“The Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington, D.C. This wasn’t for any religious reasons. They couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.“ – Jay Leno, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, NBC
NOTE: This article was written a while ago. My kids are now off at college and 20-years-old and the wife mentioned in this article is no longer my wife. It was long enough ago that since writing it I got remarried and divorced again.
Why does no one ever ask atheists if they celebrate Hanukkah, Ramadan, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, or Kwanzaa?
The reason no one asks about those holidays is of all the religious holidays that fall around December, all but one are obscure to most people. Do they think only of Christmas because it is commercialistic? Alternatively, is it because Christmas has a secular god-like icon who children and adults everywhere worship? Maybe Santa reminds Christians of their own adult Santa Claus: their jolly old father in Heaven who knows when Christians have been bad or good and sends good little Christian boys and girls to Heaven…
When people ask if atheists celebrate Christmas they are usually referring to the religious aspects surrounding the birth of Jesus in a manger surrounded by barnyard animals with a bright star guiding the way for three wise men.
I can safely state that atheists do not celebrate Christmas in the “Jesus is the reason for the season” sense. An atheist soldier in Iraq, who was participating in Operation Foxhole Atheists, emailed my wife a story about what he called Annual Atheist Gift Exchange Day (AAGED). It is how he responds to fellow soldiers asking if he celebrates Christmas.
That brings us to the other Christmas: Santa Claus, eight reindeer, the exchange of gifts, mistletoe, Yule logs, and other seasonal paraphernalia, customs, and traditions.
Here are some of my personal feelings about the entire season: Take a little bit of Grinch and Scrooge mixed with a tiny bit of cheer and you have a good recipe of my views and attitude toward Christmas overall. It takes a lot to jump-start my holiday cheer.
I loathe Christmas music (secular and religious) and I cannot stand the thought of putting up a tree, hanging lights, and dealing with the lunatics at the local mall swarming over the latest and greatest over-priced fad gift for people they probably cannot stand to be around in the first place (Cynic? Me? What makes you say that?).
I do most of my shopping online. I do not go to the mall or any other retail store and deal with the crowds, stand in line for hours, and pay too much for something the gift recipient will throw away, recycle, or sell at next spring’s yard sale. When I have no choice to go to the mall or shopping center, I go with dread and leaden feet.
I do participate in some of the festivities, though.
My children believed in Santa Claus. I think it is important for children to enjoy their childhood and embrace their imagination and their hopes, even if they hinge upon a fragile belief in a jolly old man that will, between the third and fifth grade, come crashing down on them when the kid next door tells them that Santa Claus does not exist.
My kids figured out that Santa Claus did not exist on their own. A few times, they got close to realizing the falsehood of Santa, then a family member would ruin it by insisting Santa was real or planting deer droppings in the yard (mini marshmallows died black) or using boots to make ash prints from the fireplace to the tree.
While I am certainly a Grinch and a Scrooge, I am not a jerk. I did not dash the hopes, dreams, and imaginations of my children. I let them have their fantasy until they were ready to abandon it on their own.
In my view, that was a good way to teach them a bit of freethought and critical thinking. They had to work the Santa Claus issue out on their own, using their own rationality and critical thinking. When they realized that Santa Claus was not real, it was a great sense of accomplishment for them. I suppose it could have been different if a friend had told them Santa Claus did not exist, but that is not what happened. The same methods they used to discount Santa Claus also helped them get rid of the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny and ultimately, belief in gods.
So what does this atheist do at Christmas time?
I hang lights around the house and put up icons of Santa Claus and snowmen (because my wife makes me do it). If it snows where we live then we will build a snowman. I live in Alabama and it has not snowed in a long time (except the occasional flurry now and then). The last time it snowed people freaked out: businesses closed, vehicles crashed into each other, panic spread like wildfire, Fundamentalists talked about the apocalypse, children wept, the governor called out the National Guard, declared martial law, and federal military assets in the area went to DEFCON-2.
We also hang some mistletoe around the house, but most people forget to take advantage of it after a day or two. Some people even deliberately avoid the mistletoe and others refuse to acknowledge the lore behind the mistletoe. I think this is a mistake. We need to take advantage of the mistletoe and put the “X” back in Xmas (wink, wink).
When someone in the house turns on Christmas music, I run for my cave. You know that icky creepy feeling you get when you listen to elevator music (not to be confused with New Age music), I get that same feeling with Christmas music: secular or religious. Whether it is Jingle Bells or Silent Night, my spine is pierced and wrenched.
We used to cook the traditional Christmas turkey or ham, but no longer. We have broken our old tradition and started a new one: we (by we, I mean my wife) slave all day making Green Chile Enchiladas. It seems a waste to take hours preparing a meal that takes minutes to eat and hours more cleaning the kitchen the rest of the day. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches would do, but I love Green Chile Enchiladas and they are worth the mess and cleanup.
On Christmas Eve, the family gathers around the tree to exchange gifts. If our parents are in the area, they usually show up that evening, too. Eventually somebody pretending innocence will turn on the radio to a local station that has forsaken its genre to play Christmas music 24 hours solely to get on my nerves. It is a conspiracy and I am on to them. I put up with the Christmas music because in my house it is a true democracy, not a constitutional republic. I am out-voted, so I deal with it. Meanwhile my mind is screaming, “It burns! It burns!” as images of the exorcist flash through my head when Holy Water is thrown at the possessed girl.
The kids get to open their gifts from the immediate and extended family. Even the pet gets a gift: usually some silly chew toy that he will devour in a few minutes. While I like pets, I just do not comprehend the idea of giving Christmas gifts to pets. I hate to disappoint pet lovers everywhere, but your pet does not understand the concept of Christmas. Pets do not believe in Santa Claus. Pets do not see a gift from the big red man; pets see a free treat (without having to beg) from a master. Of course, we have to wonder about those silly humans who put gift-wrapped doggy treats under the tree and then wonder why Rover tore the tree and gifts up digging through the packages.We get the kids to bed later than normal, meaning Santa has to stay up late, too. It sure would be nice if they went to sleep at their regular time so Mr. and Mrs. Claus can get some decent sleep as well.
I have been lucky that my kids were not early risers on Christmas morning. If the kids do get up early they will often be so amazed at the stuff they have gotten that they will forget to come in and wake us up. We are happy to oblige their blissful oversight because we need the extra thirty minutes of sleep.
One year Santa brought a new swing made out of wood. The red-suited delinquent forgot to assemble it before dropping it off. I refused to give him his eggnog and cookies that year. My father, my sister’s boyfriend, and I began to assemble the wooden swing around 10 p.m. At 2 a.m., my sister’s boyfriend gave up and abandoned my Dad and me. My Dad gave up at 5 a.m. and I continued until 6 a.m. when it was finished. I went into the house, got a cup of hot chocolate, and sat around to warm up. My fingers were frozen, my toes and butt were numb, and I had lots of nicks, scratches, and scrapes. I tried to warm up as I licked my wounds. I finally crawled into bed just before 7 a.m. Ten minutes later my children came into the room screaming about what Santa Claus left in the living room.
After getting about 15 minutes of sleep, I dragged myself into the living room and collapsed on the couch. I finally gathered enough energy to work my way to the kitchen door and gasp, “What’s that?” The look of joy on my children’s face made everything worth it. I did not need Jesus. I did not need God. I did not need a religious reason to celebrate. All I needed was my children and the look on their faces to justify my secular celebration of the holidays.
The adults scramble out of bed as the kids declare “Code Red:” the signal for parents to get up. The issuance of “Code Red” by the kids happens when it finally dawns on them that if they want to open their gifts they will have to wake up the adults. To give the parents a little more sleep, we started a new tradition a few years ago of not wrapping most of their Santa gifts. Santa gifts are unwrapped and placed in neat and orderly stacks, one stack for each child. This has greatly extended the time between their waking up and a “Code Red” declaration.
With the new system, we mosey into the kitchen (completely bypassing the tree and gifts as we have already seen them) and start the hot tea and coffee. We must say, “Hold your horses” five hundred times in the course of the two minutes it takes to start the water boiling. It takes time for adults to open their eyes and get their brains functioning (especially when we have only had a couple of hours of sleep because we were busy playing Santa Claus).
To add to the chaos, I always forget to setup the video camera the night before. We have to struggle to find it, set it up, and find a good strategic place for it that allows quick access to the feeding frenzy with the ability to span ninety degrees of the living room. Then I realize that I do not have my regular camera and the scramble starts all over again. By this time, the kids are going bonkers at our inability to get our crap together. Now is a good time to let them open a present to keep them appeased until the adults get organized.
Then we begin to open gifts. It is at this moment that any resemblance to the Grinch and Scrooge ends. This moment gives the holiday meaning for this particular atheist. When I watch my children open gifts with unadulterated excitement, when I listen to their audible expressions of joy as they discover what lies beneath the Santa Claus, reindeer, snowman, and evergreen tree laden wrapping paper, that is when I fill with love and joy. It is then that I realize what all the fuss is about: even if that fuss frustrated me, pissed me off, and had me Bah Hum Bugging for the last month.
Why do I go through all the trouble at Christmas?
I guess a part of it is tradition. The Jesus stuff never really meant that much to me, even when I was a kid. Today, I would be just as happy celebrating a secular Hanukkah, Ramadan, Saturnalia, or winter solstice. However, Christmas is a federal holiday (do not get me started on that issue) that American society has organized around.
A part of recognizing Christmas has to do with the schools and the other kids. The kids are out of school and all their playmates do the Christmas thing. All their friends are more worried about Santa Claus than they are about Jesus. Just ask any kid in a class about the meaning of Christmas and you will get a majority of Santa Claus and a minority of Jesus answers or the kids will mention Jesus as an afterthought. After all, kids do not go to the mall to sit on Jesus’ lap and tell him what they want for Christmas. No one scrambles to the mall to get a picture of their children on Jesus’ lap surrounded by angels. They go to the mall for Santa Claus and elves.Imagine the anguish a child would go through returning to school after the winter break and telling their friends they did not celebrate Christmas. I often wonder how the children of those families deal with this issue. I certainly am not suggesting that anyone cave to pressure or assimilation. What I am suggesting is that if there is a way to ease our children’s anxieties at school then we should do it. If I can celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas and accomplish that at the same time, then I am all for it.
I try my best to ensure that my children are free from harassment and ridicule at school, especially because of my atheism. If that means this atheist has to deal with Christmas and all the nonsense that goes with it, then I do it.
An alternative is to celebrate the winter solstice and open gifts on December 21. Many atheists take this route. Next year my family is going to try December 21 instead of December 25. It makes sense for us because we decorate our tree and house based on the winter solstice since my wife used to be a Wiccan. A pagan Santa Claus sits on top of our tree.
Even without my wife’s old Wicca beliefs, the winter solstice is still a great opportunity to celebrate the season. The winter solstice has found a place in humanity’s heart for a long time. Humans begin to look forward to the spring and the winter solstice is the beginning of that phase. The days will begin to get longer and the nights shorter. The weather will begin to warm.
I complain along with everyone else about the commercial nature of Christmas, but there is one thing I am sure of: if not for Santa Claus, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, elves, flying sleighs, Santa Radar on the local news, Frosty the Snowman, and other secular aspects of the season, there would be no federal holiday for Christmas.
Christmas, if left to stand solely on its religious foundation, would be just another Hanukkah, Ramadan, Saturnalia, or Yule.
Thanks to Santa Claus and the commercialization of the season, everyone can celebrate the holiday regardless of their religious beliefs or non-beliefs. It is because other interests use Christmas that so many Fundamentalists have long rallied around the slogan, “Put Christ Back in Christmas.” However, Christmas has become bigger than Christ’s Mass. It is hard to give Christmas wholly to Christ when Christ was a latecomer to the holiday that he now shares with earlier celebrations and traditions.
Rest assured my fellow secularists; Santa Claus is safe in the materialistic and capitalistic mindset of America and he will continue to be an icon of the season, giving everyone a chance to celebrate the season, not just Christians.
Then there is that big pink furry bastard, the Easter Bunny…