First Point – There is no rule
The one and only common factor amongst Atheists is that they agree that there is no god, but beyond that there need not be any consensus at all on anything else, and that is fine. Some, very few, are very hostile to the entire concept and make a point of treating Christmas day like any other day, for example Tom Flynn, and if that is what floats his boat then best of luck to him with that (and I’m not being sarcastic). Others, such as myself, and this is the vast majority, are quite happy to join in and have a bit of fun, so I can happily put up a tree decorated with lights and other trimmings and buy gifts.
Second Point – It is not really Christian at all, we just pretend it is
Here is a list that contains rather a lot of familiar things, and none of these, not one, are in any way “Christian” …
- Santa Claus, elves, flying reindeer, etc …
- Christmas Trees and decorating them, tinsel, crackers, etc…
- Giving of presents
- The 25th of December being a special date
- Holly and Ivy, oh and let’s not forget mistletoe
- Family meals and sitting down together
The above need not define any boundary, for example I can also personally enjoy carols. Actually believing is not a mandatory to liking either the music or the atmosphere, and if that is a tricky concept to grasp, then think of all the other things that you enjoy and like, but don’t actually believe is real.
Third Point – What we have now is a Victorian Invention
The celebration of Christmas as we now experience it is very much an invention of the victorian era, and historically it was Easter that had far more significance to Christians. Much may in fact have been prompted by Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol in which he constructs Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity. To quote from the Wikipedia page on that story …
Dickens’ Carol was one of the greatest influences in rejuvenating the old Christmas traditions of England, but, while it brings to the reader images of light, joy, warmth and life, it also brings strong and unforgettable images of darkness, despair, coldness, sadness, and death
So the claim that there is an atheist war on Christmas is to claim that there is a war on what is essentially a Victorian winter festival that has now been fully commercialised, and has almost nothing at all to do with fundamental Christian beliefs.
Fourth Point – It has Roman Origins and is perhaps even older
If you do indeed wish to consider the combination of People exchanging gifts, attending a religious ritual, then later indulging in feasting and drinking, and also decorating their houses with green plants such as mistletoe, and doing all this to commemorate the birth of a god, then it may perhaps come as a surprise to learn that the name of this god was once Mithra, because this is the festival of Saturnalia. In other words, much of what we do is not only a victorian re-invention, but is also a re-purposed Roman festival under a different badge.
Humans have been doing something like this for a very very long time. Scattered across the landscape are some truly ancient monuments whose function and utilisation have been long forgotten, and yet also contain hints of that history.
There is Stonehenge, a place where the monument dates back to 3100 BC, and where there is also Archaeological evidence of activity on the same site as far back as 9000 years ago. The effort and resources to build such a structure over time would have been immense, the massive bluestones were not local, they were sourced many hundreds of miles away in Wales and would have at that time been an astonishing bit of civil engineering to have carried out. We have no idea how they built it, and we also do not actually know what they believed or what rituals they followed, but what we can clearly observe is that the Great Trilithon was erected outwards from the centre of the monument, and so we can see that its smooth flat face has been turned towards the midwinter Sun.
Interestingly enough this is an almost universal thing within our species and transcends cultures and geography. For example, the Incas celebrated “the Festival of the Sun where the god of the Sun, Wiracocha, is honored, but that happens in June and not December. That is of course because they are on the other side of the equator, and so that is when the winter solstice happens there.
Clearly the winter solstice has always been a very important event, and that is indeed perhaps understandable because knowing exactly when that happens helped them to survive. If you get it wrong and plant your crops at the wrong time, then you don’t survive.
So What do Non-believers do at Christmas?
The Guardian asked a few famous names, and this is how they replied (I’m going with brief extracts so that you get the idea, they all said a lot more) …
Richard Dawkins, biologist and writer
Unlike many a false caricature of an atheist, I have no problem with Christmas and no desire to rain on the Christian parade. I enjoy Christmas carols, especially when sung by a great choir like that of New College, Oxford, or King’s College, Cambridge. But only real carols about Jesus, NOT fake carols about Santa or reindeer or the loathsome “Jingle Bells”.
I am faintly amused by the reflection that, even if Jesus existed (which is controversial among scholars) no scholar takes seriously the legend that he was born of a virgin in Bethlehem. That was entirely invented to fulfil misunderstood Old Testament prophecies.
Philip Pullman, author
What sort of miserable po-faced self-righteous prig would refuse to celebrate Christmas on the grounds that they didn’t believe in God?
Robin Ince, comedian
I am not sure whether it could be elevated to “celebrate”, but in terms of eating too much and presents for the children near a fir tree, yes, that all happens. For whatever reason, be they religious or secular, approaching the end of a year seems a good time to pause. I like necessary peacefulness, a few days without pointless urban pressures.
Dan Snow, TV presenter
As humans have been celebrating the mid winter since pre-history. Long before Christianity we were decorating trees, eating, drinking, singing, gift giving. Christians nicked and rebranded midwinter, now we’re taking it back. I do what everyone else does, eat, drink, give and receive gifts and make merry.
Atheists can enjoy Christmas. Just as Christians co-opted pagan festivals and gods to make their feast days and saints.
A C Grayling, philosopher
In my grumpy moods, Christmas means an over-long, over-eating, enforcedly social week of interruption to the business of life; in my more laid-back moments it means a way of lightening the darkest days of Winter, the solstice, festival of Jupiter, pagan celebrations of the fat time of year for our ancestors (the salted pork and harvest stores were in, there was little work to do in the fields, it was a time of stories and leisure.) That seems ok. I like giving gifts to my children.
Peter Tatchell, campaigner
it’s just a holiday period; a chance to have good meals with friends, watch films on TV and start preparing my next human rights campaign.
Jim Al-Khalili, physicist and broadcaster
Coffee is my first thing, then present opening (more restrained now that my two children are in their early twenties.) Then it’s my job to make the bacon rolls we always have, leisurely shave and shower. Then late morning is when friends come round. My wife and I sort out Christmas dinner (usually we have chicken in cider and tarragon – for some reason it’s our favourite and it’s now a tradition in the Al-Khalili household). Afternoon is usually a bracing walk along the seafront – we live in Southsea on the south coast of England. Then it’s some rubbish on TV and I usually get my laptop out. Lots of snacking and drinking going on into the evening, My brother and his family usually come round.
Baroness Janet Whitaker, Labour politician
I must admit to enjoying singing carols.
Julian Baggini, philosopher
It is as a matter of simple empirical fact a cultural holiday first now and a religious one only secondly. It is no more strange for atheists to celebrate it than for the majority of Britons, who are not strongly Christian but agnostic or vaguely spiritual.
Baroness Doreen Massey, Labour peer
Christmas is the one time of the year when most people I know are not working so it is a good time to get together with family and friends.
The above gives you a brief glimpse into the lives of many non-believers, and illustrates that this time of year is not in any way exclusive to a specific belief, but is in so many ways universal to our species.
If curious, the above is only a very small extract and is only a small subset of those included, you can read it all here.
Perhaps the last word should belong to comedian Kate Smurthwaite, when asked if she celebrated Christmas, she said …
“I celebrate whatever the hell I like. It’s religions that tell people what they can and can’t do – not atheism. If I want to go to church, then mosque, then temple, I can. I can do what I like.”
… and that nicely nails it, you can indeed make of it whatever you wish, and no supernatural beliefs are required to do so.
Merry Christmas everybody.