In defence of the War on Christmas

As 2011’s royal wedding happened, the Guardian hit on a stroke of genius. Perched in easily missed white type atop its sprawling coverage, a tiny button read “Republicans click here”, which when activated hid all related stories. The button, which proved popular enough to reappear this year when the couple’s child was born, made the paper’s site a refuge for the unenthused, the only place online or otherwise where bunting and bootlicking could be escaped. As Advent commences, I often wish such a filter hid reminders of Christmastime from view.

As Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience notes on the programme’s blog, arguments for the validity of godless Christmas celebrations have done well in recent years. These are the “Axial tilt is the reason for the season” shirts, the “Keep the merry, dump the myth!” placards of American Atheists, the selection of cards sold by the British Humanist Association, the Digital Cuttlefish’s books of festive (and fun) poems; they’re various chapters in Ariane Sherine’s Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and by implication part of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, the Rationalist Association’s annual benefit; they fill countless column inches by Robin Ince (its host), Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Myra Zepf, Alain de Botton, Alom Shaha and Jim Al-Khalili among others.

The case, summed up in AA’s slogan, is no doubt as familiar to atheists today as are the faults of Pascal’s Wager, both being discussions with believers one comes across too frequently for comfort. Many of our Christmas customs if not most – gift-giving, good will, feasts, festooned fir trees and Father Christmas – aren’t of a necessarily religious character, the argument goes. If superstitions bequeath us an excuse to have at them, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The logic’s sound, but commonplace enough that it risks seeming both reflexive and received. I decided to give up Christmas last year, for no more grand a reason than that personally, I don’t enjoy it. With such passionately vocal thirst to reclaim it in the secular community, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly rebuked, as if my absence from the bandwagon endangers a key atheist PR objective, stopping images of secularist grinches waging war on Christmas being properly cast off.

The trouble, and I’ve only realised it in recent years, is that I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.

Yes, I’m turned off by the BBC broadcasting Bible readings, church services and carols about blood and gall – but I’m just as turned off by their annoying, repetitive melodies. I’m angered by Operation Christmas Child, and by millions of children being made to sing said carols in their schools or act out narratives from religions whose ideas they may not share and aren’t yet well placed to assess – but I’m just as angry parents lie to their children about who provides their presents, often objecting to them being told the truth, for no clear reason except finding the deception somehow sweet. I don’t enjoy the smell of tangerines, the putting up of decorations, the taste of mince pies or the expectation I gorge myself on food I’d never otherwise eat, enduring sit-down meals and light dinner conversation (no swear words allowed) with relatives I’d rather not encounter. In the end, I struggle mostly to be cheerier than usual for contrived and arbitrary reasons.

If you are a Christmas person, and clearly many of us are, I’m all for your enjoying the rituals of your choice – we’d do well to be cautious, though, of insisting “Of course atheists love Christmas”, implying as a chorus of this insistence does that we not only can but should. One perk of non-religious life, it’s been argued in New Humanist before, is the right to pick and choose our festivals. A status quo where atheists feel bad for not being Christmassy enough has something very wrong with it.

Atheism’s collective urgency to show festive credentials is understandable. As Glasser writes, “[p]opular culture is full of rotten characters who hate Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Narnia’s White Witch.” Alone among calendar dates, failing to love it ostentatiously provokes a barrage of reproach: I’ve been called a killjoy, a spoilsport and an Eeyore for disliking it, but never for finding Valentine’s Day crass or New Year underwhelming.

One wonders if the keenness to affirm secular love for Christmas stems in part from a desire to placate religious critics, assuring them our boat-rocking plans are limited. Certainly, Eric Pickles’ call three years ago for councils “not [to] allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity” drew valid fire for recycling myths about “the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous” as evidence for a so-called war on Christmas, but Pickles also demanded councils fund “carol services and nativity scenes” – a valid target, surely, for secularist pressure?

Baulk as we might at the “war on Christmas” narrative, parts of how Britain marks it belong in godless people’s crosshairs, from government-backed proselytising of this kind to evangelism in state schools, religious programming at licence payers’ expense and the pollution at large of the public sphere’s secularity. However excised of religion Christmas exhibits might be in marketplaces and the media, they’ve undoubtedly opened the door to public religious displays more widely in the name of inclusivity – Oxford’s giant street-mounted menorah, say, lit each Hanukkah by the town mayor and a local Rabbi, or Channel 4’s broadcasting the adhān for Ramadan this year.

The object of a so-called war on Christmas (and on all these articles of faith as establishments of public life) is really a profoundly diplomatic settlement, an understanding of the public sphere as neutral, unclaimed territory rather than land divided among orthodox religious groups. This is why I can’t support the ‘multifaith’ approach above, espoused on Bill O’Reilly’s programme by Chris Stedman recently: a multifaith public square is as bad as a single faith one, in some ways worse, because it still gives public authority to clergy; still makes people outsiders who won’t participate; still pollutes the peaceful neutrality of a marketplace which asks no one to demonstrate their piety.

However secular or holy we think the festive season is, that détente matters. Those in atheism who sit happily with unwrapped gifts and hangovers on Boxing Day should think twice before they lapse into unravelling it themselves, keen to ‘destigmatise’ secularists by showing us as Christmas-lovers. A culture of pressure to participate fostered by atheists is as bad as one produced by theocrats like Pickles – neither tolerates dissent, and both perpetuate the notion those who don’t join in are spite-filled Scrooges.

If we care for people’s conscientious freedom or right to live by the calendar they choose, we shouldn’t let fears of seeming grinchish silence us when religion encroaches on public life at Christmastime; equally, we should support those in our ranks who don’t do Christmas, and oppose the spectre of the Grinch being used to guilt or smear them. Call this scaling back of peer pressure a war on Christmas if you must, and Bill O’Reilly is correct that it exists; to me, it seems like giving peace on Earth a chance.


  1. khms says


    I heard of people not doing Christmas long before I noticed Atheism as a thing. I only heard of aggressive “play along or else” rhetoric quite a bit later, in connection with the “War on Christmas”.

    I don’t remember ever hearing anything like that from Atheists. All I ever heard is a defensive “we can too like and do Christmas”.

    I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, only that I certainly never noticed it. As far as I’m concerned, there is no rule that everyone has to join in whatever merry-making there is … I still remember the first time I defended that point, when I made the mistake (first and only time) of going to a semi-official class party while not wanting to dance. (Almost half a century later, I still don’t dance.)

  2. says

    @khms (#3)

    I’m certainly not saying there’s an explicit push to make atheists shut up or play along who don’t do Christmas. I’m saying, though, that the sheer volume of insistence, ‘We can like/do Christmas too!’, makes it hard in a subtle way for me not to feel slightly shamed/sidelined/rebuked, as if I’m standing in the way of a key PR goal.

  3. Ashley says

    One thing that grates me is this idea that if you dont do Christmas you are some how a killjoy- people see it as an affront to them, as if me not doing it somehow diminishes their ability to celebrate.

    Not celebrating Christmas does not make you a Grinch. But insisting others must celebrate because you do makes you a dick.

  4. says

    @Alex Gabriel,

    You admit this is NOT an explicit message. The majority of atheists and others celebrate Xmas and fight people who say they shouldn’t. I’m sorry that you feel bad about it, but isn’t that ultimately self-inflicted?

  5. says

    @bethpresswood (#6)

    I think it is somewhat incumbent on each of us to think about the broader narratives things we say can enforce, whether or not we mean them to. (Hello, Richard Dawkins.) LGBT campaigns which are keen to stress we’re all ‘just as faithful/loving/respectable/normal’ as straight people, for instance, don’t explicitly say that there’s anything wrong with nonmonogamy/casual sex/being kinky/being gender-variant, but it’s a legitimate concern I think that people who fit those descriptions are marginalised and sidelined by the popularity of the ‘We’re just like you’ claim.

    I don’t have anything against atheists enjoying Christmas, or saying so, but I’d like to see some awareness of how the dominant “We’re not grinches, we love Christmas!” refrain might be othering atheists who do fit that description. Some of us, inevitably, are going to conform to the negative image of the Scrooge, and I think people should take care not to legitimise that negative stereotype while saying it doesn’t describe them.

    (P.S. Thanks for dropping in. I like your work.)

  6. says

    But HOW do you propose we do that? For example, not liking ice cream is also a minority position. Do we owe it to people to always mention those people when we mention ice cream? Do we need to reduce ice cream socials? Do we need to be careful about assuming people like ice cream by hedging when we offer them some? If this is not something I’m explicitly saying then I don’t know how to not offend. It may be that all of my Christmas advocacy against those who would police me might make some uncomfortable and it might be unavoidable.

    I’ll say right now explicitly, I have no problem with anyone who is not telling people to celebrate or not to celebrate.

  7. says

    @bethpresswood (#8)

    I think I’d just like to see more equivocation in people’s expressions of enthusiasm – more recognition, specifically, of the variation in people’s views. E.g. ‘I celebrate Christmas – I think I have every right to, and it doesn’t make me a hypocrite – but there are also atheists who don’t enjoy or celebrate it, and that’s just as valid. Don’t call them grinches.’

  8. says

    Have you actually seen atheists call other atheists grinches just for not celebrating, though? I’ve pretty much only seen that reserved for people like Tom Flynn (who by the way, said that I give “aid and comfort to the enemy” by celebrating Xmas).

  9. says

    @bethpresswood (#10)

    Haven’t heard of Tom Flynn. I’m sorry you were told that – it’s not my view. And no, I haven’t heard atheists tell other atheists that explicitly; but again, a chorus of something, said hundreds of times over and over, can have implicature the individual statements of it don’t. (Not logical implication, but rhetorical implicature.) ‘I’m an atheist who loves Christmas’ isn’t necessarily a disownment of atheists who don’t when one person says it, but when I see it printed in the papers over and over again, tweeted, blogged, podcasted and so on – without any qualification recognising that it doesn’t apply to everyone, and it’s okay for it not to apply to me – it’s hard for me not to feel slightly disowned. It’s not about other atheists personally telling me so, it’s about the effect of not being recognised in the collective discourse.

  10. says

    Well, this is pretty new…most of the discourse I have with Christians and people in the general population still questions why I celebrate Christmas. “Coming out” as an xmas-loving atheist has seemed to help perceptions in the general population. So I think the balance can be difficult.

    I feel a similar thing about the conflation of atheism and Geekdom. I’m not a geek and there seems to be an assumption that we all are. But I don’t have a solution for feeling like an outsider. Clearly people should be proud to be geeks and if video game tournaments are more popular than knitting circles in my group, then it might just be something I have to accept, at least until more knitters get deconverted.

  11. says

    @bethpresswood (#12)

    Well, I think you’re entitled not to be erased. People just giving lip service to people in their populations who aren’t like them (particularly while asserting their ‘normality’ in whatever context) can go a long way.

    Bear in mind too that I’m in godless England, and you’re in the Bible Belt.

  12. Cuttlefish says

    Nice piece!

    Thanks for the mention–I want to add just one note, that 100% of any proceeds from my (War Against) Christmas book will be going to charity. (100% of the proceeds from any other books go to me.)

  13. Nick Gotts says

    I’m very much of your mind, Alex – there are very few aspects of Christmas I like, and a huge number I detest. Could we not press for every country in which it is celebrated to provide a small Christmas-free zone whither we Scrooges could retire for a week or two every year – and to forbid all Christmas spill-over into the rest of the year? [Joke!] Even those who enjoy it frequently complain about it starting in early November.


Leave a Reply