There’s nothing quite so misunderstood as an atheist on Christmas.
I’ve been an atheist since I was a young child. The strangest thing I can admit to put this into context is that I believed in Santa Claus until I was in 4th grade. I always thought the idea of a cosmic, infinitely powerful selfless human savior was too much for me to swallow, but a fat guy in a red suit who magically brought me presents made perfect sense to me.
Growing up in a Catholic family, I was forced to go to church. My parents would convince my sister and I to sit through Sunday mass with the promise of a trip to our local pizza hangout, Giuseppe’s, as a treat for compliance. While I don’t inherently hate the experience of church nowadays (I find it kind of relaxing), sitting still for an hour and listening to dusty old priests prattle on about Exodus was not my idea of fun.
I used to bring my favorite action figures and a pad of paper to pass the time. I’d kneel backwards on the pew and only arise to take a communion wafer and shake the hands of the most attractive, clean looking people around me during the whole “Peace be with you” section of the procession. It was nothing more than a dutiful commitment for me and I took no spiritual pleasure from the experience.
However, I’m still fascinated by, enchanted with, and have a deep appreciation for the cultural traditions of Christmas.
You may be wondering, what in the hell would an atheist do during the Christmas holidays? This assumption really fails to take into account how many atheists out there like me love everything about Christmas outside of the its religious connotations.
We’re not all real life Grinches on a mission to tear down holiday wreaths, put up offensive signage, debate religious philosophy or ruin anyone’s good times. Most of us grew up in religious households where celebrations like Christmas or Hanukkah were a very real part of our childhoods. I’ll admit, however, that militantly anti-religious people and anonymous online trolls love to get a rise out of people during the holiest of seasons. I am not one of those people and, instead, I quite enjoy the festivities.
I don’t find it hypocritical for an atheist to enjoy an overly religious celebration, as cultural heritage is a huge part of the human experience. Every family has its most revered traditions and they’re passed on from generation to generation. Even without the religious framing, it’s still an important piece of my life.
To be fair, Christmas is only considered a Christian holiday because it was appropriated by the Church in order to assimilate ancient winter pagan celebrations into Christianity.
As far back as Ancient Egyptian mythology, trees have been a sacred symbol of the balance between life and death, connecting the two worlds in a natural balance. The Christmas tree, therefore, is not a wholly Christian object. Its relationship to philosophical and religious thought spanning all cultures is well-documented.
Feasts are also not exclusive to Christian tradition. Events ordinarily celebrated by communities of people centering around a celebration, observance, or aspect of that community and its religion or traditions is often marked with a large, indulgent cornucopia of festive dishes.
Whenever people worship, dance, exalt, or jubilate a deity, an event, or a memorialization, music is a big part of the celebration. While we may all associate “Christmas music” with this particular holiday, there are celebratory musical stylings for all manner of ceremony.
Merriment is not wholly owned by any one culture. It is a deep-seated, intrinsic part of human life.
Like any of my religious friends, Christmas is a time for togetherness with family, friends, and loved ones. It’s a time to show your appreciation toward and gratitude for other people in your life by showering them with gifts that will make them smile. It’s about large, lovingly-prepared dinners and lighthearted conversation. It’s about beautiful arrangements of lights, roaring fireplaces, and spending time together decorating trees and mantles. It’s about watching the looks of sheer joy and excitement on your children’s faces on Christmas morning. It’s a time for charity, brotherhood, family values and giving back when you can. It’s about taking the time to appreciate all the good in your life. It’s more than just religious significance, it’s an overall time for human goodness.
I personally love snowmen, snowflakes, Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Christmas music, sing-a-longs, Charlie Brown Christmas specials, Christmas movies like Home Alone and the original Miracle on 34th Street and everything else associated with the holiday. It’s not a time of year for arguments or anger or resentment. To me, it’s the time of year that I feel most at peace. I’m reminded of my wonderful childhood, my loving parents, and all of the happiness I’ve been afforded in my life.
Whether we’re celebrating in remembrance of Jesus Christ or we’re just happily along for the ride, atheists have a place in the Christmas tradition. Just because I never believed in God doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to revel in the beauty and love associated with family togetherness. When I gave up on beliefs that I didn’t feel were substantiated by reality, I didn’t abandon any semblance of my human virtues.
From the bottom of my heart, I would like to therefore wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Tip-Top Tết, and a solemn and dignified Ramadan. The unlikely triumph of human life and the values of community are things we should all take the time to celebrate.