Teflon child

There was a heated discussion on a post of Tom Flynn’s at the CFI blogs about whether or not to celebrate Christmas because it is or isn’t a Christian festival. I don’t really have a position on that, but it prompted me to try to figure out if I ever really saw it (or felt it) as a religious observance. I may be misremembering, but for the life of me I can’t dredge up any real religious associations with it. By “real” I mean ones that I personally experienced as religious, as opposed to elements that I was aware were religious.

It’s odd, really, because there were a good few of the latter, but to me it’s as if they were just decoration. I somehow sidestepped the real religiosity.

Like: my mother always went to this thing called “midnight mass” at the Episcopal church, and my older sister and brother always or usually went with her. I wasn’t eligible to go because it was, you know, midnight, and by the time I was old enough…I don’t remember but the custom must have stopped, because I never went. It’s as if there was this odd little cliff between my siblings and me.

Another example: one of the rituals was for us to join up with an uncle and aunt and their four boys to drive around singing carols and looking at the Christmas lights. It sounds both boring and corny but I loved it. I loved ritual as a kid, and had a habit of trying to enforce it on the elders. Now obviously a lot of those carols were religious…but I can’t remember experiencing them as such. I knew they were religious, but it didn’t make any difference I can detect.

Or there was another ritual, this one at my school, which was private and in some sense Anglican: it was called “candlelight” and we walked in a procession holding candles and singing, and then we recited the nativity bit of whichever gospel that is, the one that starts with And there were, abiding in the fields, shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night. I can still recite the whole damn thing, with all the pauses and emphases just as we were taught them so that the recitation would be united. Well – that’s pretty damn religious. And yet to me it was just this pretty thing. I don’t remember feeling pious about it, but I also don’t remember feeling rebellious about it. It was just a pretty performance.

I wasn’t some kind of thoughtful atheist child. Hell no. I was a daydreamer and fantasist, not a thinker. But…I was all the same a godless child. It just bounced off me somehow.


  1. says

    I heard about Flynn’s piece second-hand, and while I have an opinion, I’ll really have to read the thing myself to see if he’s on about what I think he’s on about.

    But I recall the Christmas of my upbringing (my parents were agnostics) as being roughly the same as yours — a lot of pretty ritual and this odd story that I took about as seriously as I took Rudolph and Santa. Then for a couple of decades it *was* a religious festival — but alongside the secular festival with pine trees and gifts and stuff, and as far as I was concerned, it was all good (except for the excessive commercialization and the traffic jams at the malls). And now I’m back to just the secular festival, and even that rather subdued now that the kids are grown up and my parents are gone.

  2. Al Dente says

    Regarding Flynn and his demand that no atheist should do Christmas, I don’t care what he does or doesn’t do. However I’m not denying myself a pleasure just because some guy I’d never heard of until two days ago gets the vapors if I don’t follow his diktat.

  3. says

    It’s odd how it can be just a kind of overlay, there but not there. My mother was at least nominally religious, at least in the sense of going to church now and then, and dragging me there now and then. But maybe she wasn’t, really, maybe she was just going through the motions. I remember a few discussions of the god question with her, and her answers were pretty agnostic.

  4. says

    For many years my mother put up the obligatory Nativity scene. That, and certain songs, were as religious as Christmas got in my family. In young adulthood I went through a religious phase (high church Episcopal) and would keep Advent and go to mass on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but it was never anything imposed on me and I eventually got over it.

    So for me, Christmas has almost always been a time for family and friends, enjoying seasonal treats and observing seasonal traditions like decorating my home with evergreens.

  5. Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy) says

    whichever gospel that is, the one that starts with And there were, abiding in the fields, shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

    It’s Luke.* I always liked that story, and I still like it–as story. I’m pretty sure that as a kid I saw it as a story, not as something to be either believed, or not-believed. I especially liked the “on earth peace, good will toward men,” part.

    Of course that was before the huge resurgence in Christian Fundamentalism. I don’t recall people policing each others’ beliefs back then. People said “Happy Holidays,” and nobody minded. Also we had to walk to school in the snow, uphill, both ways, but that’s another story.

    *Luke has the best gospel story (Luke is also surprisingly non-androcentric, as Randel Helms points out in Who Wrote the Gospels. He thinks “Luke” was a woman.)

  6. luzclara says

    We were taken to church. The piety never stuck. But I happily sucked up the vocabulary and the cadence and the recitations. That’s the stuff that kept me entertained. It’s where I figured out how to pronounce “determine.” And it took me absolute ages but I finally figured out “thy will be done” – for ages I could only parse it as some kind of future event. . . but I knew for sure that a round yon virgin was that round thing floating in the air above Mary’s head. My mother told us early and often that Bible stories were STORIES that people made up to try to explain things. But she never let us believe in Santa either, since that was just another one of the stories. Santa is the story that explains “The Christmas Spirit.” In her gentle state of dementia my mother, still a Lutheran church member, told us at Christmas dinner yesterday that the primary Lutheran belief is “Pass the lutefisk.” That’s the main theological thread running through the holes in her mind these days.

  7. says

    I recently wrote a piece partly about my attitude toward Christmas which I’m sort of summarizing here: when I was a child Christmas was magic what with Santa, the elves, the tree, the lights–especially the lights, which I loved–fudge and nuts and grandma coming by for dinner, and finally the climax on Christmas morning with the ceremonial Opening of the Presents. There were stories associated with the holiday, such as Mickey Mouse going to the north pole, the baby Jesus being born in a manger, the red-nosed reindeer saving Christmas, and something about a magical snowman that I never did quite get. There were special songs for the season, some of which referred to these events.

    When I went to kindergarten the emphasis seemed to shift a bit–too much emphasis on the baby Jesus and not enough on (say) Mickey Mouse. (This was before the Supreme Court decisions on school prayer and bible reading.) (Yes I’m in my sixties.) Also they seemed to be taking the baby Jesus story way too seriously, as though he and not Santa were the point of the whole thing.

    At some point (though I believe this was more than one discussion) my mother explained to me that Santa and the elves and the reindeer and all that were not real and that Krismus was really Christ-mass, and the magic drained out of the whole thing for me. It wasn’t enough that Santa like represented the spirit of goodness in people or whatever–what I got was the whole thing was nothing but a goddamn advertisment for a religion that I didn’t believe in. A religion that I associated with everything backward and hateful in the world. The baby Jesus in the story was the same Christ that was doing so much evil.

    By fifth grade I refused to call it Christmas. Newton was a hero of mine, and having learned from the encyclopedia that he was born on the 25th I called it Newton’s Birthday. My teacher that year was a raving fundamentalist and we heard a lot about Jesus–but she also covered a lot of material about Christmas customs and their origins, some of which were obviously non-Christian.

    Anyway, regardless of the specifics, by high school I’d reached a different conclusion. I didn’t care. If the Christians could co-opt pagan traditions and christianize them, then I sure as hell could co-opt christian traditions and use them as I saw fit. If I liked “Silent NIght” but wanted to make it more about silence and night and less about the holy infant and his virgin mother, then I would (and fuck you Garrison Keillor). As far as I’m concerned the Christian tradition is just another set of patches in the crazy-quilt we call Christmas.

    For me the “religious” element–the sense of awe and wonder and mystery–come in in the repetition of rituals that have been performed for centuries–perhaps millennia–before I was born, and will likely continue to be performed long after I am gone. Some rituals–human sacrifice, say, or circumcision–are rightly discarded as cruel or barbaric. Conceivably some of the commercial aspects of present-day Christmas might fall into this category. But on the whole the customs seem to run from harmless to beneficial, and to that extent I enjoy taking part in them. It doesn’t matter to me that a Roman gave his presents as part of a ceremony in honor of Saturn, or that a nineteenth-century American gave his in honor of Jesus. I’ll give them in honor of nothing, or tradition, or the people I love.

  8. says

    @2: Flynn’s always been a bit of a killjoy. Thinks atheists shouldn’t do unison singing because it makes people’s brains go all emo and forget to be rational or something. Dude really needs to remove the cactus from his ass and party a bit ;-).

    But at root, both Flynn and Koepsell seem to be worrying about the same thing: the best strategy to advance the Culture Wars. Personally, I’m not invested enough in the Culture Wars to care, though perhaps that’s a luxury I have from living in a more secular part of the world, where I mostly get to spectate on that crazy country to the south of me. And maybe because of that, I think Koepsell is more right: Christmas *has* been successfully secularized in many places in the West (C.S.Lewis even commented on this way back in the 1950’s), and what we’re seeing now in the States is a desperate rear-guard action by the losing side.

  9. says

    I am somewhat invested in the culture wars, because of yes living in this country to the south of the other one (but the other one is only 120 miles north! that helps!), but I’m not invested in the Krismus aspect of them. Although…there was that one time at the Alaska Airlines part of the airport during Krismus. If that happened a lot I would get all culture war on their asses. (And get kicked out, and be trending on Facebook.)

  10. Sili says

    Someone on Pharyngula recently quoted words to the effect of “Just because the Christians stole Christmas doesn’t mean they get to keep it.”

  11. John Morales says

    I think that enjoying the social celebrations without participating in the religious ones is hardly abetting the religious. (Not that I myself particularly enjoy them.)

    It would have some traction were it about, say, an atheist attending a Chrismas Mass.

  12. John Morales says

    PS If anything, this wariness about the religious aspects of Christmas to Christians imbues it with undue respect.

  13. grumpyoldfart says

    I thought religion automatically came with the holiday.
    If there was no Jesus there would be no holiday.
    If there was no holiday there would be no Santa.
    And without Santa why would we bother to celebrate Christmas?

  14. says

    It’s too long a story for here other than to say my parents were hardcore catholics, racists and hypocrites who demanded attendance. But in reply to one point and one comment:

    There was a heated discussion on a post of Tom Flynn’s at the CFI blogs about whether or not to celebrate Christmas because it is or isn’t a Christian festival.

    I don’t do anything for it, including uttering the words. In the days and weeks leading up to 12/25, if someone says “merry cheezwhiz”, I respond with the same language and politeness I use every other day of the year. I don’t tell people not to say, I just ignore it. The odd thing is, some people get very upset and claim “offense” or call me a curmudgeon if I choose politeness over participation.

    It’s just like when some christians sneeze. I say “Need a tissue?” instead of “bless you.” Some freak out if you give a polite response instead of a religious one.

    Sili (#10) –

    Someone on Pharyngula recently quoted words to the effect of “Just because the Christians stole Christmas doesn’t mean they get to keep it.”

    The problem is, they’re not just trying to steal one day. They want to steal the whole month and silence anyone who disagrees or wants to spread a different message. The catholic church has a different saint and “celebration” for every single day of the blinking year. They want to own the whole calendar. My parents swallowed it, doing something on almost every “feast” and dozens of “saint’s days”. Flip through this month by month to get an idea of their obsession:


  15. says

    I had a fairly religious upbringing. Gone on elsewhere about it, so dunno that I’m gonna expand again much here, but I’ve actually sung in choirs at midnight masses, whole bit.

    I suspect in retrospect the somewhat syncretic character of Christmas–owing to its having been a co-option of earlier pagan traditions–is actually a good thing, if we want Christians specifically to be a little more skeptical of their religion, or at least a little less narrow in their doctrine. The bits of Yule and Saturnalia that have survived are a bit of a lurking history lesson for anyone too confident their god came from the dawn of time, and those bits are well salted into the rituals.

    I remember from more churchy times I’ve endured hearing some muttering about this, too. Outside the standard ‘it’s too commercialized’ grumble, you occasionally heard people saying listen, the tree and the presents really don’t have anything to do with Jesus. Sometimes this was preamble to ‘so we have do all the churchy stuff first’, or whatever. (Piety before fun, of course.) Outside that more nearly opaque/now near-to-secular stuff, you had intriguingly arcane stuff pointing more directly to the earlier festivals–my parents had an LP with The Boar’s Head Carol on it, for instance…

    So there it all is, lurking. And so people are naturally going to wonder: okay, why do we do that, then? And that’s a gateway to the pre-Christian history. And while it’s no secret exactly, it can get people to thinking… hrm… my ancestors believed in other gods entirely… what’s that about? And that gods have come and gone, this, too, it seems to me, is something likely to make people think a bit. I suspect it probably contributed in a smallish way to my eventual decision to leave the faith–this realization that yes, this apparently powerful and widespread institution, for all the lovely rituals it can put on, is also a bit of an interloper, not to mention a bit of a magpie, appropriating and adopting rituals celebrating other gods entirely, when it cannot simply stamp them out.

    And it’s a bit beside that, but I’ve also said half-seriously, also in retrospect, that of course that’s going to turn out to be the really good stuff, the fun stuff about the whole deal, too. These odd, ancient traditions, now so incredibly divorced from the worldviews that gave rise to them that we’re not even quite sure how they got here, still have this odd charm, this odd beauty. And because they’re so divorced from it–no one figures you’re honouring Saturn by giving gifts–they don’t have the overbearing character of the more obviously ‘sacred’ rites of the dominant religion. Which is nice if you like a little tradition just for the sake of doing something sociable in the darkest months of the year (at my latitude, anyway).

  16. ktron says

    As the Christians have shown us, the best way to co-opt is to include. We know the “genesis” (sorry) of these festivities, and eventually even someone as obtuse as Flynn has to mention the basis of all of this by name: solstice – the relatively simple scientific concept of the point in time where the earth’s tilt aligns to allow more sunshine to parts of the globe. While night-time can be no end of fun, many more human activities require daylight. People like to celebrate mile-stones. Surely the undermining of religion and superstition can still include celebration?

    “Across the world – even in the relatively benighted United States – younger people are turning their backs on religion at astonishing rates”

    A pleasant thought, but is it true? Many of us were raised with some level of religiosity – and were happy to shed it at some point; we were exposed to it and grew out of it. But who hasn’t seen examples of friends or acquaintances who were not raised in any religious framework but were drawn into religion far more deeply? So maybe there a more North Americans discovering the irrelevance of religion, but certain conditions lend themselves to religious conversions – consider the billions of people in the PRC who have been forcefully excluded from any long-standing emotional traditions . . . what happens if they “find religion”

  17. says

    x-posting from comment thread over there:

    I know this is kinda late, but I’ve been celebrating Christmas.

    @cmquinn #75 No. You’re wrong. It’s a celebration of the winter solstice. The whole Jesus thing is a barnacle, a late accretion. It can just be scraped off if you want.

    @Beth So much yes.

    @Jim I’m in the third generation of a family who has celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday. My niece and nephew (now young adults) are generation number 4. How can it be hypocritical to celebrate a holiday that wasn’t religious to begin with? Okay, so some of the music has religious lyrics, but complaining about that seems like fretting about calling today Saturday because that honours the god Saturn.

    @Tom I live in a country that’s pretty much a combo of secular and multicultural–the truly religious stuff is done privately, politely behind closed doors, the cultural stuff is done out in the open and the more the merrier. Why not celebrate Divali and Chinese New Year and Eid and Easter? Those are human celebrations of community and family and happiness, generosity and prosperity. It’s the priests and imams that want to co-opt that impulse and taint it with all their crap about gods and superstition. They are the enemy, not the celebrations themselves. What, I can’t appreciate Handel’s Messiah or Raphael’s paintings of the Virgin & Child because they happen to contain some religious (aka mythological) trappings? I can’t paint easter eggs because oh no the fertility goddess Eostre? Beth’s right. It’s a very childish attitude. One you share with the Puritans who outlawed Christmas because it was too Pagan.

  18. Karen Hardin says

    @ #14 left0ver

    Not everyone who has religious relatives was taught to say “bless you”. I was born in the Philadelphia area at a time and place when “everyone” knew that the true and proper response to a sneeze is “gesundheit”. I haven’t lived there for a long time, so I don’t know if it still is.

    I don’t remeber hearing “bless you” until I was an adult.

  19. iknklast says

    Grumpy Old Fart:

    I thought religion automatically came with the holiday.
    If there was no Jesus there would be no holiday.
    If there was no holiday there would be no Santa.
    And without Santa why would we bother to celebrate Christmas?

    The celebration preceded Christianity. It was the solstice celebration. Christians simply decided to co-opt it, because people were celebrating anyway. The holiday was too much fun to allow to the pagans. So, without Jesus, we’d be celebrating the sun, not the son. And the sun has given us ample demonstration of its existence.

    Flynn also has a problem with that idea, though, because the shortest day of the year isn’t the same everywhere. Whatever. I am not everywhere, I am in the upper midwest, and it is definitely the depths of winter here. He also mentioned that with central heating, we don’t need to worry about the daylength and weather. Really? Has he no clue that if the seasons did not change, he wouldn’t eat much, even though we have all our modern technologies? Still need that growing season.

  20. says

    He also mentioned that with central heating, we don’t need to worry about the daylength and weather.

    Really? Well, I live in Canada and can attest that even with central heating there’s a big difference between summer and winter here. One actually notices when it’s dark by 4 or 5 o’clock, when you have to walk–even if it’s just through parking lots–outside in minus 20 or colder, when wind gusts hurt your face and lungs, when you have to warm up the car before you drive anywhere, when all your winter clothes come out of the closet so you can layer up. Sure, the effects may be mitigated by electricity and modern technology, but believe me, it’s a lot different than being in a tropical climate. I spent a year away (Italy & Singapore) one year and the sameness of the weather/amt. of light was a bit surreal to me, even unpleasant I’d go so far to say. I even miss living a bit farther north than I currently do because due to lake effect and latitude the extremes aren’t quite as extreme as what I’m used to.

    Has this guy never heard of SAD?

  21. chigau (違う) says

    I didn’t see anything about central heating.
    Maybe I missed it while skimming past all the “Am not!” “Are, too!” comments.

  22. John Morales says

    chigau, note the phrasing doesn’t imply that it’s in the featured piece.

    It’s from some time ago.

    To my mind, the solstice and its variants like HumanLight have three important problems that render them unfit for celebration by moderns. First, if you understand a little astronomy it’s evident that the solstices and equinoxes are nothing special—they’re automatic consequences of living on a spherical world with a tilted axis that orbits a star. Big deal! Second, most of us have central heating; many of us live in warmer climes. A message of hope that winter will one day end doesn’t carry the resonance it did in ancient or medieval times. Again, big deal! Third, any winter solstice celebration is inescapably parochial: it only “works” for people living in the north temperate zone. For folks who live in the tropics, it’s immaterial; for folks who live in the south temperate zone, it’s reversed. The British Empire had no scruples about inducing its colonists in Australia and New Zealand to celebrate Christmas at the crest of summer heat. Secular humanists who aspire to be “citizens of the world” ought to know better.

  23. themann1086 says

    @19 Karen: phellow philly native here, and I say gesundheit! That’s partly because I studied German in high school but I do hear it from other people.

  24. chigau (違う) says

    John Morales
    Thanks for the link.
    I wonder if Flynn is familiar with the concept of “privilege”.

  25. says

    @16: Yeah, that thread is….remarkable. Beth seems rather, well, strongly attached to Christmas celebrations — but the “collabrating with the enemy” guy is waaay over the top.

    @23: Like I said, Flynn’s a major league party pooper. Does he celebrate birthdays, or is there something subtly religion-pandering about them too? And picking nits about the solstice? SRSLY? I’m with Ibis: it’s fucking dark fucking *early* here at the moment. Hanging a few twinkly lights from the eaves is kinda nice. If the tropicals and the australs don’t feel the inclination, well I’m not going to insist they do the same. I can be a “citizen of the world” and still do seasonally-appropriate things where I live. But I guess Tom would also begrudge Tim Minchin his white wine in the sun.

  26. John Morales says


    But I guess Tom would also begrudge Tim Minchin his white wine in the sun.

    I doubt that.

    FWIW, what I reckon he’s doing is engaging in the equivalent of an etymological fallacy; whatever the reasons for origin of the festivities, they’re now functionally calendrical celebrations rather than religious ones — so his (accurate to my mind) dismissal of its original putative relevance outside the religious context is not relevant to its current instantiation — and partaking of the festivities (cf. Christmas in Japan) is (as I noted above) hardly indulging religion.

  27. says

    I forgot to add: The one arguable point Flynn has is that Christmas celebrations will (at least in American culture) be seen as affirming the Christian hegemony, whatever the celebrants’ personal views. But all the same, his adjurations to ideological purity and concern for others’ perceptions really do remind me of my days in the evangelical church. Screw that.

  28. John Morales says

    [meta + OT]

    Easter varies between 4 April and 8 May — that’s supposedly Jesus’ deathday, as Christmas is his birthday.

    (Do atheists get to give Easter eggs? 😉 )

  29. says

    A message of hope that winter will one day end doesn’t carry the resonance it did in ancient or medieval times. Again, big deal!

    Well, yeah, it IS a big deal if you’e eiher homeless, a farmer, or just too poor to pay for three months of seriously warm nights. This jackass needs to be reminded that a lot of people still live in medeival conditions; and a lot of others are aware that they can easily get bumped down to such conditions.

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