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“Keep Christ in Christmas!” is the familiar refrain of Christians who fear the secularization of the holy day celebrating the birth of Jesus, their savior.
But in America, non-Christians often celebrate Christmas.
According to a recent poll by the Christian group LifeWay Research, “A majority of agnostics or those claiming no preference (89 percent), individuals claiming other religions (62 percent), and even atheists (55 percent) celebrate Christmas along with 97 percent of Christians.”
Do you need to be Christian to celebrate Christmas? What is Christmas all about?
Way back in 1984, this Catholic-turned-atheist stopped celebrating Christmas because it was no longer the birthday of anyone I knew. Ever since, I’ve put in a full day’s work whenever Christmas fell during the work week (this year, it doesn’t). So I’m intensely conscious of how many of my fellow atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and freethinkers keep the Christian holiday in some form. So do many devout Americans who belong to non-Christian religious traditions. I think they’re all shooting themselves in the foot. Despite its many pre- and post-Christian components, Christmas is an inherently Christian festival. It ought to be recognized as such, meaning that non-Christians should steer clear of it, and that Christians who try to paint Christmas a “universal” holiday should get called out for their cultural imperialism.
Yes, I know that most of what goes on in the churches at holiday time is really of pagan origin, and much that’s accreted onto the holiday since the time of Dickens is largely post-Christian. (See my 1993 book, The Trouble with Christmas, which if it were still in print would make an ideal holiday gift, nudge nudge). Still, the holiday as a whole has a relentlessly Christian aura. And it has centuries of experience in assimilating and thereby Christianizing practices from other traditions.
The conflict between the holiday’s sacred and profane sides is itself our oldest Christian tradition: we know it as the clash between commercialism and reverence, while the third-century church father Origen knew it as the clash between Christianity and paganism. (In Origen’s case, he objected to the idea of Christmas as a birthday celebration. Early Christians marked the date when one died as a Christian and, presumably, went to heaven; the notion of observing any birthday, even Jesus’, was an import from paganism, specifically Mithraism. For whatever it’s worth, Origen was right.)
Indeed, the fuzzy idea that Christmas is somehow universal is one of the most effective tools Christian conservatives have found for concealing the fact that Christianity is actually losing influence in our culture. From Jews who put up a “Hanukkah bush,” to humanists who observe the Winter Solstice, to Zen Buddhists who pick December 25 to exchange gaily wrapped presents, non-Christians who publicly indulge in any “me-too” sort of observance this time of year commit what I regard as a profound strategic error. For one thing, they make themselves disappear: However unintentionally, they contribute to the myth beloved of rightists that “everyone’s a virtual Christian at Christmas time,” inadvertently normalizing acts of Christian cultural hegemony that would otherwise be seen as outrageous.
For non-Christians to “coat-tail” the Christians’ birthday festival also flies in the face of everything we’ve learned since the mid-twentieth century about how minorities ascend the ladder of social acceptance. It’s not by assimilating, or conforming themselves to the WASPish norm, that outgroups improve their situation. Rather it’s by being proud about their differences and gradually compelling mainstream society to redefine “normal” in a way that includes them. We for whom Christmas is an alien festival should make no bones about that fact.
It’s no more “normal” for non-Christians to celebrate Christmas than it is for non-Muslims to observe Ramadan or non-Hindus to keep Diwali. Devout or otherwise, I think all non-Christians should take advantage of this annual opportunity to heighten our visibility by opting out of the Christians’ birthday celebration more openly.
By the way, happy just another day!