Monday, December 14, 2009

This atheist's guide to Christmas - abridged

For people who just want to read some blogs - here's the short version of my very long essay below.

Just got home with a six-foot Christmas tree carried across my broad, manly shoulders. I feel like Man the Hunter, returning from the cold fog with vital supplies, and it gives The Beer Widow a bit of a thrill.

I walked past a man in the street who stared, and shook his head at me sadly as if to say, "A Christmas tree. God, how pathetic." And it reminded me how fashionable it is these days to be miserable about Christmas, to go all Grumpy Old Men but to actually mean it. Or to dismiss it with "It's just for the kids really". Or alternatively, to be Christian and moan about how we've lost the true meaning of Christmas. Or to be the Daily Mail and make up some bullshit about Luton town council banning Christmas as part of political correctness having gone mad.

The Beer Widow and I do not have kids. We are both devout atheists. We are - most of the time - what the Mail would refer to as 'politically correct'. But we bloody love Christmas, love it in a way that starts today and continues till the first Monday of the New Year (which is best when it falls around the 4th or 5th of Jan). It's the one time of year when we all feel we can put aside the stress and cynicism of modern life and simply be sentimental and happy. If you watched the same telly, listened to the same music and said the same things you watch, listen to and say at Christmas, people would think you were gauche and simple. But we get away with it because whatever our beliefs, Christmas is the one time of year when we understand that everyone is feeling and behaving the same way. And it feels good. If we allow cynicism and fundamentalism to shatter this consensus, we won't feel safe celebrating any more, and Christmas as we know it could disappear, as it has done in history before. That would be a terrible tragedy for humanity.

Wherever we are in the world, and whatever religion we follow, midwinter has always been celebrated, and these celebrations hold many things remarkably in common: the giving of gifts, festive lights in the dark, rebirth and renewal, a celebration of love. When fundamentalist Christians tell us we are forgetting the true meaning of Christmas, they're showing remarkable nerve, given that most parts of it bar the nativity were lifted from previous celebrations in order to help Christianity become the dominant religion.

Personally, I simply don't believe that Christ was the son of God. In fact, I don’t believe that there is a god of any description. But to me Christmas is still a magical time of year.

Christmas is a pluralist festival, a festival of consensus and tolerance, a time to come together and celebrate peace and goodwill to all men.

Crass commercialism is not the only alternative to a Christian celebration. My main beef with many Christians has always been that many seem to think they have a monopoly on human virtues such as compassion and generosity of spirit. You don't have to be Christian to think that these qualities are important, or that they should be celebrated ritualistically - as humans we have a need for ritual whatever our spiritual beliefs.

And what better time to celebrate the best in our character than the middle of winter? The beauty of Christmas is that, once you set aside religion, it is devastatingly simple. It’s dark and cold outside. The trees are bare. Everything looks dead. Many other mammals hibernate, getting their heads down in the hopes of surviving the worst. And what do we do? We stick two fingers up to winter, yell “FUCK YOU!” to it at the tops of our voices. We eat and drink more heartily than at any other time of the year. We go to endless parties.We throw open our doors to friends and family, and send greetings to people, some of whom we haven’t seen for years. We find any tree or plant that is still green, still alive, and drag it into our homes, which we make as gaudy and colourful and full of light as we can, creating beacons against the dark that are laughably over-specced for the purpose they ostensibly serve. We party, and that’s what we have always done. Christmas is a celebration of everything that is best about humanity, a celebration of our extraordinary spirit in the face of adversity. And that is why I get emotional and sentimental about it.

What I could do is forget Christmas. Instead, I could join the New Jersey humanists who celebrate HumanLight, the humanist winter solstice festival created in 2001. It’s celebrated on 23rd December, so it doesn’t interfere or conflict with anyone else’s ritual, and celebrates “humanity, reason and hope”. But there’s something about this that makes even the most timid person want to find the organisers, steal their dinner money, throw their school bag into a hedge and flush their heads down the toilet. My point is that Christmas has always been a broad collection of meanings. I don’t want to have to call it something else, to say “Happy Holidays” in order to mark out a secular celebration distinct from Christmas.

Christmas is the name we hold in common for our multilayered festival; the Christians nicked an awful lot of it from the Pagans. Surely they can share the name with us in return.


  1. Merry Christmas Pete, I enjoyed that!

  2. I love Christmas too. Whatever your religion, to experience a time when we are all encouraged to focus on other people in our lives, to gather our families round us and to set aside some time for feasting; can't be bad. Despite the perils of being over commercial, there are plenty of opportunities during the festival that is Christmas to re set or calibrate our moral compass.
    Right then, how about another glass of champagne?
    Ian Taylor

  3. Excellent Pete, now I can feel justified in yet another hangover knowing I did it all for humanity. My headache is helping bring about a better world, I hope everyone appreciates the lengths I'm going to.
    Simon White

  4. Pete

    Merry Christmas!

    The more of your stuff I read, the more I want to sit down and have a beer with you some day when I'm on your side of the pond (you pick the beer )

    The other Pete Brown