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.”