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Austin Cline

Atheists at Christmas: Should Atheists and Humanists Reject Christmas?

By December 1, 2012

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Because American culture has been dominated for so long by Christianity and Christian traditions, Christmas is celebrated widely even by non-Christians. Indeed, it's getting to the point where Christmas is becoming less Christian in nature every year. Nevertheless, many non-Christians continue to perceive the day as fundamentally Christian and so don't want to celebrate it.

In the December 2004 / January 2005 issue of Free Inquiry, Tom Flynn explains his own position:

And what did you do for Ramadan this year?" That's the question I often pose when fellow humanists ask why I boycott Christmas.

Unless my interlocutor is of Muslim heritage, has close Muslim friends, or is an avocational multiculturalist, the is almost invariably, "Um, nothing."

"Interesting." I reply. "Why not?"

"Well, why would I observe Ramadan? That's not my religion."

"Exactly. That's why I don't celebrate Christmas."

For what it's worth, 2004 marks the twentieth anniversary of my personal decision to cease and desist from almost everyone's favorite holiday. After all, it's not the birthday of anyone I know -- and, if more secular humanists (and members of other cognitive minorities) would make themselves more visibly "Yule free," it might go far to rebut the harmful social fiction that American society is in some sense foundationally Christian. For two decades now, I have rejected Christmas altogether, from hot buttered rum to "rum-pa-pum-pum."

There are good arguments for both sides of the issue. As noted above, the Christian character of Christmas is diminishing over time and the ancient pagan aspects are taking on ever greater importance. Christians don't consider themselves pagans, yet have no problem putting up a tree and mistletoe. Atheists and humanists don't consider themselves pagan and also don't mind putting up a tree or mistletoe. If a few Christian aspects of the day are included, does it really matter very much?

Perhaps it does, or at least it can for some people. It's reasonable to argue that celebrating Christmas helps further the idea that America is a Christian Nation. At the same time, though, does not celebrating it do more to undermine this claim than celebrating it in an openly secular, non-Christian manner? If the decision between celebrating vs. not celebrating is to turn on political considerations, there's a lot to be said for helping along the process of secularization and de-Christianization.

Of course, it's also legitimate to question whether this should be a political question at all. Not celebrating Christmas because it's not part of your religion and/or because you don't care about it makes more sense, to me at least, than doing so in order to make a political statement. Tom Flynn mentions both reasons but I would place more weight on the first -- the second, in my opinion, should be regarded as simply an added benefit rather than an actual motivation. Christians have begun to use Christmas to make political statements; humanists and atheists shouldn't imitate them.

 

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Comments
November 10, 2006 at 8:05 pm
(1) d says:

The holiday that is no known as Christmas wasn’t christian. To say that you need to be christian to celebrate an americanized version of a christian aberration of another religion’s holiday really doesn’t follow.

November 20, 2006 at 11:56 am
(2) Lee says:

I am an atheist, and I love ALL the holidays when celebrated in the best holiday spirit. There are gifts, parties, good food, good fellowship, decorations, and presents. What’s not to like?

November 20, 2006 at 12:54 pm
(3) Todd says:

i celebrate “Xmas – The Gift Giving Day”, it coincides with Christmas. i celebrate my relationships by giving them gifts.

And i too get a kick out of Xians celebrating pagan holy days.

November 20, 2006 at 10:09 pm
(4) John Hanks says:

The forced Holiday Cheer and the Sour Milk of Human Kindness are the two things I dislike most about Christmas. All American holidays are phony excuses for a shopping spree anyway. So, I buy something for myself, and I spend time with my friends. Christmas will be a real disappointment for relatives this year, since I am retired and have little money for presents. I wish they wouldn’t give me any either. It is a curious extortion.

December 16, 2007 at 8:54 pm
(5) tracieh says:

>And what did you do for Ramadan this year?” That’s the question I often pose when fellow humanists ask why I boycott Christmas.

This seems odd to me. I’m not a Humanist. But as an atheist, if another atheist said they don’t celebrate Xmas, I can’t imagine I’d ask “why?” That seems really presumptuous and weird to think someone needs a reason to not do something…? I can see it from an academic standpoint. For example, I have in-laws who are JWs. They don’t celebrate Xmas. I know some reasons I’ve seen online. And my own church, when I was growing up, didn’t celebrate it, either. I could assume the reasons I’m aware of are the reasons they don’t celebrate; but if I asked them what specifically their views were on it, I’m sure they’d share them. I just–to be honest–couldn’t care less “why” someone else doesn’t celebrate it.

I have friends, for example, who don’t like to do anything on their birthdays. It’s uncommon. But I just respect it and move on. I don’t act like they _should_ do something. It’s up to them. I have no idea why they blow off their birthdays. Maybe they don’t like being the center of attention. Maybe they don’t like thinking about getting older. Maybe they have depression and special days bring them down. What’s it to me? It’s their birthday–not mine. I see any other holiday or special day the same way.

>“Well, why would I observe Ramadan? That’s not my religion.”

“That’s not my religion” is a dork answer from a Humanist, unless I’m missing something. Generally Humanists, by and large, are atheists. It would seem pretty obvious that “Christianity” isn’t their religion, either. So, do they not see the problem with this response before they even open their mouths?

I celebrate Christmas because it’s traditional in my family and my culture. If I went to visit the MidEast, and there was a special celebration of Ramadan going on (especially the feast after the fasting), and someone invited me to join in–heck yeah, I’d join. In fact, if I had any friends who celebrated it right where I live, and I was invited, I’d celebrate it.

It’s not a matter of “it’s not my religion.” I don’t celebrate it because I’m just too unfamiliar with it. Given the opportunity, I wouldn’t pass the cultural experience by just because “it’s not my religion.” I gave up those shackles when I deconverted out of Xianity and into general theism. Now, as an atheist, it’s such a nonissue for me, I can’t begin to express it.

I respect the right of anyone to celebrate or not celebrate and to make of it whatever they like–for any day. If a person isn’t hurting anybody, have a blast!

December 16, 2007 at 9:13 pm
(6) tracieh says:

Good examples would also be “Cinco de Mayo.” I never heard of it until I moved to TX. It’s a big holiday in Mexico, and a lot of immigrants here celebrate it. If there’s a CdM party, do I say, “No, I’m not from Mexico. Thanks.” Seriously–I’m gonna miss a BBQ because I’m from the wrong country?

Why didn’t I celebrate it before? It just wasn’t, culturally, big where I lived in other states. Here in TX, it’s huge. Do as the Romans do, I guess is what I’m saying (as far as my personal philosophy–again, so long as nobody’s getting harmed).

December 17, 2007 at 1:43 am
(7) k9_kaos says:

I think boycotting Christmas because it’s not part of one’s religion is basically giving in to the myth that Christians own it. As far as I’m concerned, Christmas, Yuletide or whatever you want to call it belongs to everyone. If it were exclusively Christian I think it would be inappropriate for it to be a public holiday. Some people (like Christians or Pagans) like to celebrate it in a religious manner, while others (like me) celebrate it in a more secular manner. I do like Christmas carols though, even the religious ones, but only because they remind me of this time of year. For me, Christmas is all about bonding of friends and family, wishing peace and goodwill on humanity, and other things I think are well worth celebrating. Obviously, people don’t have to celebrate the holiday, but people also don’t have to listen to others telling them how they’re supposed to celebrate it.

December 17, 2007 at 4:19 pm
(8) Simon says:

I’m an atheist and I have quite a few Muslim friends. I am often invited over to celebrate Eid for example. Nice food mmm! Some of them also celebrate Christmas – the tree and other decorations, exchange of gifts. I’ve also seen a whole family of Muslims sit down to curried turkey on Christmas day whilst all wearing Santa hats!!

December 17, 2007 at 4:44 pm
(9) tracieh says:

Simon: That last scene you described is funny. Just the part about the Santa hats. I can almost see it in the same vein as the movie Christmas Story–where they go to the Chinese Restaurant for Christmas dinner? I’m sure your friends were just goofing on Santa hats; but it would be funny if it was actually some sort of confusion about the traditions/customs–like the hats are standard Xmas garb to wear this time of year in America! ;-)

December 17, 2007 at 5:17 pm
(10) V says:

No one is forcing you to celebrate Christmas; yes, you may have a lot of pressure from Xians, but you don’t have to associate with them. You’re free to celebrate December 25th however you want, whether it’s exchanging gifts, worshipping a magical being, or just sitting around and doing nothing. It’s up to you.

December 18, 2007 at 2:29 am
(11) Simon says:

Tracieh: Japan is the land of Christmas confusion. I remember seeing a Japanese Christmas card that had Santa Claus on a crucifix!

December 18, 2007 at 2:56 am
(12) Simon says:

I forgot to mention the Muslim sisters I know that go to a Catholic Midnight Mass every Christmas Eve because they like the music.

December 18, 2007 at 10:29 am
(13) Simon says:

Sorry guys, the crucified Santa I saw must have been a hoax. I was looking for the image but only found references to it as an urban legend. Google “Japan” and “Santa” is entertaining though!

December 24, 2007 at 2:13 pm
(14) John Hanks says:

Actually, I am far more offended by the Sunday football rituals. College football, especially is basically a major case of the clap in the academic world. I don’t like the cheap perfume either.

December 24, 2007 at 9:29 pm
(15) Pearl Ostroff says:

When I was studying in India I went to a to a Christmas dinner for about a dozen people. The people attending were an atheist/cultural Jew (me), one sort-of Xian who was missing his family and tree and the rest were Hindus. We had Indian food.

December 28, 2008 at 10:23 am
(16) David says:

I celebrate the holiday with friends where we share supper together and exchange gifts. They also happen to be atheists. From what I understand, even hard core atheist Richard Dawkins claims to celebrate Christmas. So I am not against celebrating Christmas as it does not have to have any religious component. Sure, if you want to take the “Christ” out of the word, fine. Christmas is just a traditional name for the holiday observance.

For me personally though, I like to observe the solstice since it is the low point of the natural cycle and beyond that point, the days begin getting longer again as we start the long climb to spring. In this regard, it has no religious or supernatural aspect. It is just the marking of a natural event when the sun is at its lowest angle in the Northern Hemisphere sky.

December 29, 2008 at 2:53 pm
(17) Pamela says:

For a lot of people Christmas simply means time off from work, spending time with family and friends, good food and fun. It is unfortunate that it has evolved into consumer angst driven by corporate greed, but hey…it’s America, the home of capitalism. That was inevitable. If Christians want to believe that it is all about them, so be it as long as I get my days off and am not forced to sit through any religious events. I certainly don’t turn away gifts for fear of offending or hurting someone I love that want to give me something, but I do tell them I’d rather they give the money to a charity unless, of course, I am that charity :>>

December 16, 2009 at 4:51 pm
(18) Allan says:

Let’s look at this from a philisophical perspective. The man known as Jesus Christ, whether or not a fictitious character or a real person with an exagerrated personna has affected the lives of people of the planet for a couple thousand years…give or take a couple of decades.

Although another character throughout history which may also have affected us and vastly improved our lives was say, someone like Thomas Edison.

What did Jesus, real or not give that Mr Edison did not?

Hope.

Now I’m not Christian, nor do I believe the Bible is a legitamte source of historical information. I also think we have outgrown the need for religion, (at least some of us…he he) but I see no harm in celebrating a mile stone in human development with a symbolic day, pagan or not, ritualistic by nature and flawed by perspective… the bottom line is peace. What’s wrong with a day of fun, presents & time with family?

To boycott is to be arrogant… it states, “as an ‘athiest’ I do not need to respect the beliefs and choices of others”

By the act of boycotting you’re stating that it should not exist because religion is wrong.
…and you’re right. But used as a holiday of development for goodwill, it’s a good thing.

Easter? Well, we won’t go there.

I would be what you call a “Closet Atheist”. I am surrounded by ‘believers’ pretty much all the time, many with higher education levels than me.

…& I don’t understand why their conclusions are based on emotion and belief rather than the perception of your own surroundings with physical hypothisis.

Notice how I worded that… I’ve become very careful at what I say as not to offend. I’m getting to point here…

…Even the believers are caught up in a modern interpretation of this holiday, decorations of Santa Claus far outnumber nativity scenes… My point is the holiday will always be there. Use it to enjoy time with family and friends.

The reasons why anyone celebrates Christmas is secondary to the joy of spending time with the people who mean the most to you.

We are evolving… But in our lifetimes we won’t see much change.

If your ego won’t allow you to celebrate tradition as opposed to belief… I guess some of us will have fun without you. And I mean no disrespect, we are a minority,(Atheists) and we do not have some sacred knowledge which puts us above a believer… our patterns of thought are somehow guided in a direction different than people with faith… our quest for logic and understanding do not make us better… we perhaps are a sign of evolution, and as you know… you will never change a believer’s mind… and most of us have good friends who are Christians…..

…Why ruin the Party!!!!

Happy Holidays Everyone!

December 16, 2009 at 5:17 pm
(19) fauxrs says:

[i]For a lot of people Christmas simply means time off from work, spending time with family and friends, good food and fun. It is unfortunate that it has evolved into consumer angst driven by corporate greed, but hey…it’s America, the home of capitalism. That was inevitable.[/i]

This about sums up my position on christmas. In my opinion its connection with religion is nearly inconsequential anymore, though i am sure I will meet with disagreement on that point, probably by both xians and athiests alike, that just how I view it, thats how it effects my life. Its a time I take off from work, attend parties that dont occur at other times of the year. Its an excuse to spend more time than I usually do with my nephews and nieces.

I dont put up a tree, I dont decorate, I dont put on funny santa hats :) I do send cards to friends wishing them a happy new year. but for the most part I take time off from work, stay away from the crowds, stay close to friends and family and try to relax. Presents are for the kids only, I tell family every year to not gift me, most of the time they do anyway [shrug]. I buy a dozen or so gifts every year for the local toy drives for kids who wont have a happy xmas.

that sums up xmas for me.

December 16, 2009 at 7:22 pm
(20) Yossarian says:

Growing up in a very lacks Catholic home we never went to Midnight mass. Christmas for me as a kid was accually quite secular. So I have no problems celebrating Christmas. So I say, why not enjoy the Holidays? (All of them.) I enjoy the decorations and the tree, giving presents to my kids. Hell…I even like seeing my In-Laws.( especially my religious ones.) You can count on me to remind everybody that it’s also Mithras’ birthday too. Living near Philidelphia the only thing I do hate about the Holidays is the damn New Years Parade. It’s just something about the Mummers that really burns my ass. Happy Solstice Everbody!!!

December 17, 2009 at 8:00 am
(21) tracieh says:

>Hope.

“Religious suffering is at once the _expression_ of real suffering and the _protest_ against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless conditions. It is the _opium_ of the people.”

-Karl Marx (agrees, but goes on to say…)

“The overcoming of religion as the _illusory_ happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

And _I_ agree with this. Christianity strips people of everything real they could have and gives them back a pretense of what it stole–their humanity.

I celebrate the holiday. However, I do not have to respect the beliefs of others–especially when those beliefs are harmful or unreasonable. I _do_ however respect _their_ choices–as long as they don’t impose on others. And I don’t see how _my_ choice to engage or not affects their ability to choose for themselves whatever they would like.

December 18, 2009 at 5:17 pm
(22) DarkAngel says:

My brothers celebrate St. Paddy’s Day and they’re not Irish… just saying. I like the Cinco de Mayo example too.

Christmas has evolved beyond a religious holiday. The only thing religious about it is Mass, which I haven’t gone to since I was 16. For atheists who live in a family that is multi-generational atheist it may not seem like a big deal to skip it, and I can’t see anything wrong with that. For me though it’s pretty much the only occasion I see most of my family, and the reason for that is the convergence of Xmas and the purely secular New Year’s Eve, which has the result of providing a common chunk of a week to two weeks of people all going on vacation at once (which simplifies the organization of large familial gatherings).

To contrast, Easter is a complete non-event for me (except that chocolate is cheaper! nom nom nom) but my Catholic family still celebrates it. It is, however, more of a religious holiday, more personal, and doesn’t involve large gatherings.

December 19, 2009 at 11:33 am
(23) John Hanks says:

Celebrating is good and harmless. Observing is usually coercive.

December 19, 2009 at 2:07 pm
(24) Zack says:

Christians know they stole the holiday from pagans, and they’re afraid we might have learned from their example.

December 19, 2009 at 3:56 pm
(25) Liz says:

I agree with so many others here that Christmas is really a secular event. And to extend some of what DarkAngel (22) says, Easter may be basically religious – but there are aspects of Easter that are definitely not Christian, like a certain bunny, eating chocolate and “peeps”, decorating eggs and hiding them….

Another technically religious holiday that has entered into the secular realm is mardi gras or carneval. Technically, it is the day before Lent which is supposed to be a time of prayer, fasting and reflection on the death and supposed resurrection of Christ who rescued the world from sin. Carneval means “goodbye to meat” because it used to be that people didn’t eat meat for the 40 days leading up to Easter.

Now, how many people have Lent on their mind as they toss beads, yell at girls to show their breasts, drink large quantities of alcohol, etc? How many people know why mardi gras even exists?

December 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm
(26) Gerald Banks says:

As an Agnostic I observe this time of year as a time to reflect and be grateful for the experience of life and to celebrate goodwill toward all men. Parties, gifts, etc. are a good way to accent this festive occasion. I hope one day peace on earth will become a part of this.

December 7, 2012 at 3:03 pm
(27) m says:

Yes, we should reject Christmas. Facetiously I would say that it is a pagan holiday taken over by Christians and later taken over by Macy’s. Seriously I would say that a religious holiday should not be a national holiday. If some people want to celebrate it, they can do so any way they want to at home, in their churches and schools, etc. I think it would be more appropriate to celebrate Solstice – it is a real, observable phonomenon of nature, and I think we need a holiday at the time of the year when the days are so short and the weather is awful.

December 7, 2012 at 3:04 pm
(28) mary the ex-Catholic says:

Yes, we should reject Christmas. Facetiously I would say that it is a pagan holiday taken over by Christians and later taken over by Macy’s. Seriously I would say that a religious holiday should not be a national holiday. If some people want to celebrate it, they can do so any way they want to at home, in their churches and schools, etc. I think it would be more appropriate to celebrate Solstice – it is a real, observable phonomenon of nature, and I think we need a holiday at the time of the year when the days are so short and the weather is awful.

December 7, 2012 at 3:16 pm
(29) ex-Catholic says:

Yes, we should reject Christmas. Facetiously I would say that it is a pagan holiday taken over by Christians and later taken over by Macy’s. Seriously I would say that a religious holiday should not be a national holiday. If some people want to celebrate it, they can do so any way they want to at home, in their churches and schools, etc. It would be more appropriate for us to celebrate Solstice, which is an observable phenomenon of nature, and I think we need a holiday at this time of the year when the days are short and the weather is awful.

(This might be posted twice – on my first attempt I got a message saying “Duplicate comment detected”, which it wasn’t, and I don’t see it posted so far. So I am trying it with my other e-mail address.)

December 8, 2012 at 1:10 pm
(30) lee smith says:

Dear Mr. Cline,

I appreciate your concern over celebrating Christmas even though the US was supposedly founded on the freedom of religion. I enjoy the Christmas holidays because I had been raised Catholic in a very predominate Christian area. I consider myself Agnostic for many reasons. I do still enjoy celebrating Christmas because it is such a large part of my heritage.

It may akin to a person who was raised in a predominate religious area of a different faith than Christianity and that person having been raised as a Christian but yet, they have very good memories and experiences with the people and customs of the people who were of the predominate faith of that particular area.

This person, even though they consider their religion Christianity, they may enjoy the festivities of the religion that was predominate of the area in which they experienced happy and festive memories.

This is the reason that I enjoy Christmas. It is a very festive time for me, the seasons, the Christmas music especially and the weather being Winter, snow and very cool in my particular area. These all contribute to my enjoying the Christmas holidays.

I will continue celebrating Christmas even though I feel that the holiday does not represent for me the accompanying mythologies.

I think my feelings probably represent many peoples. Sometimes, you have to live and let live. That really is the beauty of the intention of the US’ founding fathers: To celebrate your faith in the manner that you should see fit, with some exceptions of course which may be harmful to humans or even animals in some faiths.

Thank you,

Lee

December 18, 2012 at 1:04 am
(31) Borsia says:

I wouldn’t say that I celebrate Christmas, I don’t decorate with lights etc.
I observe the passing of the Winter Solstice with some degree of meditation around what has gone by.
but when invited I will go to parties and such and I don’t throw the wet blanket, bringing up all of the fallacies and errors in what others are celebrating.
More often than not I am with other atheist friends.
Probably the best “Christmas” I’ve had was in China where there isn’t any religious fervor over the Solstice and it is recognized for what it is.

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