What Can Christmas Mean to an Atheist?

 

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[Preface: This is my second Christmas blog post, and hopefully it will turn into an annual event. My first blog was Does Santa Claus Exist?.]

The first thing I will say is that the meaning of Christmas to an atheist definitely does not include the pious rhyme: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” This may not even be historically correct. There is an even chance that Jesus as a regular human did not exist according to the religious studies scholar Raphael Lataster, and even a greater chance according to the historical scholar, Richard Carrier.¹ It is not my intention here that I want to convince anyone of this possibility. As for Jesus being both human and divine or just divine there is hardly a chance at all. As an atheist I am at least commit to this second claim. I just wanted to be out front on my belief that Jesus did not exist as a divine being, and maybe not even as a historical human being.

Some might ask, how could Christmas mean anything to an atheist? This is a fair question in my opinion. Fortunately, modern culture provides a partial answer. Christmas, at least in the United States, is a cultural phenomenon. You just cannot escape it. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday are prominent days right after Thanksgiving. Everywhere there are public Christmas trees. Rockefeller Center, the Capitol, the White House, and many municipalities have them. And do not forget about all those Christmas songs and carols. One local station plays them around the clock. Many houses and apartments string Christmas lights with some that go hog wild and decorate their whole lawn. Then, there are the Christmas shows, the Christmas movies, and Christmas concerts and music shows that come on television at this time of year, both on public and commercial television. Why do you need to be a Christian or believe in god to enjoy many of these sights and sounds?

If you have anything to do with modern culture you cannot escape Christmas, so you might as well make it mean something. “What could it possibly mean,” asks the Christian, “if you do not believe in Jesus?” But, since the divine Jesus does not exist, Christmas cannot really mean anything to anybody (Christian or not) in regards to Jesus, except what has been created by “men” who wrote the Christmas stories. Yes, the stories were probably all written by “men,” even the Magnificat. Which, by the way is one of the most beautifully constructed poems in the Bible, especially if you put it to music by Bach. Then, in addition to the biblical stories, legends have developed over the years, which have been added to the stories over the years. And, now days there is a plethora of meaning injected into or ejected from the original Christmas legend.

Well I am an atheist, so what could Christmas mean to me? First, I will start with the biblical perspective. Yes, there are still some nice things in the Bible, despite its partially horrendous content, and the other stuff which is either lame or could safely be ignored, unless you are a biblical scholar.

I have for a long time liked Luke 2:14. “Glory to god in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.” (King James Bible) I went to a midnight mass on Christmas Eve at my girlfriend’s Catholic Church once, and the priest focused his homily on this line. I was impressed. It is quite a shame that peace on earth will probably not occur. Violence and war are evolved responses, which can occur, unfortunately, when disagreements arise. Luckily, human beings also evolved emphatic and compromising responses as well. We have been for the most part able to expand are circle of empathy, so that peace occurs more than it ever has. Good will to me means respect for others. This has widen among human beings, also.

Unfortunately this quote is not considered accurate by some biblical scholars. According to two of them² it should read – “Glory to god in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (English Standard Version – ESV) Given this translation there need not be total peace on earth for this quote to be accurate. Unfortunately, if it is Christians that god is please with, there are plenty of Christians in the world who are not at peace either with their neighbors (literally and between counties), within in their family, or suffer inner turmoil. So, I guess not all Christians are so blessed with peace; god must not be please with a good many Christians.

Luckily, there is no god. So, we can just take the sentiment and hope in a purely human way. Just because there are wars currently going on, and the prospect for worldwide peace is slim, it does not mean that those in a position to act should not do all they can do to lessen the amount of wars being fought. We peons can choose leaders who are less likely to wage war and continue to bloat our defense budget in the United States and other democracies.

Good will is solely in our hands. We can choose whether or not to respect another person’s self. And, Christmas is a good time to redouble our efforts here. All in all peace and good will are nice sentiments to have, and point us toward the niceness and kindness that we can practice in our lives throughout the year. Christmas is a time to express love for your neighbors, friends, and especially family. Love is a universal emotion, but it is more than that. I would say it is a state of mind you have toward another, deeming to look after his or her welfare. Christians certainly do not hold a monopoly on love, and it is not universally expressed at all times by them either. How is whacking a child for misbehavior love? Children grow into better persons when violence is not used against them. I want to firmly state that atheists are just as capable of loving others as any other believer.† And, on what I consider a plus side, they love not because they are commanded to.

What then are some of the ways I express my love towards others during the Christmas season. I bake cookies for my girlfriend’s neighbors. I love to bake, and I love to share. Combine them together and I am loving myself as well as my neighbors; one should be kind to oneself, too. I give out nonreligious Christmas Cards (using sayings like “Season Greetings”) to my friends at the mental health program (CBH Life Skills) I attend twice a week with some candy. My love is expressed towards Bette, my girlfriend of many many years, with helping her with the her Christmas tree, and the giving and receiving of gifts (she is the only one in my life that I share this experience with because of lack of funds). These are not the only ways I express my love toward her, but these are especially express during the Christmas season. There is also the imaginary mistletoe, which is indicated by pointing to the ceiling, for plenty of quick kisses.

Now, some people will claim that giving gifts is just a crass and materialistic expression that perverts the Christmas message. Actually, it is part of the Christmas message. Mathew. 2:11 “And going into the house they [the wise men from the East‡] saw the child with Mary his mother. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (ESV) I admit to cherry picking here because they gave their gifts in an act of worship, but I do not consider this approach any worse then what most Christians do with the Bible, liberal or conservative. So, unless your willing to call the wise men crass, we can dismiss this claim.

That gifts are materialistic is correct. But, in my view of the world, which I will not defend here, everything is materialistic anyway with the exception of the forces that control their actions.* So, giving gifts is materialistic in this sense no matter who gives them. And, it is not an abuse of the word “worship” to apply it to human beings. “I worship the grounds she walks on.” And, “reverence” and its cognates appear in almost every definition of worship. Reverence is often given to leaders of groups and countries (especially in monarchies). It is even used in the Catholic Church to address the higher echelons, like cardinals and popes, where some address them as your worship. Human beings are made of physical material, so this type of worship is also materialistic.

Another way that giving Christmas gifts expresses love toward Bette in my case, and others, is trying to figure out gifts that would be meaningful to them. So meaning shows itself in the giving of gifts. While, I do enjoy, and joy carries meaning too, opening my gifts, I have found as time goes on with Bette, that I enjoy it even more when she opens the gifts I have given her. Joy has meaning usually in connection with someone or some object or some set of objects, and it is this connection were I feel meaning resides in the giving and receiving of gifts.

Other than the giving and receiving of gifts, there are a good many objects in which there are connections that provides meaning associated with Christmas. Some of the Christmas objects that have meaningful to me are lights, Christmas trees, Christmas songs and carols, making Christmas dinner and an apple pie, baking and giving out Christmas cookies, Christmas shows and concerts, Christmas mass (once in awhile), and Santa Claus (yeah).

Ah, the lights. Lights to me means happiness and glee. I still act like a child at times, hence being in the state of glee as well as happiness. Lights are pretty. Lights are bright. Lights are a delight. Do you get the picture? Every year, recently, I take a walk around Bette’s apartment complex at night and look at the lights. I estimate that less than one percent of apartments put lights on their balcony, but I think it is worth the walk. On my walk some Christmas trees are visible through open living room window blinds. There are more people that put up Christmas trees than lights, but how many more is difficult for me to estimate.

But, the most important Christmas tree is the one Bette and I put up together. We now put up an artificial tree with lights already on it. I actually prefer this tree to a natural one, which costs every year. Unless you want to spend a good deal of money because many low cost natural trees you get have gaps among irregular limbs. The tree we have is uniform. It has plenty of branches to hang the many many ornaments that Bette has. She has more ornaments by far than will fit on the tree.

She has been celebrating Christmas a lot longer than me, and I have been doing it for twenty-eight years, but I will not reveal actually how much longer, and every ornament has a memory for her. My memories are not as exact as most of Bette’s, but I do know where I purchased a good deal of them if not the exact years. And, I would say memories can be pregnant (virginly of course) with meaning.

I believe the first ornament I gave her was one with three wise men in gold like metal encased in glass surrounded by more gold looking metal. I bought this in Philadelphia at a mid-Atlantic Phi Theta Kappa convention. Another one I remember I bought was when we went to Charleston, SC. It was a gold plated thin metal ornament, which featured three different famous churches from there. Before this last one mentioned, I got a ceramic cat in boxing shorts and gloves in Harpers Ferry, WV. I was not aware of the boxing attire until Bette said something. I gave her may angels over the years. Some were pewter, some were stain glass, and one was a Royal Doulton, which was in part a joke. We used to watch Keeping Up Appearances, a British sitcom. The lead character Hyacinth tried to pass herself of as an upper class Englishwoman, and she would always talk about her Royal Doulton. Two other ornaments I gave her were a ceramic tiger and a polymer cat with reindeer antlers pasted on.

The Christmas tree also brings Baxter (our large orange tabby) joy and amusement along with some puzzlement when the tree first goes up and maybe a couple of days afterwards. After he gets used to it he will lay under it, and he will sometimes play with one of the lower hanging  ornaments. It gets a little harder after the presents get put around the tree. I do not know what brings me the greater joy; Baxter interacting with the tree, or just the site of it all decorated with the presents around and underneath it.

I just cannot seem to get enough of Christmas songs and carols. It is a wonder to me how attracted I am to them, since some of them (mainly carols) have religious meaning right out front or at least hinting at it. And, remember they are all for the season, and in a way the New Testament Jesus is what the fuss is all about, at least initially. I do claim that Christmas has made it into an all-purpose holiday. I do not feel you need any religious belief to celebrate it. And, I am a case in point.

And, some of these songs and carols have meaning to this atheist. The first one that comes to mind is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Its main point to me is the importance of spending time during the holidays with friends. Take the religious meaning out of “Joy to the World,” and you have a pretty good message—the world could always use a little more joy. And, what is wrong with “And when you walk down the street. Say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet.” from “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” And, mistletoe would not go a miss as long as you do not go out of bounds. The last I will mention is John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” It emphasizes being with others, it gives an honest assessment of the world, but hopes for a better future, takes stock and looks to the future (which I have read is the purpose of the Advent season), and wishes you peace for the year ahead.

And then there are the songs and carols I just like to listen to, and what is wrong with a little joy, especially at Christmas time. Here are some of my favorites: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (which jumping the gun are in two of my favorite Christmas shows or movies – A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life), “Winter Wonderland” (at least some versions), “Sleigh Ride” (particularly the orchestra version and Johnny Mathis’ rendition), “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (I guess it has a direct relationship to peace on earth and goodwill to humankind), “The Christmas Song” (who does not chose this one?), and “Lucy & Linus” (yeah, jazz).

And what is Christmas without a Christmas dinner and apple pie. This year I will be doing a whole roasted turkey at Bette’s request. I have only roasted once before at Thanksgiving time; it turned out real good. In addition to the roasted turkey with gravy I am going to make a yellow squash casserole with a recipe from Southern Living magazine, homemade cranberry sauce with mandarin oranges, yellow mashed potatoes, stuffing with homemade bread, and whipped sweet potatoes with brown sugar and cinnamon. The apple pie is something I hope to turn into a Christmas tradition. Last year I made my first one. It was also the first time I used lard in a crust (half lard/half butter), and it had a lattice top (first time, too).

What about Christmas cookies? Yeah. It is not so much the eating of them (all though this is nice too), but baking them and giving them out to neighbors and friends. I usually bake three kinds of cookies. Last year I made snickerdoodles, whole wheat almond thumbprints, and lemon iced ones. The snickerdoodles were a standard recipe with the exception that I used green and red sugar crystals. The thumbprints’ recipe I got from a friend at CBH Life Skills. The lemon iced I made in shapes and circular form, but the icing was not the most decorative (oh, well). This year I made snickerdoodles, chewy spicy molasses, and chocolate chip oatmeal cookies with half whole wheat flour.

Last year I gave cookies to five of Bette’s neighbors. They were all people I have had conversations with over the time I have known them. Last year was the second year I gave out cookies and each year they have been very appreciative. I also gave out cookies to some of my friends and staff at CBH Life Skills. This year I added one more neighbor to last years list. I once again gave them out to friends and staff at CBH Life Skills, which has both expanded and contracted since last year—people come and go there.

So, why do I do it? Why bake all these cookies for people I only run into from time to time? If you could see the smile on their faces, and the pleasure in their eyes, you would have your answer. There are some more self-serving answers as well. I will not rate the importance of the two I will relate. One is the excitement, pleasure, and joy when I perform an act of kindness—it just feels good. The other one is that I love to bake. I like the activity and the pleasure of creation (see Why Do I Cook and Bake? for more on this pleasure). Oh, the things I bake are tasty, too.

Then there are the Christmas shows, movies, and concerts I enjoy every year. Frosty the SnowmanA Charlie Brown ChristmasRudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town are some of the animated shows I typically watch every year. There are also singer specials like those of Michael Buble and Kelly Clarkson. Then there are the various Scrooge movies available to see each year. Elf is a cute modern movie, and my favorite modern movie is The Santa Clause. I always enjoy Christmas at Belmont on PBS every year as well as (for the most part) the Mormon Tabernacle choir concert. There is also a marine band concert that is most excellent, but I do not believe it has been on for at least three years now. I did watch it on youtube last year, but the quality was not that great. Finally, Bette likes The Nutcracker.

Christmas mass—this one is probably most surprising for an atheist to like. I suppose I am attracted to the pageantry and beauty. To be honest I have only attended the one Christmas mass with Bette I mentioned earlier. But, for years I would watch the taped midnight mass at the Vatican. To me it is a mix of education (the presenter does a damn good job), entertainment, and camaraderie (with Bette). It has been about four or five years since I have watched it all. While, it was for the most part enjoyable, it is just not that important to me to stay up past my regular bedtime now.

One of the funnest parts of Christmas is pretending that Santa Claus exists (see Does Santa Claus Exist? for more on last year’s fun). This year I want to be a Santa’s helper. I want to apply for a job to help him manage his naughty and nice lists. The way I envision it, I could report on people and inform him which list they should currently belong on. Baxter fluxuates often. I also have database programming and management skills, so maybe I could assist with his database. He must have one. After all I think he moves with the times.

I have a minor correction to last years post. In it I claimed that Santa folded up space, like the navigator’s in the Dune trilogy, to get to all the houses and other dwellings in one night. Another reason though might be that there are just not that many people on the nice list. “Oh, this just does not make sense” some would say. “You cannot play around with Santa anyway you like.” Well, Santa is nothing but a fantasy in the first place. A nice fantasy to be sure, but fantasy nevertheless, and so I can fantasize as much as I want to. Santa is too much fun to play around with. And, I believe (in play sense of course) in Santa because it is fun.

Santa still gets me excited. I came home to Bette’s and saw packages wrapped up in Christmas paper around the Christmas tree, and I exclaimed, “Santa’s been here, Santa’s been here, yeah” all excited like. “But, Santa’s supposed to come on Christmas Eve” I hear people object. Move with the times. Santa has not had to do it all in one night for ages. He has all those Mall Santas to assist him, and besides parents pickup much of the slack, making Santa’s job much more easier. And, then in addition to the parents there are other family members and friends.

To conclude this post, I will put on my critical thinking cap. Oh, you don’t have one. It is a must have. Maybe, Santa can bring you one, if you manage to stay on the nice list. I am an atheist after all and I do have issues with the “reason for the season.” Although Christmas has become a secular holiday, even for some Christians (maybe, even most), the religious side is still troubling to me.

First, besides Santa, it is based on deception. And, the Santa deception is minor in comparison to the Jesus one. The worst that Santa will do to you is give you coal in your stocking, but Jesus will burn your forever in a trash heap, and he does not even need coal. How fearful do you need to be of Santa, when the worst you get is a lump of coal? With Jesus you need to be very fearful (the fear hell). And, this makes the deception egregious. If you fall for the Jesus deception you must always live in fear. Phil 2:12 “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed me, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation in fear and trembling . . .” (ESV, my italics). Some peace of mind?

Fortunately, Christmas does not seem to be the season of fear. For the most part children get their presents whether they are naughty or nice. And, the Christmas message is rather benign in comparison to the full biblical one, both the New and Old Testament. A child in a manger, some wise men, a few angels, and some shepards (who received a comforting message) seems on the benign side of things. Christmas songs generally do not mention hell, and homilies tend toward the hopeful for a hurting world.

The whole story is not very believable. But, do I really need go into this when many biblical scholars have already done the job.³ What I can believe is that you can be an atheist and celebrated Chirstmas.4 I feel love, friendship, and joy, which all have meaning to me. Of course, I feel these things all year round, but it kicks up a notch at Christmas time, or so it seems.

So, I wish you all a merry Christmas—nonbelievers and believers.

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Baxter opening his Christmas present

¹ Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists and On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, respectively.

² The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

³ For instance Bart D. Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible & Why We Don’t Know About Them. 

4 There’s Probably No God: the Atheists’ Guide to Christmas, Ariane Sherine (editor), has a number of atheist authors who say how and why they celebrate Christmas.

† Of course, atheists can also hate like Christians or anyone else.

‡ Eve’s direct descendant. She had the wisdom to follow the Serpent’s suggestion to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Without this knowledge human beings would be amoral creature (moral zombies), but that is another post – Can God Be Moral?.

*  And, these are actually mediated by particles, such as photons for electromagnetism.


20 thoughts on “What Can Christmas Mean to an Atheist?

  1. I celebrate Winter Solstice… I’ve probably celebrated it for 25 years now. I grew up Catholic so I spent my childhood celebrating Christmas… but on the most part, this time of year has become very secularized except for the most ardent Christians. Even when I was growing up, Christmas was more about Santa, gifts and spending time with family.

    and it’s not so strange to be an atheist and attend different services even if they are religious. I’ve attended various services over the last couple of years including a pagan yule celebration, a Unitarian Universalist Christmas eve service and, yes, a Catholic Mass.

    Do what you enjoy, have fun, be happy 🙂

    Like

    1. Thank you for your comment David.

      It can feel strange being at a church service. I think my feelings come from being in a different state of belief to most of those there at the service. It kind of feels like I am alone. Fortunately, I do not mind being alone at times. So, my mind can take me to where ever I want while I am able to make the service mean whatever I want or assign it no meaning at all.

      The best to you this season of whatever, as a goodreads’ friend of mine calls it, and throughout the new year,

      Steven

      Like

  2. The best Christmas ever was after I jumped the faith ship. It means more now than ever. Celebrating with family and friend because it’s cool. Not out of any obligation. Have a merry Christmas 🎄

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      1. I have a little interest in older earth 🌏 paganism traditions too just because they interest me. I really roam independently of all the mysticism and go my own way. Pretty comfortable with that.

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      2. I am a firm atheist and a strict materialist (metaphysical naturalism). By firm I mean that I cannot imagine any evidence or argument to overturn my belief that there are no gods. By strict materialist I mean that I do not accept the existence of anything supernatural along with other commitments.

        For more on my use of how I grade belief see “Can You Believe That?”

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Right on. Anyone with the confidence to go their own way in the world gets my respect. I tend to believe what I see with my own eyes. Pretty easy to get caught up in all the bs slanted opinions and the weatherman. Just remember to look outside. Things are not the same as we are told.

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    1. Jim, sorry for the delay.

      I have developed an independence of thought that I think you will see expressed in my other posts here on my blog. I have some original ideas on free will, language, and other philosophical concepts, and I also develop my own arguments as opposed to parroting the ideas of others.

      Also, thank you for your compliment,

      PS – I have not forgotten about my promise to comment on some of your blog posts.

      Like

  4. Very nicely said, Steven. I missed this over the holiday break but have been snowed in for several days now so have had lots of time to get caught up on my blogging. Christmas in America has become so thoroughly commercialized and secularized that there’s absolutely no need to have any religious affiliation in order to celebrate and enjoy it.

    Your exuberance, love, and sense of joy really illuminate this post.

    Take care, be well, and may all your Christmases be merry & bright!

    Denny

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    1. I have another goodreads’ friend that says “happy whatever.”

      From discussions, books, and interpersonal correspondence, people have a wide range of ways to celebrate the season as non-Christians. For instance the yule log and the tree are both taken over from pagan celebrations. Another instance is celebrating the winter solstice, which was the first celebration that was incorporated into Christmas season.

      I want thank you most joyously for compliments. I think I liked it most that you found me to exhibit exuberance.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is one of my favorite posts in your blog, i could feel the love and joy in every line, you really know how to appreciate the great things in your life. We dont celebrate Christmas in my world but we usually feel the season on TV, it will be all about Christmas movies and songs, am glad at least i could relate to the movies you mentioned and i am also a fan of Kelly Clarkson and Michael Bublé. The cookies giving part get me good, i think its amazing to do that, i may copy that for a similar celebrations.

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    1. Thank you for your comment and nice compliment. It is nice to be recognized; although, my main motivation is still the intrinsic one of the desire to express my ideas in writing.

      I do try to enjoy everything I do. Of course, everything is maybe a bit much, but it does seem that for most part I live my life with a certain intensity. I am nearing the completion of a post that talks about this; it is my take on what is called mindfulness.

      I am surprised that they would have Christmas movies on TV in your part of the world.

      It feels immensely good to give to others. I do not have a lot, but thanks to an inexpensive grocery store near me I can easily afford the cost of the ingredients for the cookies. Please feel free to post how you celebrate the holidays that you follow.

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      1. You are welcome, yes you are exposing you ideas in your blog, and of course a personal post blogs from time to time will be awesome, its a chance to know you better, i read that New post in Mindfulness and i loved it.
        Why you were suprised that we have Christmas movies on TV, its not the local one, there is a regional chanels that we mostly watch in what you guys call ” the big middle east”, its an independent chanels from governments was made by business people, and its all about American TV shows and American movies, American music, the Globalization is real, trust me Madonna have fans here more than in the US.
        We have two main religious holidays here, now Ramdan will start next Tuesday or Wednesday, we cant be sure untill Tuesday Night because we use the Lunar Calendar, we will fast for one month, and the 29th Ramdan or 30th we will End the Fast and thats the first Holiday we call it “Eid Alfitr” or the break fast festival, or the sweet festival, … they start the day with a prayer and then families gather together and the children receive their gifts, cookies, candies, we visit eachother and all that, i think the most important thing in this day is the charities that people give to others, i used to enjoy it when i was little, this is the biggest Holiday, i also kind of enjoy Ramdan, its a different month, a whole 30 days that doesn’t look like the rest of the year.

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