This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
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:
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.
#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.
#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.
#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!
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:
#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.