I get asked a lot why I love Christmas so much if I’m an atheist. Sure, everyone from Dawkins-esque atheists to noncommittal Jews can be caught whistling a carol every now and again as well as buying gifts for their loved ones, but few people approach Christmas with the same level of fervor that I do. We’ve got a Christmas tree downstairs, lights in the living room, kitchen, and my bedroom. Stockings and tinsel adorn the walls, and we play Christmas music almost constantly.
The answer is that for me, Christmas isn’t a religious holiday. Taking a historical longview of the holiday it’s clearly a hodgepodge of the silliest and most questionable aspects of Christian theology, mixed with pagan nature festival aesthetics, and secular cultural accoutrements.
Even if you accept the Christian narrative (which I don’t), the Christmas celebration as we know it today seems entirely disconnected from it. If there was a person known as Jesus (there wasn’t), he certainly wasn’t born on December 25th. The alleged birthdate of Christ has been disputed by scholars for centuries while the mainstream church openly admits that the exact date isn’t important. The date was likely chosen to coincide with the celebration of solar-inspired winter-solstice pagan holidays. This not only allowed Christianity to co-opt the revelry and decorations, but also smoothed the transition from paganism to Christianity by converts who didn’t want to give up their tacky sweaters.
And while modern religious zealots militantly push Christmas in America to combat the alleged “War on Christmas” by infidels, it was not always the case with mega-Christians. Christmas celebrations were banned in England by Puritans – arguably the most belligerently intolerant Christian group in history – who controlled Parliament and felt that Christmas had no biblical justification and was simply an excuse for the kind of fun that Puritans structured their entire ideology in opposition to.
The exchanging of gifts, decorating Christmas trees, characters like Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus, are all non-biblical cultural additions to the celebration. The attempt to fit these aspects into a religious context is never convincing.
The ubiquity of Christmas has only served to remove it from its religious foundation and expand it into a secular cultural celebration of shopping, winter sports and vague feel-good themes like generosity, togetherness, love, family, friendship, and charity. Usually I despise the overuse of nonspecific aphorisms and bromides but at Christmastime I make an exception.
If Christians wanted to preserve the religious integrity of the holiday they would embrace the politically-correct inclusive attempts among merchants to replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays”, &c. Why Christians feel that linking their most sacred holiday to a retail shopping clusterfuck is an effective means of proselytizing is beyond me.
As it stands, no matter what salutation your cashier is muttering after handing you a receipt and an overpriced piece of plastic, Christmas becomes less Christian every year.
Personally I love Christmas music, even the religious stuff. I view the story of the nativity as a fascinating piece of cultural mythology the same way I view Native American, Norse, Greek, Roman, Indian, or Chinese mythology. I’ll visit church on Christmas Eve and listen to the story, and thoroughly enjoy the music. I’ll feel a childhood glow in my chest brighter than the lights I see on houses, I’ll spend the season with my friends, try to be a little bit less of an asshole than normal. I’ll watch Christmas movies, and hopefully end a pretty shitty year on a high note.