santa Claus is Jesus Christ: the naked infant between the bull and the donkey, the innocent victim between two thieves, the crib and Calvary. These two images, in their extremes, are the most famous of the beautiful nativity story. They demonstrate the essence of this God, who is the weakest of all gods, the most human, and for all that, the most earthshaking.
I don’t believe that Jesus is God or the son of God. He is the Son of man, as they say, begotten and not created, and ultimately born of a woman, just as we all were. It’s in this sense that he is truly our brother. I like that he had a family, that he was loved from the beginning, and because of that, he learned to love. This is the spirit of the Son: the will to be loved precedes the will to love, and renders it possible. In this way the Son is more human than the Father, though fathers are only human because they were first sons.
What does Jesus symbolize? The primacy of love, even when weak, defeated, humbled, and tortured. Easter marks his victory, his omnipotence, his divinity. Christmas marks his weakness, his fragility, his humanity. This is why Christmas has more significance to me. It’s not the victory that I like, it’s the love. Not the power, but the justice. Not divinity, but humanity.
This is why I am an atheist, while remaining faithful – as best as I can – to the spirit of Christ, who represents justice and charity. That is the true spirit of Christmas – the basic opposite of which is the spirit of Santa Claus (if he has a spirit at all), and beyond that it is the spirit of his zealous fans, big and small, who embody selfishness and consumption.
André Comte-Sponville’s new book, “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality,” will be published by Viking on New Year’s Eve.