Hello, everyone. I’m putting my name in the post title just so it is totally clear that this is my point of view and I am not speaking for anyone else.
On Sunday’s show, someone asked me what I thought about Christmas, and I answered off the cuff. Since then we’ve received a few emails both for and against celebrating Christmas, and in line with something I predicted, Beth isn’t happy to hear that I’m bad mouthing Christmas. As I’m in a position of disagreeing with a good friend, I’m going to clear up what I think now.
This is a cleaned up version of what I said on the show:
The holiday is right around the corner and I feel like it’s time for me to inject the minority point of view. Matt and Beth will say, “Christmas is great! We should all celebrate it, it is thoroughly secularized, we all love it.” I support their right to do that.
I don’t care for Christmas. Screw Christmas, that’s what I say. This is not the official point of view of the Atheist Experience, but I could take it or leave it. People who try to aggressively push “Merry Christmas” in your face annoy me.
People who want to celebrate Christmas should feel free to do that.
I did not and would not say — as one of the email subject lines said — that Christmas is “pathetic.” I do not have any fight to pick with atheists who love Christmas and celebrate it in their own way. I do not hate every aspect of the season. Case in point: Yesterday I couldn’t wait to get a gingerbread latte from Starbucks, which is available in direct acknowledgment of the season. Another case in point: Matt and Beth throw some kick ass Christmas parties. I love those parties. I do not gnash my teeth at getting a few paid days off of work. I do not stomp my feet about an excuse to hand out and receive a few presents.
As someone who frequently identifies as a secular Jew, I understand as well as anybody how much people have the reasonable impulse to identify with a cultural tradition. To repeat ceremonies and rituals that they experienced growing up and made them feel happy. To feel connected to a large group of people who have shared experiences. To pass on those traditions to future generations, so they can experience that happiness and that connection in their own lives. I’m okay with all that.
Here’s what I don’t care for. First of all, the hype for Christmas is absolutely ridiculous. Can we agree on that? This year, “Black Friday” — already a marketing tool that was cynically constructed by retail corporations to take advantage of the public’s love of Christmas — is starting on Thursday. Many retail stores are opening bright and early at 6 AM on Thanksgiving day. As Jon Stewart said last year, “Christmas is so big now, it’s eating other holidays.” Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a story about a Wal-Mart “social strategy director” who posed as a regular employee on Twitter to say (without sarcasm, but with heavy unintentional irony) how excited he is to be working all day on another holiday. IMHO, that is kinda messed up.
Atheists who like Christmas are quick to point out that Christmas is largely a secular holiday for them, and that is true… to an extent. There’s nothing distinctly religious about trees, or gifts, or celebrating winter. “Saint Nick” may have once been a religious figure, but the modern incarnation was invented by a political cartoonist and then finalized by the Coca Cola company. So that’s fine.
For a solid month I am blasted with songs about Jesus on every radio station, in mainstream stores, and out on the street. Some Christmas songs (Jingle Bells, Carol of the Bells) are secular. Many others (Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing) most definitely are not. They’re all sort of thrown together in an audio stew, demanding that I listen to them for the next 30 days. The naked hostility that the Fox News crowd shows towards people who dare to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is most definitely not about a specific category of religion-free exchanges of commercial goods. It is an open demand that everyone should use the word that recognizes their religion… or else.
Popular culture is full of rotten characters who hate Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Narnia’s White Witch. Characters who are generally a foil to show that you can’t hate Christmas without hating peace on Earth, good will towards men, the spirit of giving, and deep down, probably your own whole life.
So I hear many atheists say that Christmas mostly comes from a patchwork of old pagan traditions, and we should “take back” the holiday and piss off the religious right by claiming ownership of it. Fine with me if they want to work towards that… but I don’t want to take back Christmas. I do not feel it is part of my cultural tradition. I didn’t grow up believing in Santa Claus, and I don’t feel cheated because of it. Other atheists can take back Christmas for themselves; I have no desire for it, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
It’s true that many atheists continue to love Christmas as a tradition they grew up with, and that it’s possible to pick and choose the fun parts that can be separated from the Christian parts. It’s also true that, by and large, most Christmas-loving atheists come from a Christian background. I know very few atheist cultural Jews / ex-Jews who are excited to greet the holiday season. I doubt there are many ex-Muslims who care much for the holiday either.
What I’m saying is that atheists are a multi-cultural community, and we celebrate our differences every bit as much we celebrate as our shared experiences. In recent years I feel like there has been a lot more talk to the effect that atheists not only can, but should promote Atheist Christmas. That if we fail to do so, then we are setting the atheist cause back in some way. That if other atheists think they can’t celebrate Christmas, they’ll feel deprived and go back to Christianity. But to me, the idea that loudly proclaiming your love of Christmas is of such great importance that only Scrooges and Grinches can fail to participate, is a little off-putting, if not downright dehumanizing. Even if Christmas is not a religious ritual, it is — more than some atheists might care to admit — the ritual of a very specific cultural niche. Not all of us belong to that niche.
Here is my Christmas message to you: Those who love Christmas should continue to celebrate Christmas. Apparently the ACA is sponsoring a family for the holidays — by all means, if that is your thing, donate and feel good about it! Having compassion for those less fortunate than you is not an exclusive Christian value, and you should feel free to do this now or at any other time of the year.
Those who don’t love Christmas, but still find themselves inundated with Christmas messages, should feel free to dismiss the whole thing… or to participate selectively in those bits and pieces that they like. And they should be able to do this without being called hypocrites, because yes, you can hate most of the holiday hype without hating gingerbread lattes. Nobody should feel compelled to support a tradition that they don’t belong to, religious or otherwise.
And for my fellow Christmas haters (or for people who just say “meh”), I would like to share my very favorite Christmas carol, written and performed by Monty Python’s Eric Idle. For those who love Christmas… I still like all of you too! …But you may want to give this one a pass.