Heathen Holidays: An Atheist Celebrates

This nonbeliever has no problem celebrating what many call the Christmas season.


Ah, Christmastime again. It's the season for decking the halls and jingling the bells, but for those of us not so faithful, we aren't moved by offers to come and adore the manger baby. This is a season for everyone to gather, share great food and hang out in groups while singing about stars and sleighs and nipping at noses. I think it truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

As an atheist, I'm often asked why I celebrate this Christian holiday. More often I'm quizzed about how I plan to explain the blessed season to my toddler. It's simple. The "Heathen Holidays" -- that period after Turkey Day in which we celebrate the generic "Christmas Season" -- are here and in full swing.

Sorry folks, but Christmas is a mishmash of Roman, pagan and other celebrations and traditions -- some of which are even verboten by the Bible. (Trees and yule logs, anyone?) The winter solstice is the real reason for the season. On the shortest day of the year, the sun -- that celestial burning ball of gas -- is born and the days become longer. Break out your tinsel and gingerbread! But rather than focus on the historical rationale for why Christmas celebrations are being merely co-opted by some, I just relax and enjoy the good times.

I have much to celebrate. And I really enjoy my Heathen Holidays. First of all, I love the parties and the food with my friends. One friend, Tom Flynn, told me that he celebrates the Fourth of July and birthdays "but not Thanksgiving because there's no one to thank." In his book, The Trouble With Christmas, Tom explains that through history, holidays were one of the few times of year where people got more than they needed to eat. Indeed. For me, this is the only time I can get a bûche de noel from the French bakery that I love. It's a delicacy that takes me back to my childhood -- it smells just like my Momma's kitchen. I still need proof of a supernatural inventor of the universe. But my ample thighs bear witness to my substantiation of the deliciousness of French pastries.

One of my attorney friends sums it up beautifully. Derrick Strobl explains that those of us who breathe free from the constraints of religion "benefit from community and ceremony even if we do not ascribe religion to those experiences. Humanists need to replace things that are lost when we no longer believe in the supernatural or in God."

And here is where I begin when I tell people how I share the holidays with my toddler. I explain to my son that it's important to share experiences with the people we love. I find it important to pass down traditions that hold meaning to me. We watch my favorite Christmas special together, just as I watched it with my parents and my sisters when I was a child. Despite A Charlie Brown Christmas ending with "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," in which we are told that through the newborn king's birth are "God and sinners reconciled," I just enjoy the music. And the story. And the fact that Charlie and I both lament the commercialization of the holiday.

In fact, I think I have most in common with those religious adherents who say they wish Christmas would depart the domain of retail. I fear the toothpaste is already out of the tube on that idea, but thinking of the holidays as the time to spend and to consume beyond one's means is a tradition I'd love to see brought to an end.

I handle Santa the same way I do cartoons. He's a beloved fictional character like Rudolph or Frosty or Freddy Krueger.

Some of the best music written is Christmas music. And so much of the sacred music is just beautiful to hear and sing along to. Johnny Mathis' version of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah," is sublime. Just because I no longer attend midnight mass or services on Christmas morning doesn't mean I shouldn't get to sing, "And He shall reign for ever and e-e-ever!" And I think my kid enjoys it, too. Although he sings the next line as "King of kings, and lore of lores," instead of "And Lord of lords."

If my son doesn't have to believe that Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, he needn't believe that a little drummer boy rum-pum-pum-pummed as a gift to an hours-old newborn in a manger while said newborn's mother, who labored while riding on a donkey, didn't tell the tiny ?uestlove wannabe to knock off the racket and let her sleep in heavenly peace. We just enjoy the music.

Ian Cromwell, my friend from Canada whose blog is called the Crommunist Manifesto, says his understanding that he was indeed an atheist came upon him clearly as he sat in church one Christmas morning. Crommie explained to me that he didn't think the minister he was listening to spoke any sense. And perhaps all religious tenets were made by people guessing blindly as to the nature of God or gods. As I listened to his story, I came to a realization about my own atheism. If it wasn't for Santa Claus, I probably wouldn't be an atheist.