Monday, December 17, 2007


The meaning...

In the comments to yesterday’s post, Miss Profe asks:


What does Christmas mean to an athiest?

Good question. And one that I have a longer answer for, so I’ll make it a separate post, rather than a response in the comments.

I can only speak for this atheist, of course, and one who grew up in a Jewish family, as well. I had no family connection to Christmas, but most of the families in my neighbourhood did celebrate Christmas, and most of my friends, therefore, did.

I think the connection between Christmas and Jesus, or religion in general, is pretty tenuous now, as it also was in my youth; I wonder if it ever was particularly strong (its history is as an attempt by the church to replace pagan solstice rites, after all). Some people clearly have more of a religious feeling about it than others do, but I think in the mainstream it’s a fairly secular celebration.

And that last word is really the central aspect of it for me: it’s a celebration, and I’m happy to see my friends and neighbours celebrate it, and to join in the celebration myself. I have no use for the idea that anyone should object to public displays of Christmas trees or Santas, wreaths or angels or trumpets or any such. Even nativity scenes don’t set off my “separation of church and state” alarms. I’m more annoyed at being bombarded by excessive commercialism (come on, how many people really buy cars for Christmas?) than by “Christian” Christmas symbols.

For me, it’s a chance to share other people’s traditions, to learn about what their families do to gather and celebrate, and all that. It’s a festival. And I’m as festive as the next guy. It doesn’t bother me whether the festival is celebrating the arrival of winter, the birth of a religious figure, the burning of a lamp in a temple for longer than expected, or just general brotherhood and good will. If it really does make us think a bit more about brotherhood and good will for a few weeks, it makes me happy.

Just as long as I don’t have to listen to that horrible Paul McCartney song.


Lisa said...

It's about festiveness, family, food, gifts and music for this atheist.

Festiveness: I like seeing decorations on dark winter evenings, whether it's penguins down the street, menorah lights in windows, or Christmas trees. I prefer the less overtly religious decorations but to me both decorated pine trees and lighted menorahs are less overt than big crosses, manger scenes or stars. I can't think of any logical basis for thinking of menorahs as being more festive than pushy (yes I know about the temple lights background) except that I've seen my friends light menorahs and they did it for their own fun, not for show. The process of decorating the tree is as important as seeing it in the living room for the next two weeks.

Family, well, partly it's because it's easy to get vacation this time of year and see lots of family when they all get together in one place. I miss my family when I don't see them around Christmas.

Food: this is a time of year to seek out special food (just like Halloween and Thanksgiving and to a lesser extent the 1st or 4th of July). I missed having suganiot with my friends this year but there'll be turkey and trimmings with my family.

Gifts have always been big in my family and I love giving and I love surprises. The gift-giving is definitely no more religion-linked than birthday gifts, to me.

I enjoy some carols very much and tend to sing them more this time of year than others. Some are festive, some are religious, one is even jewish.

Anybody should be able to adopt their favorite traditions and foods. My mom has had people thinking for years she was Ukrainian because she made Ukrainian festive food on Ukrainian New Years. Why should you have to be Ukrainian to cook kutia and perogies in early January?

Maggie said...

I agree, "Christmas" is very far removed from the birth of Christ -- most of what Christians do at this time has very little to do with celebrating the birth of Christ. If they're doing anything more than going to church and coming home (maybe with a little creche in the house or yard), they're doing secular stuff. Puritans had laws against celebrating in any other way -- which means that people were celebrating in other ways, even in Puritan Massachusetts. I think the pagan celebration has never been wiped out of Christmas, no matter how hard various Christians have tried. I know they like to make up stuff like the gifts are because of the three wise men, but that's retrofitting old traditions to their relatively new story. (Which is fine -- they can celebrate whatever they want! I don't care if Christians decided to celebrate something that's important to them on a pagan holiday, just don't tell me it's THE reason for the season!)

Religion was never imposed on me as a child, but Christmas was a traditional holiday. We had the tree and the gifts, we visited family, and it was generally a very happy time. My happiest memories are being home with my family and decorating the house, or making crafts, or wrapping presents with my mom. This past weekend we all watched some old home movies and my sister and I couldn't resist bugging my mom about the old decorations, including an old life-size (to a four-year-old) paper Santa and Mrs. Claus. Unfortunately, she has gotten rid of the tacky old stuff we had in the seventies!

For me now, the greenery and the lights really help when the weather is dark and grey and cold. The secular Christmas is such a huge part of our culture, as an atheist I don't feel at all left out and I have no qualms about celebrating it. It may be called "Christmas," but call it Yule or Saturnalia or whatever you want, it's the tilt of the earth and the end of the shortening of days that started the whole thing off, and I think it's natural to want to celebrate *something* during this time.

Anonymous said...

Nice article about the festivies of Christmas -- that is exactly what it has become and yes, Christ is barely in Christmas anymore for most people. I do enjoy getting together with friends, family, traditions, etc. The giving of gifts is wonderful for me-- I love giving more than receiving. I love the look on people's faces when the gift you've given them as meaning to you and to them too!

scouter573 said...

The great irony, of course, is that Easter is the greatest of the Christian holidays. In an unusual turn, it is appropriate that the lesser of the two holidays is the one that strays farthest from its roots. For all that Bill O'Reilly rants about the anti-Christmas crowd, it is the very Christians themselves who have hastened the corruption of the event. They have given it over to the moneychangers, so to speak and Saint Nicolas has been turned into a salesman for chashki.

Miss Profe said...

Hi, Barry.

Thank you for addressing my post. I really appreciate your taking the time to answer my question in such a detailed way.

Dr. Momentum said...

I agree, and well said, Barry. The exhortation "let's put Christ back in Christmas" is an acknowledgment that, at some point, he either left or was removed.

Christmas, as it is celebrated today in America, is a fabricated and largely American holiday. People like to think of it as traditional, but many of these traditions are fairly recent.

From last year's essay on it:

"Christmas became more and more rowdy. By the 1820s, people’s (the upper class’) tolerance for riots had worn out. A transformation happened and Christmas was re-invented to suit America’s needs. Instead of the poor turning the social order upside-down to demand things from the rich, a consumer version of Christmas emerged that was more compatible with commerce. The focus became gifts to children rather than begging. New things were invented to feel old fashioned. Some old customs were adopted as if they had always been practiced here; the evergreen symbol that was popular in Germany became an American Christmas symbol. People thought they were re-adopting old traditions, but in reality, America was creating a new Christmas that would spread from here back to the rest of the world."

Barry Leiba said...

You're welcome. And I'm happy that some others have added their thoughts to it too — thanks, everyone!