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.