Skepticism

Should we be fighting a War on Christmas?

Several responses to one of my recent Saturday A.I.s have me thinking again about something that seems to come up every year around this time: the debate over whether or not atheists and other non-christians should celebrate Christmas. Some within the community believe that it is wrong or hypocritical to participate in a celebration rooted in a belief system to which they do not ascribe.

Tom Flynn, of the Center for Inquiry, one of the leading voices on the anti- side of this discussion, has written a book on the topic. He also appeared on the Point of Inquiry podcast a while back to discuss his personal war on Christmas. It’s a few years old, but still relevant and worth a listen.

Flynn’s argument, which appears to be shared by some of our readers, is a highly idealistic one, based on the idea that by going along with the holiday as it is, or even by celebrating an alternative holiday (Festivus, Newtonmas, Kwanzaa, etc.) a person helps to perpetuate a society in which Christianity is seen as the norm, and fundamentalism is tolerated. He views his refusal to participate as an act of consciousness raising. He hopes that letting people know that he doesn’t celebrate will reduce the arrogance he perceives in society’s insistence that everyone take part.

While I can understand the logic of this position, I personally don’t see anything wrong with nonbelievers and non Christians celebrating Christmas. As much as a certain cable news network would like to disagree, Christmas really is a largely secular holiday. Yes, the story of the birth of Christ remains at the core for many people, but the traditions and culture surrounding the holiday is about much more than that. Many of the things we value during the winter season come from deep in our history; much farther back than the mythology of Christianity and the decision to co-opt this time of year as Jesus’ Birthday Party. I think, at least for those of us who live in places where midwinter days are very short and the weather cold and snowy, the holidays are a gleaming oasis of good food and togetherness with family and friends that helps get us through the winter. I think it would be a little bit silly to give all that up because I don’t believe the same things about it that most people do.

To the point of consciousness raising, well, this country is becoming very religiously diverse, and as more and more people meet and get to know others who do not share their beliefs, this is happening naturally. Yes, refusing to celebrate, and making your refusal known is going to turn heads, but most people’s reaction is much more likely to be

What a Scrooge!

than

Wow, I didn’t realize that not everyone was Christian like me. Maybe I should stop saying “Merry Christmas”.

In my opinion, you don’t win people to your cause by making yourself an alien. My philosophy is that people are more likely to respect your beliefs and listen to what you have to say if you show them that they can relate to you; that you are a regular person just like they are. Because of this, I think it is good to share in cultural holiday celebrations, especially ones like Christmas whose mainstream face is largely secular. Plus, how can an excuse to drink be a bad thing (if such a thing were really necessary)?

So no, I’m not fighting a war on Christmas. I choose to celebrate with my (very religious) family, show them that my life is full and happy without religion, and try not to pull punches in the inevitable discussions of such matters. In my opinion, the message these actions sends to my family is much more effective than simply erasing myself from their lives and the things they value. As far as the general public, well, as more and more people come out about their nonbelief, many families around the country are having similar consciousness raising experiences about the ubiquity of their particular belief system. Ever the pragmatist, I think this serves a much larger purpose in creating a more pluralistic and tolerant society, even if that society’s mainstream culture is still based in Christianity. Let’s face facts. Most people in this country are and will remain Christian. Christmas isn’t going anywhere, so why not raise a glass of eggnog and enjoy yourself?

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42 Comments

  1. Well said! I agree that we should celebrate and besides, we all know that Christmas wasn’t always Christmas. Prior to the Christians coming along it was a pagan holiday celebrating evergreen trees and such. The Christians converted the pagans by adopting the holiday. I say we do the same! Who doesn’t like trees and happy celebrations that bring people together? I say we keep it a happy time of year for the secular world too. Cheers!

  2. I think little things like the “axial tilt: The reason for the seasons” bumper-stickers do a fine job of raising awareness without being a dick.

    There are scrooges, there are neutrals, there are fundamentalists – you can’t make everybody happy.

    But I can make my kids happy and see my family – many of whom will happily eat the Turkey I cook, but disagree with virtually all of my world view.

    Still, they’re family. And I’m glad to have them over – even if they’re offended at my Star Trek Action Figure Nativity Scene.

  3. I disagree entirely. This isn’t secular nor religious, it’s a capitalist holiday.

    For me, Thanksgiving provides my winter warm cuddly feelings with loved ones and Christmas is an angry holiday that stresses too many people out over the proper way to celebrate it. And the proper way to celebrate is blowing money on getting people the perfect piece of plastic that they don’t need.

    I’m a scrooge and pretty proud of it. If I’m outspoken at all, it’s mostly about my anti-capitalism/consumerism, not my atheism.

  4. I agree, I am not waging a war on Christmas. I like some of the traditions like the tree, good food and chocolate, time with friends and a few gifts. I also like the songs, even some of the hymns, a big part of my life since I was born. I’m teaching my son (age 26 months) to sing the Fa la la part of “Deck the Halls”.

    My mother and one aunt, uncle and cousin (whom we’re spending Christmas with) are very religious. Jeff and I haven’t broached the topic of our atheism with them yet. I’m still kind of new to “admitting” it, even to myself, after a very religious Baptist upbringing, which I truly believed in for a long time. I’m sure now that we have a child the topic will come up, I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

    Oh, and if my husband finds out about the Star Trek Action Figure Nativity Scene I know what I’ll be seeing on our coffee table next year!

  5. Many Christmas traditions are either modern secular inventions or stolen from pre-Christian pagan solstice celebrations. Celebration of the winter solstice and the return of longer daylight is widespread among many cultures. Living in a state with long winter nights and a lot of snow it’s especially compelling.

    I plan to be wishing people a happy Saturnalia.

  6. I agree with the point in general, but I do take the odd opportunity, without making an ass of myself, to point out that not everyone has a religious celebration on this day. For example I would never go to any sort of church service just to blend in. On the other hand when people wish me a Merry Christmas I return the sentiment.

  7. I see Christmas as the triumph of rampant consumerism, with families plunging themselves into debt because it’s a ‘special occasion’. The posts in this thread talk about Christmas as if it is benign, which it isn’t; check out the suicide rates over the festive season.
    And don’t get me started on Scrooge. As a medium for fostering guilt for not spending money, for not consuming more, Scrooge is second to none. If Dickens were alive today he would be awarded every honour that capitalism has to bestow. Dickens, unwittingly, handed a big stick to beat people with to the spirit of gluttony. If you want to opt out of Christmas, there is a ready made tag that people can apply: “You old Scrooge”! They need think no further.
    I attempt to opt out of Christmas for reasons that are more to do with distaste. We are wrecking our planet with our unchecked consumerism, and this season sees it going into an annual overdrive. And the people who suffer are the families on a tight budget who are led by the nose into the mall to pick up that one last toy for under the tree. January is a bad time at the debt management service.

  8. Responding to mwilley, I’m pretty sure that you’re incorrect about suicide rates and Christmas (remember that this is a skeptical website, btw…)

    I’m no longer a christian, but I personally enjoy Christmas, having much the same attitude as carr2d2. It’s a time to get together with people you care about, to have some decorations and good food, etc. My fundamentalist friends may talk about “Jesus being the reason for the season”, but when you get down to it, the religious aspects aren’t nearly as central as they used to be. More and more, Christmas is becoming a generic holiday of good will.

    As far as rampant consumerism is concerned, I think that we as individuals need to be mindful of our finances, but there’s nothing that demands that we spend loads of money at Christmas. In my family, I find that we often buy things for each other that we would have bought for ourselves, holiday or not. So, my mom bought a copy of Cosmos for me that I would have gotten anyway, and I got her something that she would have bought for herself.

  9. Yeah, sorry, as a former suicide hotline worker I have to debunk that myth that suicides rise over the holidays. Last data I looked at, which granted was quite a while ago, showed a peak in February. And having spent a Christmas Eve working the lines, I can say it was one of the calmest and most peaceful shifts I ever had.

    I love my Christmas tree. It has the Red Queen from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on top. I also love my menorah, which I bought to replace my old one the year I got married. As a Jewish atheist, I have absolutely no desire to wage war on Christmas. I ignore the religious aspects and enjoy the parts I do enjoy. So…oy humbug?

  10. I have these two awesome creatures known as “nieces”. Throw aside my dad, my mom, my brothers, my sister-in-law… and I’ve got two nieces.

    Now, their folks aren’t too religious… my brother’s somewhat agnostic, from what I gather, while my sister-in-law is pagan-friendly if not necessarily possessing a fully thought out theology. So Christmas isn’t a big deal religiously. But socially… Christmas is about getting toys for my nieces. Sure, the rest of my family gets stuff, too, but I’ve got these nieces… and I ain’t gonna Scrooge out because I’ve got philosophical arguments with some folks who celebrate it.

  11. We’re almost fully in agreement with Tom Flynn. We observe nothing today. The only place I part company with him is in going to work.

    Where I work, we’re off until January 4th. I’m not going to stay away from my family to be alone at work and get little done.

    I absolutely detest the commercialism of what Christmas has mutated into. Even if I were still religulous, we’d probably end that practice in our house.

    No, the materialistic truth of the matter is that we can have pretty much whatever we want, whenever we want it. We certainly don’t see a need to follow a societally customary day to buy even more shit.

    I’ve imported Mom to Belgium from Wisconsin for three weeks. Aside from my sister who can’t get away from work (and who I couldn’t stand in my house for three weeks anyway), my family is here. We’re quite content.

    Scrooge is a mushy sentimentalist. Maybe I’ll shut off the heat today for effect.

  12. I don’t celebrate it or any of the secular replacements, and I think Flynn is right. However, you are absolutely correct to point out that most people will not understand that my reason for skipping the holiday has anything to do with religion…unless I tell them.

    When I mention that I do not celebrate Christmas, I am inevitably asked why. This gives me the opportunity to say that I am an atheist who is not particularly fond of crass commercialism. This is a teachable moment.

    I also happen to agree with you that it is not my place to tell others that they should not celebrate as they want. It is a personal choice. What I do find increasingly frustrating is being told by other atheists that I should celebrate.

  13. I see no reason for a war on Christmas. I think that idea mostly comes from christian fundamentalists who are offended at anyone celebrating a holiday other than Christmas. Several Churches here have signs saying “There is no Christmas without Christ”. I think there right, for those people without their deity this holiday would be basically pointless. It still has nothing to do with me.

    For me this is more of a New Year Celebration. Time to start another trip around Sol. And we should celebrate, after all it is a pretty nice star and were all still here thanks in no small part to it.
    So to everyone out there, enjoy another celestial spin around the block.

  14. I don’t much care about the crass commercialism aspect of Christmas. I feel like that’s a personal choice people have. I would rather not exchange a ton of gifts I have no use for or room for in my house. However, my sister just LOVES to buy tons of gifts for people and I would feel like a real asshole if I were given a bunch of stuff without giving anything back. For the last few years, I have urged her to stop. The important thing for us is to be able to get together to enjoy each others company, reflect of the positive aspects of the previous year, and watch Star Trek DVDs! At my age, most of my family has passed on. No more grandparents, parents, aunt, uncles, etc. Also, there are no small children as they are all grown up now and are all still single. There really is no reason for the gluttonous gift exchange. It’s not that I am cheap or a scrooge, I just don’t have the room to store more junk in my house and I don’t have the heart to throw it all away after someone has gone to the trouble of buying wrapping ribboning etc. It’s really hard to say No because I love my sister and the rest of my family and I don’t want to spoil her holiday experience. So this year was another consumerist delight with pretty packages extending out from under the tree halfway out into the living room. It was rather shocking. (I did get some really cool stuff tho I have to admit)
    As far as the religious angle, I know my sister believes in God but she doesn’t go to any church. She seems to have some kind of rosey vision of being with all our loved ones somewhere after death. We don’t talk about it because she knows I don’t believe in that crap and she goes to great lengths to avoid arguements, esp. at Xmas. So we celebrate the holiday in a more or less secular way because it’s nice to get together and have fun.
    I had a boss once who told me that you have to be able to pick your battles. For me, the “War on Christmas” is a battle not worth fighting.

  15. I make my refusal to celebrate xmas as clear to everyone as I can. When asked why, I reply that I’m not a christian.

    I celebrate Saturnalia, and unless they ask, they’d be hard pressed to notice the difference.

  16. I’m a big believer in taking the good bits out of tradition and tossing the stuff you don’t want.

    For me, Christmas is about family, friends, food and presents. And I don’t mean presents in a capitalist, consumerism way (although I got some kick-ass loot this year). The beauty of Christmas is finding the perfect gift for someone. I thoroughly enjoy that process and it sort of makes me sad that Amazon wish lists have taken that away.

    I generally refuse to buy stuff for my husband from his wish list; I consider it a challenge to find something that I know he wants that he hasn’t asked for :) (It was an acoustic guitar this year :)

    In India, I loved Christmas because in spite of the fact that we (Catholics) had Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist neighbors and friends, there was never any issue with wishing each other Merry Christmas (or Happy Diwali or Eid, for that matter). It was about appreciating that different people believe different things and we *can* all just get along. I find the U.S. to be a lot less accepting of that – even within Christianity, the different sects seem to keep to themselves.

    As for the religious bits, I am not at all religious anymore so I just pretty much ignore it. I did always love Midnight Mass as a kid so once in a while, if I’m with family, I’ll go with them and it’s nostalgic and fun.

    Christmas, like life, is whatever you make of it. :)

  17. I asked Moose yesterday, “Do you know what Christmas is?”

    He said, “No”

    I told him that it was a day that we get together with our family and we give each other presents because we love them and they love us.

    Aside from going to church at midnight on Christmas Eve, nothing has changed for us since quitting religion. It’s still a pretty fantastic day.

  18. Also, when I was religous, I had no problem with “Happy Holidays”… because there’s an assload of them happening right now, and I’d like to wish happy all of them to people.

    And now that I’m not religious, I still have no problem with Merry Christmas because, since I’m not a huge asshole, I’d like people to have a happy one of those as well.

  19. carr2d2: Well, all happiness to you and yours, but IMHO that was not very well argued, and I agree with Flynn’s take on this according to your summary of it. (I haven’t read The Trouble With Christmas ).

    Cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanukkah_bush , http://www.myjewishlearning.com/ask_the_expert/at/Ask_the_Expert_Hanukkah_Bush.shtml , http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20091024135348AAhbHkD for a summary of the pressure that some people have felt to imitate foreign (Christian/EuroPagan, in this case) customs.

    Or how about the pressure that non-heterosexual people have felt to go along with the heterosexual majority?

    “Any time you aren’t obviously and expressly making a strong effort to cover up [or more in the terms of our current discussion, to “blend in”], it’s “flaunting.” This is utterly ridiculous, such as saying a white person is flaunting whiteness just because s/he isn’t wearing long-sleeved turtlenecks and a ski mask, or a short person is flaunting shortness just because s/he isn’t wearing 5-inch elevator shoes and vertical stripes.” – http://sites.google.com/a/spiritualfruits.com/spiritual-fruits-christian-and-gay/Gay–Flaunting-

    I shouldn’t have to “blend in”. I’m not doing anything reprehensible. Have fun with your holiday. It’s not my holiday.

    From the second X-Men movie: Two funny-looking and persecuted mutants are talking:

    Nightcrawler: They say you can imitate anybody, even their voice.

    Mystique: (Imitating his voice) Even their voice.

    Nightcrawler: Then why not stay in disguise all the time? You know, look like everyone else.

    Mystique: Because we shouldn’t have to.

    We shouldn’t have to.

    – “In my opinion, you don’t win people to your cause by making yourself an alien.”

    It is not a matter of “making oneself an alien”, or, let us say, “making yourself ‘ different’ “. It is a matter of not attempting to hide the fact that one is different, and expecting to be treated with respect nonetheless.

    I should be able to say to everyone I meet. “Nope, not a Christian. Not a Pagan. Don’t believe in consumerism. Don’t observe Christmas / Yule / any faux-Christmas holiday”, and expect them to say “Okay, that’s cool. We respect you for that.”

    And while we’re at it: “how can an excuse to drink be a bad thing (if such a thing were really necessary)?”

    I’m a teetotaler.
    IMHO, how could any excuse to drink be a good thing?

    Pace Elyse’s post, I am basically a moderately nasty person, though I try hard to be a nice person.
    So I will say, Happy Holidays to all who are observing them.
    And Happy Non-Holidays to all who are not.

  20. I sort of celebrate x-mas, have dinner and presents with the family, no prayer, no church, no baby jesus dolls, and I love it. With that said, I hate the christmas season, the 3 months before christmas when everyone is talking about christmas, signing songs, x-mas sales, it all drives me insane.

    I’m at war with christmas in the same sense that I’m at war with St Patricks day, too bad Bill Oreilly doesn’t get upset at me for not drinking

  21. If the essence of the holiday is to treat others , especially less fortunate than you, a tad more nicely, then what can be wrong with that? The spirit of Christmas is wonderful.

    Tis the specifics of Christmas that is befuddling.

  22. As an individual conscious that almost all our energy comes from the Sun, I think that the two most relevant days in this winter season are December 21st (Southern Solstice) and January 4th (Perihelion). Of course, I know that Perihelion is not very relevant to our year cycle. December 25th is merely a wrong date for Southern Solstice. However, Orthodox guys have a wronger date in January 7th. I cannot understand that religious War on Solstice.

  23. In Thailand, a non christian country, christmas trees abound and many people celebrate at christmas. This is a country that has 4 new year celebrations. In Kuwait many shops and malls have christmas trees and sales. Christians hijacked the winter festival so why can’t non christians, any excuse for a celebration is my motto.

  24. Christmas dinner was fun until I found out some really good friends are 9-11 truthers just as we finished the meal. We were joking about politics and I was asked what I thought of the evidence 9-11 involved planned demolition and there is was no wreckage found of the plane that hit the Pentagon, I said something about a truck load of bat shit crazy before I realized they were believers. More evidence that Christians seem more inclined to believe other myths and conspiracy theories.

    Happy Festavus!

  25. @vjack:

    When I mention that I do not celebrate Christmas, I am inevitably asked why. This gives me the opportunity to say that I am an atheist who is not particularly fond of crass commercialism. This is a teachable moment.

    There are a number of charities that allow you to give a needy third world family a couple of goats or some chickens on behalf of a loved one. I was the recipient of three goats from my sister this year. If it is all legit (I haven’t done the research yet to verify it), then a needy family in Ethiopa will receive three goats on my behalf.

    My new neighbor gave us all gift baskets of wine and crackers (I understand they are in a fight with another neighbor and are trying to curry favor with the rest of us). My wife and I don’t drink alcohol, so I was able to give one bottle of wine to a Mexican day laborer who I hire from time-to-time for projects around the house.

    Its been a bad year for our amigos from south of the border, so it felt good to do that for him. I have a couple of other friends living pretty hand-to-mouth, so I’ll give them the other two bottles when I see them.

    Those sorts of gifts feel 100x better than receiving some consumer item. If I feel that I need some consumer item, I just go out and buy it whenever the need arises. I am fortunate that by accident of birth, I don’t want for anything. There are billions who aren’t so lucky. Throwing some good fortune their way reminds me just how lucky I am.

    BCT

  26. I’m tired of the notion christmas is bad because of rampant commercialism. I hate the quest for useless shit every day of the year. Yes it’s worse this time of year but should we also hate birthdays?

    If you don’t like the commercialism don’t participate, if you don’t like the religion don’t participate. But don’t think that having a raging hate on for the most popular time of year is an effective attitude for change.

    My kids are (nearly) the only Jewish kids at thier school. Along with a similar minority of other backgrounds there are very few kids that don’t fall into to mainstream view of the holiday. I fail to see how it improves anyone’s season to constantly insist it be the ‘holiday’ season and not just Christmas. Really my kids synagoge would pay no attention to a holiday like hannucka if not for the omnipresence of Christmas. We do what we can to share thier traditions and leave it at that.

    This is for most a time of happyness, constant reminder that you don’t belong to that tribe acheives nothing but distance from a group that other wise doesn’t feel any toward us (at least not in my neck o’ the woods).

    Intolerance begats intolerance. I don’t see how that helps anyone.

  27. There was a christmas street party the 17th, and one of the neighbours mentioned that “the folks at the corner never show up, because, you didn’t know? They’re Jehova’s witnesses and they object to the decorated tree, which they see as pagan heresy”.

    @Dionigi:
    Christians hijacked the winter festival so why can’t non christians, any excuse for a celebration is my motto.

    So this is now my goal as well. Lets try and morph X-mas into something so far removed from religious practice that any fundie trying to argue that X-mas is a christian holiday is going to get the bah-humbug-label-of-nitpickery, where currently this is still going to atheists who feel not celebrating is the only way they can make a statement. So pine trees and Santa are already working to that end. What else can be played up to annoy the religious some more?

    As for end-of-year celebrations, in Europe we don’t have thanksgiving diner, so X-mas is here to stay I’m afraid.

  28. My favorite part of Christmas this year was giving my nephew his very first telescope. He’s not quite 8.

    Sorry, but I’m not going to stop celebrating, atheist or not. I am, however, going to continue to give my nephew kick-ass gifts.

  29. Somewhere in the last 50 years or so, Christmas morphed from a semi-religious holiday into two separate things:
    1) A rampant greed-driven comsumerism-based holiday
    2) The biggest fundraiser for the fundamentalist right.

    O’Really can go froth in the corner for all I care. It’s actually people like him that destroyed the Christmas he so falsely claims is under attack from the Left – the rampant capitalists and the religulous.

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