Christmas and Christianity – should non-believers opt out?

So is today a day that exclusively belongs to Christians? Not at all, it fact their claim over the day is at best very tenuous. In theory, according to the Christians, it is a celebration of the birth of Christ, hence the name, “Christ’s Mass”, but this is challenged for many reasons.

  •  – Nobody has any evidence that the 25th December is the day on which Jesus was born.
  •  – Many, if not most, of the popular customs associated with the day are non-christian
  •  – So why a festival about now? Well, a winter festival was the most popular festival of the year in many cultures. Reasons included the fact that less agricultural work needs to be done during the winter, as well as an expectation of better weather as spring approached
  •  – And of course, the obvious observation … it’s the winter solstice.

Historically it was not as prominent as it is today, and perhaps much of what we now associate with it was crafted by Charles Dickens. Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Superimposing his secular vision of the holiday, Dickens initiated many aspects of Christmas that we are now familiar with, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit. A prominent phrase from his well-known story “A Christmas Carol” is, ‘Merry Christmas’, and so perhaps we now deploy this phrase today simply because it was popularized following the appearance of the story.

To illustrate the point of just how different Christmas was when Dickens wrote his story, think back to the scene where the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge leaned out his window on Christmas day, and  … well, lets look at what he wrote …

“I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!

“What’s to-day!” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.

“To-day!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!”

“Hallo!” returned the boy.

“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.

“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.

“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there?—Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”

“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.

“What a delightful boy!” said Scrooge. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!”

“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.

“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”

“Walk-er!” exclaimed the boy.

“No, no,” said Scrooge, “I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell ’em to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I’ll give you half-a-crown!”

The boy was off like a shot.

There is one key observation to make here. At the time of writing, Christmas Day was not a big deal, the shops were open as usual. He could sent the boy off to the Poulterer’s to go buy a turkey and arrange for it to be delivered later that same day.

So why does this day now persist and take such a central focus of our modern culture? Beyond the obvious cultural tradition of doing so, it is because the gift-giving and many of the other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity, and so it has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses, so the commercial world has a keen interest in the persistence of such a day.

The key observation here is that this supposed “Christian” festival, is in reality a secular holiday that simply uses the Christian belief as an excuse for a winter festival. This is perhaps in many ways ironic, and is almost akin to a reverse takeover. Initially the christian belief aligned a festival with the non-christian winter festival as a takeover strategy to replace earlier beliefs and customs, and so now today we have a festival that is supposedly christian, but in reality is not and owes much more to Charles Dickens and not very much to Jesus for all that takes place.

Now, on to the question I was asking,should non-believers opt out? Some do indeed advocate doing exactly that and go as far as treating it as a normal day … they go to work as normal, come home and do nothing special in any way. That is quite frankly nuts, a bit sad, and also very Christian

  • In the US, the Puritans of New England shared radical Protestant disapproval of Christmas. Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681
  • In the UK following the Protestant Reformation, groups such as the Puritans strongly condemned the celebration of Christmas, considering it a Catholic invention and the “trappings of popery” or the “rags of the Beast.” Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, England’s Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647
  • In Scotland during that same period the Presbyterian Church of Scotland also discouraged observance of Christmas.
  • Even the bible itself has something to say about what goes on … in Jeremiah 10:2-4 it condemns Christmas trees as a heathen practise: “Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold“. For some reason, Christians skate over that one and pretend it is not there.

The advantage of not being a believer is that you are free … free from the claims that others may hold over you to dictate what you can and cannot do. Nope, there is no non-belief rule that says you can’t get together with family and friends, exchange gifts and generally relax and have a good time. If that also involves having a tree with decorations because it looks nice, go for it. The fact that this secular festival just happens to be associated by some with irrational beliefs need not spoil it for the rest of us.

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