How this Atheist Sees Christmas
Don't worry, be happy
I had an appointment with someone (I won’t say who) and she asked me how I was doing with my grieving. As we talked, she mentioned a book she said had helped her, and as she described it, I realized it was a religious book. When I told her I was an atheist, she was visibly shocked. I mean visibly.
I could see the thoughts going through her head: How could she have known me this long and not sense that I was a heathen? How could I not believe in God?
I get that a lot.
So let me assure anyone else who is now visibly shocked: I’m still the person you thought I was before you found this out. I grew up going to church, I’ve been baptized and confirmed, I went to Lutheran School for a couple of years, and I was married in the Lutheran Church. Two of my three children were baptized. (The youngest wasn’t.) For most of those years I knew in my heart I wasn’t a believer, but I went along. I loved some of the rituals, and I love some parts of the bible, but not in the sense that I find them sacred.
I loved certain parts of the rituals and the sense of community—when it all was going well. I loved certain members of the community and still think of many of them fondly. They were good people.
I loved the Christmas Eve candlelight services filled with lots of singing and good will and very little sermonizing.
But it wasn’t enough to keep me from bowing out.
One question this friend asked made me sort of giggle afterwards: “But what do you do about Christmas?”
So here’s my answer, adapted from a piece I wrote several years ago, when Bill O’Reilly first declared his phony War on Christmas:
I say “Merry Christmas” quite a bit at Christmas time. I’ve been saying “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” ever since I could say the words, which, I’m guessing, was around December 1939, when I was just over two years old. Sometimes I say, “Have a great holiday!” without mentioning which holiday I mean when I say that. There are times when I say, “Happy New Year!”, forgetting to say, “Merry Christmas”, even though it may be several days before Christmas. I can’t help it. It just comes out.
It’s Christmas! Millions of us love this season. We look forward to it, we read about it, we sing about it, we who are parents can’t wait to experience it with our children. We plan, we decorate, we bake, we go shopping, we party. We find a million different excuses to hug each other. We hang mistletoe just so we can kiss under it.
We fill food baskets and donate money because it’s Christmas and there is nothing sadder than the thought of someone not enjoying the holidays. Our happiness is so acute we smile at perfect strangers and wish them good tidings. Joy, my friends, is busting out all over.
Many of us only go into a church at Christmas time; some of us not at all. I love the story of the baby Jesus. I love Christmas carols. (Last night I watched the St. Olaf Choir Christmas Concert from Norway on PBS. It was beautiful–a mix of the sacred and the secular–-like Christmas.) I love the happy faces. The candles. Nice. All nice.
But let’s talk about Christmas tradition:
December 25 coincides with the Winter Solstice, a pagan celebration, and not with the actual birthdate of Jesus, which, as with much of Jesus’ life, is a mystery.
The Christmas song “O Tannenbaum” was based on a 16th century tune, put to secular lyrics in 1824.
Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. While it ends with, “God bless us, every one!”, it’s a morality tale about the rich holding terrible power over the poor.
Irving Berlin, a Jewish songwriter, wrote “White Christmas” in the late 1930s and it became the most popular Christmas song of all time.
Charles Schultz’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was released in 1965 and has been shown every year since. What we remember most is that sad, sad Christmas tree.
We love “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” and “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. We love red and green and silver and gold. We love twinkly lights and Santa and snowmen. And elves. We love elves. WE LOVE CHRISTMAS!
And to those of you who still insist there’s a War on Christmas, you’re spoiling it for us.
It takes all the fun out of it when you think you get to decide for us how we’re supposed to spend Christmas. For you, Jesus is the reason for the season. Amen to that, and just so you know, I love Matthew’s version of the Christmas story. I have a beautiful creche made up of Italianate figures, and angels decorate my tables and my shelves.
I’m not completely devoid of the Christian Christmas spirit. But for the rest of us, it’s a wonderful, happy holiday, open to so many interpretations you could get the idea it’s mainly about peace on Earth, goodwill toward mankind.
If Christmas means Christ to you, there is no better time than the Yuletide to celebrate him. But you simply cannot butt into our celebrations, Grinch-like, throwing wet blankets all over our happy days. If there is a war on Christmas, it’s a one-sided battle and it’s coming from you. You can have it. For me, it’s the happiest, happiest time of the year. I feel love in the air and I plan on enjoying every minute of it.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and a joyous New Year
Constant Commoner is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.