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Dec 22 2009

Seven Reasons for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Grinch It’s often assumed that the atheist position on what is politely termed “the holiday season” is one of disregard at best, contempt and annoyance at worst. After all, the reasons for most of the standard winter holidays are supposedly religious — the birth of the Savior, eight days of miraculous light, yada yada yada. Why would atheists want anything to do with that?

But atheists’ reactions to the holidays are wildly varied. Yes, some atheists despise them: the enforced jollity, the shameless twisting of genuine human emotion to sell useless consumer crap, the tyrannical forcing of mawkish piety down everyone’s throats. (Some believers loathe the holidays for the exact same reasons.) But some of us love the holidays. We love the parties, the decorations, the smell of pine trees in people’s houses, the excuse to eat ourselves sick, the reminder that we do in fact love our family and friends. We’re cognizant of the shameless twisting and mawkish piety and whatnot — but we can deal with it. It’s worth it for an excuse to drink eggnog with our loved ones and bellow out “Angels We Have Heard On High” in half-assed four-part harmony. (In fact, when it comes to the holidays, atheists are in something of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. If we scorn them, we get called Scroogy killjoys… but if we embrace them, we get called hypocrites. Oh, well. Whaddya gonna do.)

So today, I want to talk about some of the reasons that some atheists love the holidays: in hopes that believers might better understand who we are and where we’re coming from… and in hopes that a few Scroogy killjoys, atheist and otherwise, might be tempted to join the party. (If not — no big. I recognize and validate your entirely reasonable annoyance at the holidays. And besides, Scroogy killjoys are an important holiday tradition.)

Speaking of which:

Hanukkah Reason #7: Holiday traditions are comforting. The human need for tradition and ritual seems to be deeply ingrained. It’s comforting to do things at the same time every day or every year: things we did as a child, things our parents and grandparents did. It gives us a sense of continuity, of being part of a pattern that’s larger than ourselves, of passing along ideas and customs that we hope will live on after we die. For those of us who don’t believe in an afterlife, that last bit can be extra important. And when those customs and rituals are about joy and celebration and people we love and so on… that makes it extra nifty.

Christmas_ornament_snow #6: The holidays connect us with our ancestors… and with the earth and the seasons. In modern civilized culture, we tend to treat the changing seasons largely as a fashion challenge and an excuse to complain. (Even in San Francisco, where the temperature rarely gets above 80 or below 40, we still gripe about the weather.)

But for our ancestors, the changing seasons were a critically important part of their lives: a matter of life and death, which they watched and marked with great and careful attention. The winter solstice holidays rose up as a way to mark those changes… and to celebrate the all-important imminent return of the sun and the warmth and the longer days. Celebrating the holidays reminds us of what life was like for the people who came before us — the people who are responsible for us being here.

Presents #5: Presents. ‘Nuff said.

War-on-christmas #4: The War on the War on Christmas. Watching Bill O’Reilly and the Christian Right work themselves into an annual lather over the fact that (a) not everyone in America celebrates Christmas and (b) some well-mannered businesses choose to recognize this fact by using ecumenical or secular holiday greetings… this is some of the best free entertainment we could ask for.

Sure, it’s theocratic. Sure, it’s bigoted. Sure, it has its roots in anti-Semitism and white supremacy. But it’s also freaking hilarious. Watching these hypocrites twist themselves into knots explaining why America is a Christian nation and it’s the grossest insult to acknowledge the existence of other religions by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”… and why this stance somehow isn’t shameless religious bigotry? It’s the best contortionist act in town. And like the circus, it comes around every year.

Axial tilt #3: The holidays connect us with the universe. Axial tilt is the reason for the season! For many atheists, one of the greatest joys of atheism is that it opens up an awe-inspiring world of science. It’s not that believers don’t care about science: many of them do. But the passionate love of science is a defining feature of the atheist movement, and many of us will take any opportunity to gush about the topic ad nauseam. Usually in embarrassing, Carl-Sagan-esque, “billions and billions of stars” purple prose.

And the holidays are another excuse to go gaga over the wonders of science. They’re another way to celebrate the fact that we’re living on a tilty rock whizzing through frigid space around a white-hot ball of incandescent plasma. Neat!

Gay mens chorus holiday #2: The music. You heard me right. I actually like holiday music.

Not the gloppy shopping-mall Muzak that gets forced into our bleeding eardrums every year, despite our cries of pain and pathetic pleas for mercy. I hate that stuff as much as anyone. But some holiday music is seriously pretty. The soaring eerieness of “The Angel Gabriel”; the strangely haunting cheeriness — or cheery hauntingness? — of “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah”; the lilting saunter of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”; the majestic transcendence of “Angels We Have Heard On High” (especially when sung in half-assed, eggnog-addled four-part harmony). Some of this stuff is freaking gorgeous. The really old stuff especially. If you like the tunes but can’t stomach the lyrics… well, there’s a wide world of holiday song parodies at your disposal. (My personal faves: the H.P. Lovecraft ones, and the Christmas-themed parody of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”)

And as I discovered when I was digging up lyrics for a Christmas party songbook, a lot of holiday music is entertainingly grotesque and surreal. You don’t have to dip into the Lovecraft Solstice Songbook to find holiday songs about blood, suffering, torment, and death. I mean, “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/ Breathes a life of gathering gloom/ Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/ Sealed in a stone cold tomb”? What’s not to like?

And the Number One Reason for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays:

Whoville #1: For the same damn reason everyone else does. Because it’s dark and cold, and it’s going to be dark and cold for a while… so it’s a perfect time to decorate and light lights and celebrate the fact that we’re alive. Because we’re all going to be cooped up inside together for a while… so it’s a perfect time to have parties and give presents and eat big festive dinners and otherwise remind ourselves of why we love each other. Because this time of year can truly suck… so it’s a perfect time to remember that the cold and dark won’t be here forever, and that the warmth and light are coming back.

Any day now.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Simon

    Try making sense of all those Xmas traditions when you live in Australia and it’s the middle of summer! None of it makes sense.

  2. 2
    Tara Roberts

    YAYYY!!! I am so glad that you posted this!!! I was feeling a little guilty about my tree, sending out cards, presents, and baking, but I am all better now. I completely agree. Just because I do not believe in what Christmas is supposed to be about, does not mean that I do not enjoy decorating my house, communicating with far away friends, and having more wine and sugar than normal. Thanks again for this post.

  3. 3
    Greta Christina

    Simon: I’m actually sort of surprised that Australians haven’t prioritized some mid-summer (mid-winter for you) over Christmas. I guess the cultural hegemony of Christmas and the connection with England and English traditions is still too strong. I’m curious: Are there mid-winter (for you) holidays that you celebrate when it’s dark and cold?

  4. 4
    Maria

    The war on Christmas baffles me every year :-) Here Christmas is pretty much a non-issue. It helps not calling it CHRISTmas. The word christ or mass has never been near the name for this Holiday here. It’s JUL. So even if Christian traditions is also a part of it since a very long time, there’s nothing immediately Christian about it already in the name alone. It’s mostly a secualar thing here. Never having been religious and not having grown up in a religious family I’ve never felt the least bit weird about celebrating Jul.

  5. 5
    arensb.livejournal.com

    If we scorn them, we get called Scroogy killjoys… but if we embrace them, we get called hypocrites.

    I don’t care what I get called, as long as I get egg nog.

    The human need for tradition and ritual seems to be deeply ingrained. It’s comforting to do things at the same time every day or every year

    I suspect that there may be an evolutionary component to this: if you’re doing things the way you did yesterday, and last year, and the year before, then you’re doing things that haven’t killed you, and probably won’t. Experimentation can be deadly. So presumably natural selection would have selected for conservative behavior.

  6. 6
    Liz

    I used to really hate Christmas. I felt like religion was getting shoved down my throat, I felt too pressured to get all that horrible shopping (in big nasty crowds) done, I hated the music, and the ridiculous false cheeriness of some people around this time.
    And then I graduated college. And made some better friends. And was in less frequent (but better quality) contact with my family.
    Without the pressure of finals and the forced interaction with so many people, I can view it as a time to get together with family, show some caring by buying those thoughtful (but inexpensive) things we never remember to buy for ourselves, and yes, pull out shiny, tacky decorations to liven up the bleakness of a 5pm sunset. (also, I live in New England. December is usually the first month of “crap! it’s really horribly cold outside!”)
    Call it whatever you like, it’s time for presents, pie, mulled wine (my family’s answer to eggnog) and singing!
    I don’t want to make Christmas go away, I just want to appropriate it for my nefarious “excuse for getting together” purposes ;)

  7. 7
    G Felis

    In my dorm back in college we had a “Religiously Neutral Mid-Winter Festival Season Celebration” one year instead of a “Christmas Party” due to some complicated web of causes having to do with me being an outspoken atheist (who’d never said a bad word about Christmas, mind you) and my friends on the dorm council being smart-asses. On the flyer, the party name had an asterisk footnote that said “Out of deference to George” or something to that effect. People wished me a “Happy Mid-Winter Festival Season!” for weeks, to which I invariably replied, “Merry Christmas!”
    While that was back in the Reagan Era, it was many years before the professional blowhards’ “War on Christmas” nonsense and the whole thing was intended and taken in a spirit of fun by all involved. Thanks not only the great post, but the reminder of a great memory!

  8. 8
    Danielle

    “Angels We Have Heard On High” is one of my favourite songs ever. If nothing else, I’m glad of Christmas for the invention of that song alone.

  9. 9
    Claire B

    Great post, as always! But how could you do the whole thing without even a mention of “White Wine in the Sun” by Tim Minchin? Best atheist Christmas carol ever! Here’s the YouTube vid (for those of you who don’t know him, he’s Australian, which explains the “sun” part!):

  10. 10
    UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 12/23/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  11. 11
    vel

    I like the idea of a winter festival, because as Greta said, it’s a long dark winter. I love the music, and love TSO’s rocking versions of them! I do dislike the holiday specials, with their painfully common “make fun of the different/expect them to not mind” lessons. Gah, I hate the Rudolph story.

  12. 12
    The Woeful Budgie

    This is my first Christmas as an atheist, and I felt a little awkward about the whole Christmas music thing. I mean, I’ve always liked singing Christmas carols, even before I went all Jesus Camp. It didn’t seem right to give up this piece of my personal history just because of my falling out with religion, but I didn’t want to go back to my Bapticostal church just to get my fix. I thought about finding some nice little Midnight Mass or something to scratch that itch—and I may very well do that next year—but this year I was fortunate enough to end up at the DNA Lounge for the Bootie holiday party, which was the most fun I’ve had in a LONG time. Lots of dancing, singing, and drinking with a laid-back, happy crowd. Smash-Up Derby performed The Christmas Bop (a Christmas carol/Ramones mashup), and I ended up slightly toasted and belting out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” with the Santarchy crowd. It. Was. Awesome. I may have to make that my new Christmas tradition.

  13. 13
    Timothy (TRiG)

    On Monday night I met up with some Discworld friends for Hogswatch!
    Coming from a JW-background, I don’t have a tradition of Christmas anyway, and don’t miss it. I care little one way or the other.
    TRiG.

  14. 14
    Chris H

    Greta, as one godless hell-bound atheist to another, I’d like to take the opportunity here to wish you a Merry Christmas, and more importantly, to thank you for your writing and for being you. I can’t express how much it means to me to read such clear, intelligent writing on both sexuality and atheism on a regular basis. Thank you, and here’s to a happy New Year for you, Ingrid, and the rest of us.

  15. 15
    Coran

    Like Simon said, some of this stuff doesn’t make a lot of sense when it’s 35 degrees centigrade in the shade and the mall muzak is pounding out “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”.
    I think the reason we don’t get all celebratory about ‘midsummer’ is that many, if not most, Australians regard the religiosity of Christmas as a historical curiosity. The malls have their “Jesus Kits’ (as my daughter calls the nativity scene), the churches will do their Baby Jesus thing, but for most people Xmas no longer has any religious significance. We just love it for all those other reasons.
    We don’t tend to argue about “Merry Xmas” vs “Happy Holidays” so much, but then religion is not generally as big a deal here.
    We recognise the absurdity of singing about snow in a country famous for being hot. We sing them anyway, and now we have Tim Minchin’s WWITS to sing as well.
    Unfortunately, we don’t really have any official midwinter holidays, although we have a long weekend in June for the Queen’s birthday. “Christmas in July” parties are becoming a bit popular though.

  16. 16
    Alice in Wonderland

    Merry Christmas, Greta!
    Inspired in part by you, I made my family and friends do a “planetary motion dance” last Sunday at brunch to celebrate the solstice. My husband stood in the middle of the room with a flashlight and the rest of us ran around him in circles, simultaneously twirling on our own axes. Half of us were carrying toddlers, all of whom enjoyed the experience immensely. It should be noted: axial tilt is extremely hard to do!

  17. 17
    John H.

    I’m with ya. This is a time to be thankful for being alive and for having/being with family and friends who love us. It doesn’t take an imaginary sky father to make it humbling.
    Oh, and I do like that presents thing, too! Giving, of course–not receiving.

  18. 18
    Simon

    A few more thoughts on Christmas in Australia for those who might be curious. Firstly, Australia as a nation is just over 100 years old, with 100 odd years of colonial history before that. That’s not a huge amount of time for traditions to build and evolve. Also, in no part of Australia is winter as severe and intense as in the northern hemisphere. I live in Brisbane, in the sub-tropics and winter is very mild and in many ways more pleasant than summer.
    Many of our cultural traditions evolved in countries where winter is severe and dangerous and spring represents a real return to life after a winter in which nothing grows. Christmas and Easter were grafted on older festivities that make sense in the climate in which they evolved. They make no sense in a country in which the seasons are transposed and also experienced in a completely different way.
    Traditions are evolving here though. Seafood and salads are gradually replacing the traditional roast turkey, vegetables and pudding. The traditions of gift giving and family gatherings at this time of year, which existed before Christianity, continue.
    Christmas is an ancient tradition with many layers, many of which are not Christian at all. There is much that is absurd about it, particularly for an Australian atheist, but no tradition will endure for 1000s of years without containing things of value. Peace and goodwill are worthwhile messages and a tradition that brings families together in a spirit of generosity and love is worth keeping even if it is all a bit silly.
    Merry Christmas

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