Merry Christmas!

Or happy holidays. Whatever you prefer. It’s not like I have enough readers to exclude anyone on the basis of creed.

Lest there be any doubt, I am not speaking ironically here; this is most emphatically not a post endorsing the reactionary “war on Christmas” meme that’s been drummed up by Bill O’Reilly and others on the far right in recent years. (Although I have not in fact heard much about it this year… perhaps most Americans really are getting tired of the divisive culture war nonsense?)

As I write this I’m waiting to attend a Christmas Eve service in a couple of hours. (With my girlfriend’s relatives… but on alternate years we do the same thing with my own relatives.) And that’s the only time of the year that I set foot in a church. I’m not religious. (A nonbeliever. Atheist, freethinker, skeptic, secular humanist, fan of Richard Dawkins, pick your favorite term.) I was brought up attending services every Sunday, in a mainstream protestant denomination… but by the time I got to college I was more than ready to step back and acknowledge that a lot of what I’d been encouraged to take for granted simply didn’t make sense, and the more I read about comparative religion and church history the more that impression was reinforced.

Almost everyone is good at seeing the obvious implausibilities in other people’s religions, but they tend to have blind spots when it comes to their own. I just took a peek around the blind spot. Adjusted my ideological mirrors, as it were.

Notwithstanding that, I continue to love Christmas.

In the past I’ve had occasion to debate this with a good friend, a (secular) Jew who insists that Christmas, at least insofar as it’s recognized as a national holiday, is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, and in general an unfair imposition of the dominant Christianized culture upon nonbelievers. I understand his point of view, and I certainly agree insofar as it comes to (e.g.) putting religious displays in public space, but I just can’t follow those objections to the same extreme that he does.

Christmas itself has been almost utterly divorced from its doctrinal origins, after all. Over-commercialized, yes, and that’s a legitimate ground for criticism… but also secularized, and IMHO that’s a good thing. There’s really nothing religious about fat men in red suits, or indoor pine trees, or eggnog and wassail, much less gift exchanges. (Such cultural accretions go back to the very start. Heck, there’s a good argument that the nativity story itself, as found in Luke—and nowhere else in the Gospels—was itself a fairly late addition to early Christianity.) Today, with Christmas just as much as with marriage in our culture, religious sentiment is available as an optional accoutrement, but is by no means mandatory.

And that’s as it should be. I know any number of non-Christians (Jews and otherwise, and families with assorted combinations thereof) who enjoy celebrating the season. And that’s what it is, really… the season. Wherever you look, people of almost every culture and belief system have long found cause to celebrate this time of year. There seems to be some deep-seated human need to gather together and mark the turn of winter. (Indeed, there’s absolutely no scriptural evidence to put the nativity story near December 25th; that was a choice made by the Church in Roman times specifically to co-opt other celebrations already on the calendar.) Nor has there ever been anything exclusively Christian about the idea of celebrating peace, goodwill, and generosity, or for that matter about gathering friends and family for food, drink, and togetherness.

Indeed, we’d all be better off if we did that more often and more sincerely, and without regard for the belief systems that divide so many of us.

So enjoy your Christmas, and make the best of it in whatever fashion you enjoy. Or your solstice. Or your Saturnalia. Or your Hanukkah. Or your Kwanzaa. Or Festivus, even. Or if you’re into the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, have a merry spaghettimas and a happy noodle year!

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5 Responses to “Merry Christmas [or insert holiday of your choice here]”
  1. Lina Posada says:

    Those were some really nice times, somehow I am sad that they have passed 🙁

  2. Sounds all too familiar, Alfred…

  3. I’m a follower of Jesus, and I think the Bill O’Reillys of the world are part of our problem. Jesus never raised his voice to the agnostics of his day, but he was upset with the religious people all of the time. I’m afraid Jesus has a hard time recognizing what goes on in his name today, at least here in the USA.

  4. phil from new york says:

    For a secular take on Christmas, here are a couple of pieces from The American Prospect about a Jewish immigrant from Russia (Irving Berlin) who wrote one of America’s most popular Christmas songs (White Christmas) without mentioning God, Jesus or Santa. In the process, he ushered in a new genre of Christmas songs and helped define how people see Christmas in America.

    http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=10775

    http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=i_love_christmas_music

    And speaking of Irving Berlin, one of my two favorite Christmas movies is White Christmas (1954), in which the song White Christmas is sung twice. Sure, it’s unrealistic and full of schmaltz, but it illustrates the optimistic postwar world I was born into and is essentially a nice love story. For a more modern look at secular Christmas, I’d heartily recommend my other favorite Christmas movie, Love Actually, the very adult 2003 romantic comedy from our friends in the U.K., which has a stellar cast. However, try to avoid seeing it on USA Network or Bravo because they edit out all the fucks and shits, which make it a unique Christmas movie in my mind. One of my favorite scenes, which has nothing to do with Christmas, is when the new prime minister sticks it to the arrogant, bullying American president (gosh, who does that remind you of?) at a joint press conference in London and his popularity then soars.

    Anyway, happy holidays to one and all!

  5. Likewise, Chris. I’d call myself “agnostic” and use Diane Duane’s definition of it from The Romulan Way. And yet…after a re-viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas and Due South‘s “Gift of the Wheelman”…

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