Atheists and Christmas:
There is a debate among atheists about whether they should celebrate Christmas or not. Some do so because they aren’t out as atheists. Some do so in order not to rock the boat among religious family members. Some do so because they always have and don’t want to change — or simply enjoy the holiday. Others argue that it should be replaced by a more rational holiday, and still others argue that all such holidays should be ignored by atheists. Is there a case to be made for this?
Christmas is a Christian Holiday:
Traditionally, Christmas has basically been a Christian holiday — it is, after all, Christ’s Mass where the Nativity of Jesus is celebrated. Many atheists don’t believe that Jesus existed, and those who do don’t regard him as having been anyone special. No atheists are Christians, so why bother participating in such a Christian holiday? It’s arguable that participating makes Christianity seem more popular than it really is, not to mention giving Christians an unjustified ego boost.
Celebrating Christmas Perpetuates Myths About America:
Among the possible harms created by atheists celebrating Christmas is that conservative evangelical Christians are bolstered in their argument that America is essentially a Christian nation. The more popular and important Christian holidays are in America, the easier it is to claim that there is something about Christianity which is fundamental to America’s culture. It’s not a very good argument and this isn’t very good support for it, but why offer them even this little bit of help?
Elements of Christmas are Pagan:
Although Christmas has traditionally been a Christian holiday, most elements of modern Christmas celebrations are really pagan. This isn’t a very good reason for atheists to celebrate Christmas, though, because atheists aren’t pagan any more than they are Christian. Atheists don’t uphold other ancient pagan superstitions, so why do so with those which happen to be popular at Christmas time? There’s nothing about ancient paganism which is any more rational than modern Christianity.
Why Not Celebrate Other Religious Holidays?:
If an atheist is surprised at the possibility of not celebrating Christmas, they should consider why they don’t celebrate other religious holidays. Few atheists do anything for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan
or the Christian holiday of Good Friday. Why make an exception for Christmas? The primary reasons seem to be cultural momentum: everyone does and most people have all their lives, so it’s difficult to change. This may be true, but it’s not a very good reason not to change.
Christmas and Lying:
Atheist parents who celebrate Christmas will probably include the Santa Claus myth, but this requires them to lie to their kids. There’s no nicer way of describing what one does when telling small children that Santa Claus really exists and delivers presents to children all over the world. There doesn’t appear to be anything which justifies this deception, especially since there are many ways in which it might prepare kids for belief in Christian doctrines. Is this worth the risk?
Does Ignoring Christmas Help or Hurt Kids?:
Atheist parents are in a very difficult bind when it comes to Christmas because there are strong incentives to do what other parents are doing. Not celebrating Christmas and not telling kids about Santa might cause their children to be ostracized from others. At the same time, though, the numbers of religious minorities who also don’t participate are increasing, thus increasing the numbers of kids who are “different.” Being different isn’t easy, but who wants to be a hypocrite just to fit in?
Should Atheists Celebrate Any Holidays?:
Once the question about celebrating Christmas is introduced, the next logical step is to wonder whether atheists should be celebrating many or any of the holidays traditionally observed. Tom Flynn, for example, argues that “a humane holiday should be global and universal, equally relevant to all humans, regardless of their cultural heritage or where they live.” Leaving aside problems like separating holidays from the rhythm of our experience of time, this is worth thinking about.
Christmas as a Secularized Holiday:
One possible reason for atheists to celebrate Christmas is that it has become increasingly secularized over time and there is little sign of the process stopping soon. Arguments against Christmas remain, but atheist participation in Christmas actually helps serve the cause of removing it from its various Christian and pagan roots. There are good reasons why many Christians are upset over the current state of Christmas, and those may be good reasons for atheists to keep the changes in motion.
Future of Atheists and Christmas:
The relationship between atheists and Christmas today is complicated and there is no reason to think that it will change any time soon. Some atheists will continue to celebrate it fully, some will celebrate only portions, and others will reject it — with some of these creating alternative holidays and the smallest minority not bothering with any holidays at all. I really don’t see the relative positions and numbers changing much because I think that all of this is dependent upon atheists’ relationship with the broader American culture.
So long as atheists seek to be accepted and “normal” in America, they will tend to avoid doing things which will cause them to be singled out as different or strange. Today there is nothing more American than celebrating Christmas, so atheists who want to fit in will also at least do something around Christmas time. The growing numbers of religious minorities who reject Christmas may make being different a little easier, but even they are adopting some of the trappings of Christmas, too. Major shifts in this don’t strike me as very likely.
The fact that Christmas has become so secularized will also likely prevent many atheists from abandoning Christmas. If the day retained a significant Christian element, self-conscious atheists would be more sympathetic to anti-Christmas arguments, but that’s just not the case anymore. A secularized holiday is easy for secular people to celebrate.
So-called “alternative” holidays won’t make much progress because in the end, it’s clear that they aren’t any more “rational” than Christmas. Their primary benefit, such as it is, is their role in identity politics for atheists: having their very own holiday can make atheists feel more secure and comfortable in their social group, giving them something substantive to identify with. It’s hard to see, however, why identity politics is something which atheists really should try to engage in.
See Tom Flynn's The Trouble with Chrismas and his Point of Inquiry interview for more on this.