A very atheist Christmas

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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.

Note: this was originally posted in the Washington Post in Dec 2011

Written By: R. Elisabeth Cornwell
continue to source article at

39 COMMENTS

  1. A party or celebration – is a party or a celebration – in this case a mid-winter solstice knees-up and cheer-up one.

    If some people think they have an exclusive or a monopoly on this, that is their delusion – and probably their ignorance of history too!

  2. I completely resonate with this article. Just last year, a Mormon daughter wanted to know why I even celebrate Christmas if I don’t believe in Christ. I had to remind her that I also don’t believe in ghosts and witches, but get a kick out of Halloween; that I don’t believe in Cupid, yet appreciate Valentine Day; that I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, but have fun with treasure hunts for chocolate eggs.

    In point of fact, it doesn’t bother me when communities display nativity scenes on municipal property. Like all the above examples, that story is simply a supernatural myth that has come to be a traditional part of the Saturnalia holiday. I guess I would say: sure, go ahead and put up that story, but let’s have Santa, his elves, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, the Grinch, Frosty the Snowman, Ebenezar Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future all standing around the manger too. Why not? It’s all just fun, holiday fiction.

  3. We still do Chanukah in my house. Culture is a powerful and generally good thing to remember and continue. I enjoy performing some of the actions my great great grandparents did. Besides, in about ten generations, the tradition will probably be the flashlight app in the cellphone stayed lit for 8 days without needing to charge the battery. The more things change the more they stay the same.

  4. What a very balanced and thoughtful article.  You’ve managed to express precisely how I feel about the Christmas Festivities. How much I love to spend two days preparing for one event where all those I love sit around a table and I provide them with sustenance is a properly celebratory sensation.

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

    interesting how questions that should apply to rival religions are aimed at atheists these days. i expect Hannuka only became as big a celebration as it is today because jews got fed up of being asked.

    the extreme you have to go to to wonder why an atheist would celebrate christmas doesn’t apply to anything else within cultural christianity. when asked for our date of birth, do any of us get asked why we use a christian based calendar? yet every day we write the date down somewhere and are basically stating how many days it is since jesus was born.

    the simple answer i think is the honest one. peer pressure. most people in our culture are/were xtians and unless most people get together to change our habbits, our habbits won’t change.

    like the pagans who first started celbrating the solstace, i look at how short the days are getting and long for a break from the dark and cold. when everyone’s getting together to have fun, i join them. that’s just natural.

    christmas is just one more bauble on the historic tree of midwinter celebrations, another old decoration from years back that we don’t throw away for sentimental reasons, but if and when we do, we’ll still be putting the tree up. maybe one day people will ask of those alergic to conifers “what do you do when we all celebrate tree-in-the-living-room-day?”, and of course they’ll likely say they do the same as everyone else, but without the tree

  6. I don’t celebrate Christmas any more, since I’m an atheist. I only join the family dinner when I have too (which means, when I’m not living oversees) but I’d rather not to. My family is very catholic and even though they actually celebrate Christmas for what it is (the birth of Jesus, not a lottery jackpot), I can’t stand the songs and prayers and celebrations any more. I prefer to spend time with them in an other, more neutral context where I’m not the atheist in service.
    When I can’t be with my family, I usually completely ignore Christmas, especially because I’m a waitress and work on that day most of the years. Actually, I ignore every holiday (religious or not) for this very reason ;)

  7. Anne-Lise
      I can’t stand the songs and prayers and
    celebrations any more.

    Many religious songs were tunes stolen from folk-songs etc.  There are authors who have taken some of them back to provided entertainment with parody and spoof versions!

    http://duaneburnett.blogspot.c

    http://www.choralnet.org/view/

    If you google “Parody or Spoof Christmas songs”, you can find more.

    I have a spoof version of the 12 days of Xmas  called the 12 Drinks of Xmas – which I perform in pubs:

    All the gifts are drinks apart from the line, “Five Happy Hours!” (There should be some slurring of the later verses)

    The ironic last verse which I wrote, is as follows:-

    On the 12th day of Xmas, my true-love gave to me,
    12 Alkaseltzers,
    11 Mugs of coffee,
    10 fluffed-up pillows,
    9 cooling towels,
    8 water bottles,
    7 head-ache tablets,
    6 layers of blankets,
    5 DARKENED ROOMS,
    4 Beechams Powders,
    3 cups of fruit juice,
    2 ear-defenders,
    .. .. .. .. . and a wee whiskey and a half pint!

  8. I think that even before I became an atheist I lost interest in general in the holidays save to spend time with family and friends. I pretty much just lump the time between Thanksgiving and New Years as a time to enjoy and reflect my family and friends as much as possible.

    As far as holidays in general go, I only really care about 2 varieties: New Year’s and Birthdays. No one tells you how to celebrate New Years. There are traditions concerning it, but no one forces you to practice any rituals or gets up in arms because you don’t enjoy the day in a specific way. It simply represents the rather plural notion of renewal.

    Birthdays are even more unique and give people the opportunity to make up their own traditions because the birthday person can be free to make those decisions if they choose. Those are days you celebrate the impact of the single life of a person who has meaning and significance to you. Where it is about why they mean something to you and letting them know it in some way.

    All of the traditional national holidays derive from something older and likely pagan. I like spending time with friends and family this time of year but refuse to get caught up in the spectacle of which holidays mean more of the horribly commercial nature of the holidays in general.

    I think Happy Holidays says it all and prefer to leave it that way.

  9. I love this. There are many of us atheists who feel the same way.
    I especially loved the part about music inducing bonding. For a variety of reasons, I truly believe this and I think it is a very important phenomenon that is being overlooked in discussions about why people experience “spiritual” feelings in the first place. In a nutshell, I believe “spiritualism” is an artifact of something that has been very important to our survival – ability to bond. Also, our power to pretend has served our survival very well…put the two together and wala! Religion.
    As for the Christmas songs – I LOVE them too. Over the years I have morphed the meanings of the lyrics to symbolize things I can get behind – like the baby Jesus representing the sacredness of all life.

  10. I must admit I love christmas. As for the nativity, carols and the religious stuff, well its the only time I enjoy it. It is the cultural tradition on which our winter celebration is based and so it is what I’ve grown up with and what I associate with feasts and parties and presents.

    I’d be loathe to give it up just because it isn’t true. If christianity hadn’t happened I guess I’d be just as happy as an atheist celebrating magic tree time or whateve pagan beliefs christianity replaced. After all winter is pretty miserable, we need a holiday and pantomimes to break it up till the sun comes back.

  11. I lived in Muslim countries, namely Bahrain and Brunei for total of 22 years and had great Christmases in all that time with absolutely no problem, celebrated with many Muslim and Christian friends (I’m an atheist). Later I moved to Thailand which is 98% Buddhist and again, have enjoyed Christmas for the last few years. Elizabeth Cornwell is dead right.  

  12. One great question for xtians around this time of year is “so what did Christians do
    to celebrate the birth of Jesus before they discovered European pagan
    rituals?”

    everything that one associates with Christmas, including the nativity, have their roots in
    European paganism. the only thing about paganism is that it isn’t a religion in
    itself, it’s a term used by roman invaders to describe the customs of the
    country people they encountered. for that reason paganism describes culture.
    the culture of Europeans is by nature pagan. the form of Christianity that
    exists in Europe is pagan, from the Celtic types in west Britain whose
    traditions go back to pre-roman Britain, to the Germanic/norse types of the
    roman empire.

    these people developed their customs in a temperate zone, where the marking of seasonal
    changes was an integral part of our cultural identity. Christianity is another
    desert nomad belief system, grafted from an unchanging harsh and dry
    environment to an unknown part of the planet that was already just like the
    description of the garden of Eden filled with people who are attached to their
    land and have no need for a promised land. the desert god is utterly irrelevant
    in north/west Europe and stood no chance, even with the might of the roman
    empire behind it, of being accepted without a makeover and acceptance of our
    traditions in his teachings.

    Monotheism had to give way to polytheism (saints), the holidays had to be calculated with
    druidic traditions like tracking the positions of the sun and the moon such as
    in Easter where even the name of the goddess prevails.

    Religions love to hide their more despicable aspects behind the word “culture”
    when questioned. well they need to include christmas. it’s a cultural holiday
    not a religious one, and indeed any good christian would tell you christmas is
    not even an important date in the christian calendar. Christmas is part of our
    culture, the only aspect of it that I can think of that is uniquely christian,
    is the name. And sorry christians, but us cultural europeans have decided to
    use your name for our celebration, what you gonna do? it’s just an empty word
    that means nothing without our traditions.

    Don’t ask why we celebrate it, just be grateful we let you

  13. Personally I don’t celebrate Christmas, however I do like to celebrate the birth of the man whom I regard as the greatest scientist of all time: Isaac Newton. To this end I bring a tree indoors to represent the apple tree whose falling fruit inspired Newton’s gravitational theory, the baubles represent that fruit of that tree and the star on top, his description of the universe. Newton’s critical experiment proving white light is a jumbled confusion of light of all the colours is celebrated by a dazzling display of coloured lights placed amongst the branches of my tree.

    Oh, and when was Newton born? 
                                                                            25 December 1642.

  14. I’m a huge Christmas fan. I love the lights, the bits of tinsel draped around filing cabinets in the office, love the trees, love choosing presents for people, love wrapping them, love writing cards, love turkey, love Bernard and the Genie, love John Lewis ads, love Slade, love Nat, love the Sally Army Band and love carols. I’m even going to a full on carol concert (admittedly at the Albert Hall with a top notch orchestra and choir but still).

    I assume a lot of it is just firing off whatever neurons generate nostaligia but I don’t much care. For a few weeks I’m able to recapture just a hint of the giddy, can’t get to sleep, excitement from when I was a kid. It’s irrelevent to me which beliefs or traditions the various elements derive from. They’re all part of the history of the season and, crucially, of my childhood experience.   
       

  15. Quite a nice article by Elizabeth, but to my jaundiced taste, far too defensive!  True, I haven’t had to throw off the Christian mantle, as I’ve never had it, but the pure arrogance of the Christians shines through the sort of questions that Elizabeth has had to answer.

    AFAIC Christmas is a midwinter feast at the darkest time of year (northern hemisphere). Just 4 days after the solstice, with just discernible lengthening of the days, what better time to have a feast of family and friends. Wait yet another week and it’s time for the New Years knees up!

    Like a lot of western culture the bloody Christians think that they started it all.  Of course Christians have a strong track record in ignoring history and also ignoring reality!

    Well Mr DArcy will be among his fellow human beings, keeping warm, eating much and drinking much and enjoying himself.  There may even be a moment or two pondering about the universe and how lucky we are to witness it. I feel pity for those of feeble faith, who think Christmas is about baby Jesus.  It ain’t!

  16. The key is to realize there is both cultural and religious Christmas. Cultural Christmas is celebrated all over the world by Christians and non-Christians alike.

    How many of those who think atheists celebrating Christmas is hypocritical are not Irish Catholics but drink green beer on St. Patricks Day. or are not Mexican but still lift a Corona on Cinco de Mayo? 

  17. Yuletide.  I prefer the old Scottish name for the festival period, since there is no English equivalent for the Dutch Kerstfees (Candle Festival).

    Why call it Christ Mass when one doesn’t agree with the notion of Christ and all the wars, torture, blood and gore that the Christian war gods represent?

    Religion is an air castle, built from frothy blood bubbles.

  18. This is all a roaring disgrace. Christmas as we all know was started by the Coca-Cola company to commemorate the birth of Santa Clause in the back of one of those “holidays are coming” trucks. Saying that its about “family” and “unity” is all well and good but if we forget the true meaning of Christmas all will be lost. 

    Personally I think we should all show a little more reverence to Coca-Cola and their delicious new “Coke Zero” addition and stop diluting the spirit of the season.

    Cola be praised!  

  19. “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.”

    Speak for yourself

    My season greeting has become: “Happy statutory time off.”

    I can’t even bring myself to say holiday.

  20. There is actually another aspect to this “christmas celebration” thing. The Puritans and the Reformers wanted nothing to do with it since it was Popish, Roman and Pagan. Even within living memory, in parts of Scotland, Christmas was just a working day like any other. (New Year was the big party!) There are still several, albeit small Christian sects who still do not celebrate Christmas. The Free Presbyterians for instance:

    http://www.heraldscotland.com/

    for instance (there are lots more refs out there)

    When the Free Church of Scotland (which used to be very conservative) started having carol services, it raised a lot of eyebrows and caused a bit of controversy at the time.

    Have a cool Yule

    SG

  21. You have to respect that TexasRanger BELIEVES that they talk. You might not agree that they talk and all the evidence (by watching the tv show) may prove that they don’t talk, but you still have to respect that some people believe that they talk.

  22. It looks like most irreligious people who were raised as Christian or grew up among Christians have a soft spot for the holidays, but, personally, I’d rather not have these celebrations at all. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen people who can barely afford to pay their bills spend their month’s earnings for decorations, presents, dinners and firecrackers. Very impractical. And imagine how much power we waste on December just to light those lanterns. That thought alone puts me off. And I’m due for a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past.

  23. I have always, as an atheist, liked the end of year holiday currently known as Xmas – the celebration stolen from the Pagans as the writer notes. And, I’ve always been very much in-favor of telling children Santa Claus exists, as I feel this can be an excellent way to introduce children to scepticism  – later on when they are old enough for the spell to be broken, they can be told to not always believe everything they are told. People in authority may confidently tell you that the Loch Ness monster, Santa Claus – and God exist – but they do not (to the best of our knowledge).

  24. Nobody misses the removal of the Jesus thing from Christmas. But they’d howl if the ancient pagan and secular was removed, wouldn’t they?

    If ever the Godless and Free wanted a Feast Day, the Solstices are it. Investigation gave the ancients an astronomical calender to know when Solstice was, as well as Equinoxes and just basic time keeping. In a world where farming means eating and living, even hunting needs to be kept to seasons to manage the game, a calender is crucial. I doubt there was any revelation involved, even by ancient astronauts, lol. 

  25. Nobody misses the removal of the Jesus thing from Christmas. But they’d howl if the ancient pagan and secular was removed, wouldn’t they?

    If ever the Godless and Free wanted a Feast Day, the Solstices are it. Investigation gave the ancients an astronomical calender to know when Solstice was, as well as Equinoxes and just basic time keeping. In a world where farming means eating and living, even hunting needs to be kept to seasons to manage the game, a calender is crucial. I doubt there was any revelation involved, even by ancient astronauts, lol. 

  26. Nobody misses the removal of the Jesus thing from Christmas. But they’d howl if the ancient pagan and secular was removed, wouldn’t they?

    If ever the Godless and Free wanted a Feast Day, the Solstices are it. Investigation gave the ancients an astronomical calender to know when Solstice was, as well as Equinoxes and just basic time keeping. In a world where farming means eating and living, even hunting needs to be kept to seasons to manage the game, a calender is crucial. I doubt there was any revelation involved, even by ancient astronauts, lol. 

  27. Nobody misses the removal of the Jesus thing from Christmas. But they’d howl if the ancient pagan and secular was removed, wouldn’t they?

    If ever the Godless and Free wanted a Feast Day, the Solstices are it. Investigation gave the ancients an astronomical calender to know when Solstice was, as well as Equinoxes and just basic time keeping. In a world where farming means eating and living, even hunting needs to be kept to seasons to manage the game, a calender is crucial. I doubt there was any revelation involved, even by ancient astronauts, lol. 

  28. futbol33
    i wish it would offend you to see a nativity scene because

    I watched the pantomime Aladdin at the theatre last week without being offended,  – Why would a Nativity pantomime be any different?

    what you think is of utmost importance to anyone you are a bag of protoplasm and don’t get any inherant value with your worldview. 

    There are no inherent off the shelf “world-views” of any value.  You have to work at building your own, from the evidenced information available – or you end up with a head full of mistaken nonsense, which is simply wrong!

    So you should stop celebrating Christmas, its about your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whether or not you are blind to that fact.

    Wrong!   Xmas is a mid-winter celebration taken from earlier cultures and religions (The Roman Saturnalia and the Viking Yule) 
    Having a mid-winter party has nothing to do with Xmas. 
    Even Xtian scholars think Jesus was not born in the winter.  (Assuming that such a person existed)

    futbol33 – I disagree with your view of the universe simply because it cannot be true. 

    If you have evidence  -present it.  A poorly informed personal view without backing evidence is worthless.

    You believe in the macro evolutiontiomary  micro mutation theory of evolution. We were fish who became philosophers. We came from primordial goo to you.  Because we have science which uses the past to predict the future there is a universality in nature. 

    There are libraries of scientific evidence with thousands of university studies which support that view,- with evolutionary theory being the core elements in the sciences of genetics and biology.

    However militant anthiests believe in no right or wrong because we are bags of protoplasm so why are you even discussing child abuse who cares what one bag of meat does to another bag of meat. 

    This is just nonsense made up by ignorant preachers who are too simple-minded to understand that human moral codes exist independently of their unthinking dogmas.

    What you are doing is mental and psychological abuse on the poor, feeble minded people who have been led astray by your fallable arguments.

    I think you will find that there is a much higher proportion of the highly intelligent and educated among atheists and non-religious people, than among religious fundamentalists.

    I believe there is right and wrong and justice and goodness, but I don’t understand why  everyone who  believes in no God cares. 

    Humanists think of “right and wrong” in terms of effects on people, rather than slavishly and unthinkingly following dogmas copied from  bronze-age tribes!  They also know that they have to set up systems to uphold moral codes and laws, because no god is going to do it for them!
    There is no evidence for any gods, so apart from local cultural indoctrination, there is no reason why anyone believes in dogmas, or in a particular god.  There are thousands of them! – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L

    Why does it matter? Everything happens by chance so who cares what stardust does to other stardust we are just an accident that has no meaning at all.

    Humans are social creatures who do care about others, but religions are not required for this to be expressed.  That is just another myth made-up and put about by preachers trying to advance their own power-base. 
    That is also why the most socially and politically caring nations are the least religious. Meanings are what people choose individually and collectively as objectives.  Rocks, stars, planets, and oceans, have no meanings.  They just exist and work to the laws of science.

  29. The Jesus story of Christmas is no more convincing than the Santa stories. When I had kids of my own, I told my wife that I absolutely didn’t want to tell them lies about such silliness (Jesus & Santa). My wife said ‘no way, you’re not going to rob (?) the kids of the mystique and excitement of Santa’. So after a bit of thought, I relented. Santa was always the reason for Christmas. I relegated the virgin birth story to the back of the line. My wife believed in god, but I did not. Talk about a mixed marriage! I had less problem lying to them about Santa Clause because I knew that they would out the lie by the time they were five. We celebrated, by compromise. I still felt like I sold out. But Santa brought the booty, Jesus brought the annoying music. It worked well enough, I guess. My kids turned into pretty decent, free thinking adults.

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