(Hey readers! I’ll probably be linking back to this 2009 post in years to come, so I hope it’s a worthwhile read, if only to explain the seasonal logo I use. It draws a lot on one of my previous posts, An Atheist Who Loves Gospel Music, and also this post by Greg Laden and this radio interview with Richard Dawkins. For my other posts about Christmas, click here. I’ve also included this wonderful song by Tim Minchin to help set the tone of this post and add to its meaning. I recommend listening to it before or as you read. Enjoy and Happy Holidays!)
I can’t help the fact that I was raised by a Christian family in a Christian home. What I can help is what I believe (or in my case, what I don’t). And even though I don’t care at all about virgin births or any other such nonsense, there is a lot of culture around the holiday season that I can and do appreciate. In fact, I love Xmastime.
Despite my fervent atheism, I am in many ways still a cultural Christian and enjoy celebrating many traditions related to the holidays. I love decorating a “Christmas tree,” though I don’t like to put an angel on top and I now always recall that the tree was a pagan symbol that had nothing to do with Christianity before a few hundred years ago. The same goes for the cute little tradition of mistletoe, though swine flu paranoia might interrupt that tradition a bit this year. I enjoy the myth of Santa Claus, because unlike God, Santa Claus is a character that nobody past puberty actually believes in, but who we celebrate as a fun sort of prank on our young ones. Santa also conveys an attitude of jolliness and goodwill which I think anybody can appreciate. All of these ideas, including others I’ll discuss below, are all cultural traditions. They are German American more than anything, and there are many more, like the Italians’ La Befana, for example. (It’s not so dissimilar from the way some atheists still identify as Jewish because of the cultural connections.)
Personally, I enjoy carols very much too. There is plenty of of holiday music to appreciate without having to tolerate a lick of Christianity (minus references to “Christmas,” of course). I can sing about Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, or a disastrous sleigh ride (I wonder if he ever got another date with Miss Fanny Bright?) with the same imaginative spirit as I would sing about any other fictional story. I need very little imagination to appreciate tunes like Let it Snow, Winter Wonderland, or The Christmas Song, though it’s hard not to be stimulated. I don’t know what chestnuts roasting smells like, but I can’t hear the lyric without feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. The sensory experience of the coming of winter is as sentimental as the other traditions. It’s probably why Christmas was set at the winter solstice. (You folks in temperate zones are missing out, but I know you think otherwise.)
As for songs about angels, mangers, and shepherds, I appreciate them in the same way I appreciate most religious music. I think the story is just as fictional as Santa or The Grinch, but I know it has a different connotation for others. Much in the same way I enjoy gospel music, I appreciate the musical beauty and conviction of the true Christmas carols. I find the chorus of Angels We Have Heard On High (Glooooooooooooooria…) quite rousing, and I don’t think anything is as powerful or stirring as a committed performance of O Holy Night. I can sing these songs the same way I can sing Handel’s Messiah or a Mozart Mass; I don’t feel like I’m participating in a religious ceremony or committing my own belief. I am sharing in an art form that just happens to have been motivated by (or paid for by) religious beliefs and believers.
I think the holiday season evokes a particular kind of emotional closeness that much of the music echoes. It’s a “special time of the year.” Thanks to Christian imperialism in America, it no longer matters why any person believes it should be a special time of the year. The commercialization of the month of December and the closing of schools and businesses at the end of the month signal that this is a time dedicated for everyone to be with their loved ones. I can watch Love, Actually year after year (and I do) and still tear up every time (and I do) because it channels the intimacy of the holiday season. It’s a time to set aside our studies and our careers and focus on the personal aspects of our lives that truly matter so much. While I’m not happy about how we got here, I certainly don’t think there’s anything more humanistic than this holiday sentiment.
The trick is to not force traditional religious Christianity upon anybody. I think the AFA and their bratty goal to infiltrate the culture with strict references to Christmas as a religious holiday is petty and blatantly exclusive (read other posts about the “War on Christmas” here) . I think public displays related to the holidays have to be very careful. The town I call home is in a rural, conservative Christian area, and I am constantly dismayed to see creches, lighted angels, and other religious symbols displayed on government property. I think this is totally inappropriate.
Similarly, I have the most respect for organizations and corporations that respect the fact there are other celebrations out there, including Hanukkah, Solstice, and Kwanzaa, among others. (I never get tired of seeing that one Gap ad… go whatever holiday you wanukkah!) I, myself, am trying to be particular about using “Xmas” to describe the culture of the holiday season and not confuse it with the religious nature of “Christmas.” I certainly prefer “Season’s Greetings” over the presumptuous “Merry Christmas.”
The bottom line, I think, is that it is quite possible to enjoy much about the holiday season without a single religious belief. I am an atheist and believe none of the nativity story (except I suppose for the fact that Jesus was, in fact, born at some point—not December 25, though). Despite being totally fictional (and unoriginal), it’s still a lovely story I can appreciate. More importantly, what the month of December has become is truly a cultural tradition that I think is hard to avoid if you live in the United States. I think there are many healthy ways to participate and enjoy these many seasonal activities without believing in anything religious and without enabling the Christian imperialism that got us here.
I hope you enjoy my holiday blog logo and understand why I included the symbols that I did. I’m sure this won’t be my last post related to the holiday season, but I wanted to offer a definitive perspective on Xmas from an atheist, who will, in fact, be celebrating the holidays.
Happy holidays to all of you from ZackFord Blogs!!