A very atheist Christmas

When people find out I’m an atheist, the question often comes up about what I do during the Christmas holidays. … Continued

When people find out I’m an atheist, the question often comes up about what I do during the Christmas holidays. There is an assumption that atheists don’t ‘do Christmas,’ so they are surprised when I say how much I love it.

Most atheists grew up in religious households, and most of us grew up with celebrating religious holidays. We have childhood memories of Christmas or Hanukkah, family meals, holiday cheer and the quirkiness of our relatives. While we might make noise when religion attempts to break through the wall of the separation of church and state, we are not in the habit of kicking Santa in the shins, tearing down creches, or, like the Grinch, stealing the Christmas stockings from the mantle. I admit I have known atheists who grow quite surly and Scrooge-like at any suggestion of Christmas merriment. But historically most of that sort of opposition to Christmas and its symbols has come not from atheists at all, but from rival religions. Most of the the atheists I know revel in the season as a way of celebrating family and friends, which really is the modern meaning of Christmas.

Some Christians have accused me of being hypocritical for celebrating a Christian holiday. However – and perhaps this is from my background in anthropology – celebrations are a natural part of human culture, and Christians simply appropriated local celebrations to suit their own peculiar beliefs. Christmas is only ‘Christian’ because ancient winter pagan celebrations were incorporated by the Church.

The Christmas tree, which became a part of English and American tradition through German influence is a recent tradition. The English took on the German tradition of the Christmas Tree during the Victorian era under the influence of Prince Albert. Americans, on the other hand, were likely influenced by the Prussians during the American Revolution as well as the many German immigrants who came to the fledgling nation. But evergreens have been part of human celebrations at least as far back as the Egyptians as a symbol of the triumph of life over death. In pre-Christian Britain, the druids placed evergreens outside their door to symbolize the coming of spring. Christians adopted the symbolism so readily that they use palm leaves to celebrate the ‘triumph’ of Christ’s rise from the tomb at Easter, and then use those same palms as ashes to mark the cross on the forehead of Catholics throughout the world to signify the beginning of Lent the following year.

Feasts have been part of human culture since long before we worshipped a monotheistic god. It is a deep-seated part of our social nature, and humans are arguably the most social animals on the planet. Eating together, breaking bread whilst telling stories about ancestors, about hunting, battles, and travels, were part of everyday life for successful tribes throughout human history.

Music too has its role in the universal human experience: singing, drumming, and dancing were part of the celebration – whatever particular gods or goddesses the people worshipped. Long dark winter nights would have lost their gloom with the warmth of a fire and voices raised in song. Worship has nothing to do with our love of music; it is in our genetic heritage – it is an intimate part of our social mind that induces bonding and fellowship.

Celebration is not owned by any one culture and especially not by any one religion. It is part of our humanity.

I was raised in a mainly Christian culture, and my traditions are influenced by a peculiar blend of American, Scottish and German heritage. Some traditions sprang up out of the circumstances of living in Los Angeles – we always had grilled hamburgers on Christmas Eve because it was warm enough and my mother wanted the kitchen to herself to prepare the Christmas feast. Now that my family live in Idaho they still maintain the same tradition, with my father often grilling as the snow falls, a long way from the 80 degree December days of my Southern California childhood. I do wonder if my young niece will carry on the tradition of Christmas Eve burgers (with green chilies) with her family – and what will she say when her children ask how the tradition came about.

Families and friends are what create the celebration of the season, and especially in the US where we come from every corner of the world, where cultures freely mix, and traditions ebb and flow. We can see how celebration is truly a human phenomenon, independent of religion. I feel no sense of hypocrisy because I enjoy the many threads of my familial past. Nor do I shy aware from singing the familiar and much loved Christmas songs that I sang for years in choir or at home. Silent Night still can bring a tear to my eye because it recalls memories of childhood. And my sister, niece and I will suddenly start singing ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ to set sail in a sea of laughter. Why should religious indignation take that from me? Celebration, despite their protests, does not belong solely to the pious.

Christmas is also a time to remember family and friends who are no longer with us. They stay with us in loving memory, and we celebrate how much richer our lives are because they were a part of us, shaping us, and making us better for knowing them. And so we hand down stories to our children of grandparents, aunts, uncles and others who they shall never know, but ought to know about. Such stories were told by our ancestors as far back as language has existed. Embellished with each new story teller – and after all only the best stories survived, so they had to be wonderfully repeatable tales. Thus legends of celebrations grew, of myths and magic, and of wonder. And yes, this too is a part of our cultural heritage for which we should be thankful.

Like many of my Christian friends, I am not overly fond of the commercialization of Christmas. I bristle at seeing decorations any time before Thanksgiving and this year I’ve been particularly annoyed with a car advert that has hijacked one of my favorite secular holiday songs. However, I let all that fall away and think about being with my family and spending time laughing, telling stories, and watching the joy of Christmas shine through the eyes of my niece Quincie.

Christmas belongs to anyone who wants it, and just because I gave up believing in a god doesn’t mean I gave up believing in the love and joy of family. I did not give up the joy of celebration with my abandonment of the absurd. So to my religious and non-religious friends, I wish them all a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah from the heart and I hope they take it with the true spirit with which I give it – that of the spirt of humanity – something we can all celebrate.

Elisabeth Cornwell is executive director of the U.S. branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

  • tony55398

    To each his own, according to his beliefs. Though the Gospel narratives do not all agree, they do teach truth. Mary was so filled with Love she gave birth to it in the person of Jesus, so, may we give birth to Love, in our hearts each and every day of our lives, at least we can agree of the importance of that, in a world that needs a great deal of it in these uncertain times.

  • efavorite

    Great article, Elisabeth – thanks.

    I’ll be at midnight mass at the national cathedral. I’m expecting incredible music, lavish vestments and and the eerie smoke and smell of incense.

  • SimonTemplar

    I enjoyed this well written article. Nice job of describing the warmth of your Christmas celebrations. May your Christmas celebrations with friends and family be as merry as ever this year.

    I can only make one point of disagreement. Specifically, I don’t think the secular celebration is as much a mystery to Christians as you posit at the beginning of your piece. Clearly human beings enjoy, and in fact need, celebrations and have throughout our history. However, so often when I encounter an atheist I detect, in their mood and comments regarding Christianity, a certain disdain. I am sometimes surprised that they actually find enjoyment in this holiday in spite of that disdain. Still, the holiday has been reclaimed by so much that is secular and commercial that I suppose it is much easier now for the non-christian to ignore the Christian perspective on the holiday.

  • thebump

    Methinks the authoress doth protest too much. And her defensive protestations are pretty lame. If the hypocrisy fits, own it.

  • 2012frank

    Four years ago,
    we had booming economy, high national credit rating and strong employment.

    Today, we have no jobs, no cash, and no hope ….

    Ho Ho Ho! Obama Must Go!!!!!

  • WmarkW

    But we didn’t have those things THREE years ago (which was before he took office).
    He didn’t make the financial system collapse.

  • org2

    Lovely article!

    My spouse and I are Buddhists but come from Jewish and Christian childhoods. We celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah with our families.

    We choose compassion and joy over dogma!

  • mistermike

    The story of Jesus is about a rescue mission to save us imperfect people who constantly fall short of God’s calling. Its no wonder there are so many atheists! Much of Christian faith is expressed in words, and we must be careful because these word are just symbols we use to express this faith. When Elisabeth states “…just because I gave up believing in god doesn’t mean I gave up believing in the love and joy of family.” it brings to mind Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John 4:7-8 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” Perhaps in love of family Elisabeth does know God and just objects to the symbols we sinners use.

  • Catken1

    But, see, if you have a raging lung cancer due to years of smoking because your old doctor told you it was harmless, and your new doctor, after three years, hasn’t completely cured it, even if he’s made progress, by GOP logic, your cancer is entirely your new doctor’s fault. Makes complete sense. By GOP logic, anyway.

  • Catken1

    So why don’t you own your hypocrisy in celebrating Christ’s birthday with Pagan decorations and pastimes on the date of the birth of Mithras (what evidence for the date of Jesus’s birth the Gospels do provide suggest a date in spring)?
    Oh, right, celebrating with traditions “borrowed” from other people is a Christian prerogative, and anyone else who does it is a hypocrite.

  • Catken1

    “However, so often when I encounter an atheist I detect, in their mood and comments regarding Christianity, a certain disdain. ”

    Compared to Christian attitudes towards atheists, a “certain disdain” is comparatively moderate behavior, really.

  • NotSalvadorDali

    So does that mean the economic boom under Clinton was Bush Sr.’s doing?

  • SimonTemplar

    Dear Catken1,

    I purposely limited the scope of my comment to my own experience with atheists, giving the rest of the atheists in the world the benefit of the doubt. Your brush appears to be much broader.

    I believe you may have missed my point, which was to offer a possible alternative explanation for why Christians are surprised at the thought of an atheist enjoying Christmas.

    Not to make to fine a point of it, I WAS being somewhat charitable with the words “certain disdain.”

    Templar

  • thebump

    Bless their little atheist hearts, but the fact of the matter is they do smell bad.

  • thebump

    JOY TO THE WORLD !

    The Lord is come !

  • ccnl1

    From the Land of Loading More Comments:

    So after thorough analyses of the NT Christmas passages, what are a few of the conclusions of some of the top contemporary NT scholars?

    Matt 1:18-25: From Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 123-124, “The fathering of Jesus from the Holy Spirit and his birth from the virgin Mary are unhistorical”. Ludemann gives a very detailed analysis to support his conclusions. One part being the lack of attestations to these events and the late time strata of said story.

    “Lüdemann [Jesus], (pp. 261-63) discounts Luke’s account as a legend deriving from Jewish Hellenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the procreation of the Spirit, the authentic sonship of the Messiah and the virginal conception. ”

    Then there are these additional conclusions:

    Bruce Chilton

    “In [Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography] (2000), Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth circu-mstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for the natural pa-ternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus’ life, Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus’ self-ident-ity, his concept of God and his spiritual quest.

    John Dominic Crossan

    “In [Historical Jesus] (p. 371) Crossan treats this cluster, like 007 Of Davids Lineage, as an example of the interplay of prophecy and history in the development of the Jesus traditions.

    “In [Birth of Christianity] (pp. 26-29) Crossan uses Luke’s account of Jesus’ conception and birth to explore ethical issues concerning the public interpretation of the past. He notes the tendency of Christian scholars to disregard “pagan” birth legends while investing great effort in the defence of biblical birth narratives. He concludes:

    I do not accept the divine conception of either Jesus or Augustus as fact

  • Listener2

    Why do atheists and non-Christians feel the need to denigrate Christmas, to make it seem less holy, so that they may take part in it to? If I was a vegeterian, I might fool myself into thinking Thanksgiving’s turkey dinner was not really that bad. I might let myself take part in it. Hey it’s only one day. It’s about family not turkey. I’m just a little bit hypocritical.
    I suggest that atheists and non-Christians who wish to celebrate Christmas do so, and stop justifying why they do it. They want the fun and ritual. Good for them. And while you enjoy the ritual you grew up with, respect why most people celebrate the holiday. Be the Ebenzier of Christmas Day, not the Scoorge of Christmas Eve.

  • NotSalvadorDali

    (I kid of course. President Clinton had two terms and I believe the economy improved even more in his second term. Can we re-elect him?)

  • persiflage

    ‘However, so often when I encounter an atheist I detect, in their mood and comments regarding Christianity, a certain disdain’

    Now try imagining an atheist wanting to celebrate the holidays in the Deep South, where folks are filled with Christian delirium 24/7 -and where the Unitarian Church is the last refuge of social minded folks that want to celebrate their bond with seasonal spirituality and community spirit without being hampered by co-opted Pagan holidays re-cycled as Christianity.

    Odd indeed is the fact that Christmas, an alleged ‘unique’ moment in time, was previously celebrated as the pagan Saturnalia for many centuries, followed by a universally acknowledged pagan holiday aka the New Year on January 1.

    The origins of Father Time can be found in ancient Babylonian astrology by way of ancient Egypt and later Roman mythology – far preceding the more recent Julian calendrical method of measuring time.

    Christmas was not celebrated by the Catholic Church until the 4th century C.E., which happens to coincide with the displacement of the Arian myth by the Trinitarian myth – which of course made Jesus a divine component of the 3-in-1 God.

    One should be careful not to take disdain for disbelief. Given that atheists tend to be generally better educated than the religoius faithful, there may a perfectly good reason for Christmas skepticism. As the article makes clear, plenty of atheists celebrate the holidays as a secular tradition free of religious overtones.

    ‘Bless their little atheist hearts, but the fact of the matter is they do smell bad.’

    If that’s Christianity, then disdain for such a stupid, pompous attitude is hardly a sufficient response, wouldn’t you agree?

  • Slrman

    IT seems to me that it’s the christians with the sour attitude. “If you don’t believe as I do, you have no right to be happy.” And they do seem to resent it when someone is happy and well-adjusted without sharing their particular delusions.

  • ccnl1

    And a Merry Mythmas to one and all !!!!

  • tony55398

    Perhaps atheists can celebrate the instant birth of the universe from nothingness, a miracle of its own self conception, a belief that makes a Christian’s belief in a God seem much more plausible, at least my God, who is all Love. This world is a test of sorts of who will inherit eternal Life, each person will win his reward according to his life’s own choosing, hatred or Love, each person can choose either and each will win the reward that it brings.

  • Catken1

    Because postulating something even larger and more complex than the universe, which has Always Been There through Magic. is very much more plausible.
    And of course, only those who belong to your religion are ever capable of love or loving behavior, so they are entitled to feel lovingly smug while those whose only crime is believing something else (or being born to parents who believe something else, and not questioning what they were taught as children) burn forever in eternal agony at the loving hands of their loving father. Yeah.

  • Catken1

    Why do Christians feel the need to denigrate sacred Pagan traditions, to make them seem Christian, so that they may take part in them too? Everything from the holly and the mistletoe to the reborn, dying and resurrected God in the arms of his Mother were Pagan concepts before they were Christian. Are you hypocritical because you use other people’s traditions to celebrate the central deity of your own religion, without showing any respect whatsoever for those people who still follow the ancient reason for the season?

    And speaking as a vegetarian who DOES participate in her family’s turkey dinner (eating the abundant sides, partaking in the conversation and company, and not eating the turkey but not criticizing my relatives for choosing to eat it), I don’t see the hypocrisy. Everyone celebrates as they see fit. Everyone finds the meaning they find in the holiday. (And if you find Thanksgiving’s meaning entirely in the turkey…well, maybe you ought not to criticize others for being shallow).

    And why do you feel disrespected because other people celebrate the holiday for other reasons? Who’s stopping you from celebrating as you choose? I see Nativity scenes everywhere, churches on every block offering abundant services to choose from, sacred carols played even on shopping mall Muzak systems, etc., etc., etc. Why can’t you enjoy your holiday, and your religion, without pouting because other people don’t choose to participate in the exact way you do, and calling them “Scrooges” because they don’t worship as you do?

  • Catken1

    “ot to make to fine a point of it, I WAS being somewhat charitable with the words “certain disdain.” ”

    Far too often, I see Christians making the following two points.

    1. Atheists will, and deserve to, burn alive in infinite, unimaginable agony for believing the wrong thing, and my response to their horrific pain and eternal cries will be to praise and celebrate the father who tortures my siblings forever and ever as all-good and all-loving.

    2. Atheists have the gall to CRITICIZE us! How DARE they? They’re AWFUL people for being so mean as to disagree with us publicly!

    The irony is clear.

  • tony55398

    You have it wrong, even if you don’t believe in God and live the good life, you will receive the reward that you live, REALLY, I am not saying that you have to believe in God, no you do not, but you do have to Love, to treat others well. Isn’t that what you would want anyway, whatever your belief?

  • Catken1

    Of course. That’s what any sane human culture would demand. Why does it need God?

  • JUSTACOMMENT

    The new doctor stopped the cancer but after radiation and chemo therapies the patient lost the hair and is feeling awfully weak. All fault of the new doctor in the parallel world of the irrational thinkers.

  • Canyongirly

    Thank you! I feel the same way. Well done.

  • tony55398

    That’s right, that’s why doing evil is insanity, madness, witness Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, and so many others. However, whatever you choose to believe, I believe that God exists, in fact I’ll go one further, I know.

  • persiflage

    ‘However, whatever you choose to believe, I believe that God exists, in fact I’ll go one further, I know.’

    How do you know, Tony? You’re convinced, but can you convince anyone else? Converting an atheist to your theist point of view would give much credence to your claims of knowing God.

    As far as reaping what you sow, that sounds like an axiom far more ancient than Christianity – the Hindus and Buddhists call it karma.

    Knowing involves a far higher standard of experience than believing.

  • ThomasBaum

    tony55398 wrote:

    By what you wrote, you seem to think/believe that one “earns” their “reward”, is this what you think/believe?

    Which do you believe, that Jesus died in vain or that Jesus died for nothing at all, since you seem to believe that one “earns” their reward?

    Do you think/believe that God became One of us to merely be a messenger and tell us how to “earn” a reward or do you think/believe that there was something more to it than that?

    If God’s Plan is not, ultimately, for ALL than it is not worth didly.

    “When I am lifted up, I will draw EVERYONE to Myself”.

    No one “earns” their “reward”, God died for ALL so that ALL who die may live.

    If the GOOD NEWS is not for all, then it is not Good News at all.

  • ThomasBaum

    tony55398

    By what you wrote, you seem to think/believe that one “earns” their “reward”, is this what you think/believe?

    Which do you believe, that Jesus died in vain or that Jesus died for nothing at all, since you seem to believe that one “earns” their reward?

    Do you think/believe that God became One of us to merely be a messenger and tell us how to “earn” a reward or do you think/believe that there was something more to it than that?

    If God’s Plan is not, ultimately, for ALL than it is not worth didly.

    “When I am lifted up, I will draw EVERYONE to Myself”.

    No one “earns” their “reward”, God died for ALL so that ALL who die may live.

    If the GOOD NEWS is not for all, then it is not Good News at all.

  • ThomasBaum

    tony55398

    By what you wrote, you seem to think/believe that one “earns” their “reward”, is this what you think/believe?

    Which do you believe, that Jesus died in vain or that Jesus died for nothing at all, since you seem to believe that one “earns” their reward?

    Do you think/believe that God became One of us to merely be a messenger and tell us how to “earn” a reward or do you think/believe that there was something more to it than that?

    If God’s Plan is not, ultimately, for ALL than it is not worth didly.

    “When I am lifted up, I will draw EVERYONE to Myself”.

    No one “earns” their “reward”, God died for ALL so that ALL may live.

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