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.