Being an atheist at Christmas.

Every year, around this time, I get a rather itchy case of cognitive dissonance. I'm an atheist enjoying Christmas.

Invariably a friend, who will typically have no religious beliefs themselves, will ask why I celebrate the festival when I'm not religious.

This is the little spiel I reel off in defence to my cloudy thinking:

When I celebrate Christmas I follow a festival that is currently generally considered to be Christian but that at previous times has been Norse, Roman, Greek and Pagan, all the way into prehistory. Like all those people I have co-opted the same festival to represent my own beliefs. Just like all those before me I've stolen and adapted it to suit my own thoughts and my own needs.

Christmas is originally the celebration of the Winter Solstice (21st - 22nd December), which rather than being a day for pagan magic, is simply the peak of winter — the day with the longest night.

When the earth is cold, and dead, when the trees are bare and the Sun can't quite warm your skin, it makes sense to celebrate the warmth you still have on this worst day, knowing it will only get better from here on out.

That warmth is our friends and our family; the new members and the ones we miss.

I think it's foolish to say that an atheist does not need these traditions. I think we need them more. I've a finite, limited time with those I love, and Christmas reminds me of that. Reminds me to make the most of this.

So with all possible respect, whilst we both should join each other on enjoying our decorations, our trees, our winter days and our presents. We should all be hoping for 'Peace and Goodwill to all men.' But, you can keep your tales of Christ in a pig trough, your magic flying super-intelligent creatures, your wise men and your acts of baby genocide. And I'll keep my Christmas alive — just like you will.

Furthermore, Christians might currently own Christmas but at best they are mearly custodians, the temporary baton carriers of a festival that stretches into prehistory. It would preposterous to tell me that I can't connect to the history of our species because a certain fraction of people with certain specific beliefs are, as of yet, refusing to hand over custody to capitalism, scientology, atheism or whatever new group will take it upon themselves next. It doesn't work that way.

No greater proof of this can be more forthcoming than the damnations Christmas receives in the old testament itself.

Before the birth of christ the old testament when to great pains to damn to hell those who celebrated in the old pagan and roman ways as we can read in Jeremiah 10 1-5

1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

The Christmas tree was a pagan and roman celebration of life (it is easy to see how a vivid green tree at the peak of winter would raise the spirits) and as such was a symbol of competeing faiths, and so condemned in the Old Testament.

However in the years that followed as Christianity spread north these people who celebrated in the harshness of winter, were won over and converted to Christianity.

But these people needed this festival in the same way we do today. They couldn't bare to abandon this important gathering of friends and family, so they moved the birth of Christ and made the festival about that so that the important aspects of it could survive. They hid their festival in the trappings of the day.

It might be depressing for Christians today, to see that same process repeating itself, it suggests that Christianity might be on the wane.

But that won't stop it happening.

Other things worth mentioning

9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People is pretty much the celebration for people with similar views to myself. It's wonderful and I cannot recommend it enough. Whilst you might struggle for tickets this close to the event, you can buy a DVD of last years at the equally wonderful Gofasterstripe. I'm off to see it this Tuesday at Bloomsbury.

Tim Minchin is releasing his Christmas single 'White Wine and The Sun' that covers much the same topics, but from the point of view of someone who has Christmas in the middle of summer. I've embedded it below:

I think it is lovely.

Oh, and for those of you who think, 'well fine, just stop calling it christmas, I'm afraid that history doesn't work like that, for example, we don't need to come up with another name for 'saturday', because we don't use the day to worship the greek god or agriculture any more.

Sorry for the saccharin and gooey post today, but normal cynical service will be resumed as soon as possible. Sooner if I get an iPhone for Christmas allowing me to actually blog again.


Loki said...

Glad to have you back! And I couldnt agree more.I like the co-opting xmas for your own beliefs, this I want to steal for when people ask me why I still like celebrating it. Ha.

Dr Aust said...

The early Christian Church fairly clearly co-opted the Winter Solstice as Jesus' Birthday, as they similarly co-opted other pre-Christian seasonal celebrations (like Easter) for other bits of the Christian Year.

Much easier to get the local pagans onside for conversion if they didn't have to re-jig the seasonal festivities to get with the new religion.

Anonymous said...

Good post, good points. Even better if you'd learn to spell merely correctly.

Naomi Mc said...

I'm a big fan of Christmas because I like trees in the house, excuses for drinking all the time, wrapping presents, pretzels, stockings, stuffing, snow (even though it doesn't), spotting gift clothes on people the next day, Muppet's Christmas Carol, and bread sauce.

I also like Christmas carols, Salvation Army brass bands and having a time of the year where you should think of other people, these all can (and I believe do) exist without god.

Anonymous said...

I don't think people celebrated the solstice because they needed cheering up on the day of the longest night of the year; rather, they were celebrating the end of lengthening night and the beginning of lengthening day.

Navab Farhan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael said...

Well said! Happy solstice!

DragonMage said...

Please buy Tim's single and get an atheist song into the Christmas charts. It's available to download on iTunes,, amazon, HMV and Tesco. It's currently no. 29 in the UK real-time download chart!

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