We celebrate Christmas [in my family], but Jesus is really only part of it for my dad; for my brother (a fellow atheist and five years my junior) and myself, it’s really about being a family and sharing time together and giving presents. And really, isn’t that enough?
Ian, age 24, Connecticut
This year, the grand marshals of the Hollywood Christmas Parade were magicians Penn and Teller – even though Jillette, an outspoken atheist, is the author of the books Every Day is an Atheist Holiday and God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. Jillette tweeted, “Hollywood Christmas Parade: Penn & Teller to Grand Marshal Annual Event – Yeah Xmas – you gotta problem with that?”
Apparently, some people do. CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin said on ABC-TV’s The View that the holiday “is commemorating the birth of Christ … so why would you have an atheist that doesn’t believe in Christ-mas?”
Or to put it another way: Can you can be an atheist and still celebrate Christmas?
Yes. Millions of atheists do it every December.
Granted, atheists don’t celebrate Christmas by going to church, as devout Christians do. But when it comes to the non-religious aspects of the holiday – giving presents, putting lights on trees, throwing around season’s greetings – a number of atheists, agnostics and other unbelievers can match believers gift for gift, bulb for bulb and Hallmark card for Hallmark card.
Of course, some people might say that if atheists and other unbelievers don’t believe in the godliness of Jesus, then they’re hypocrites to get involved with the holiday that celebrates his birth. If they’re not Christians, they should leave Christian holidays to the Christians.
Maybe so. But do you have to believe in Ra and Osiris to tour the Egyptian pyramids – and stand in awe of them? Do you have to believe in Greek and Roman gods to admire the Venus de Milo or the Apollo Belvedere?
Of course not. You appreciate these works for themselves and for the feelings that they raise in you, not for the religious meaning that other people have given to them.
So then: what do atheists get out of Christmas?
“Christmas music makes me think about my family and how much I love them,” atheist Dawn Cutaia wrote in the York Daily Record at the end of November. “Christmas lights make the cold weather seem warmer.”
Eric Jayne, president of Minnesota Atheists, likes the feeling of the holiday: “The season brings people like me peace, love and joy. . . . Whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, humanist or something else, I believe that we all generally wish to reduce our problems and strive for peace, love and joy – three primary elements of the Christmas spirit.”
Some of the young atheists whom I researched for the book What If I’m an Atheist? often had more down-to-Earth reasons to appreciate Yuletime. “Christmas is and always will be my favorite holiday,” said Emily, a 19-year-old from Rhode Island, “but it’s never held a religious importance [for me] – except when I was nine and me and my sisters dressed up like shepherds because we thought their outfits were cool!” And Leena, a 17-year-old unbeliever from Finland, added, “I only celebrate Christmas and things like that because I get time off from school and get to relax.”
And some are more spiritual. Hazel, an 18-year-old atheist (raised Jewish) whom I quoted in the book, put it well. “Excuse me if I’m about to go totally Hallmark on all of you, but to me Christmas is a holiday of giving and love. Woah, that sounded super cheesy, but it’s true!”
Still, some unbelievers object to too much Christmas – that is, government leaders and agencies’ inserting the religious aspects of the holiday into public property. ]
Recently, for instance, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an unbeliever group, worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to pull a live nativity scene from the Christmas show at Concord High School in Elkhart, Indiana. The FRFF and ACLU sued, and U.S. District Judge Jon E. Deguilio ruled in their favor: “The inclusion of the living Nativity scene in the show, as currently proposed, violates the Establishment Clause [of the Bill of Rights].”
A more inventive way of combating a government display of religion took place in another Indiana city: Brookville, near Cincinnati. The FFRF tried to have a nativity scene removed from the Franklin County courthouse – but when its efforts failed, the FFRF created a display showing a secular American nativity: Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the Statue of Liberty standing by a manger containing the Bill of Rights. Nearby is a banner that says, “At this Season the Winter Solstice, LET REASON PREVAIL.”
Speaking of the solstice, some unbelievers find use it as a substitute for Christmas. The winter solstice falls a few days before December 25. It’s the year’s shortest day, when the sun is at its weakest and lowest in the sky – and the point when the days will start getting longer and the sun brighter. Unbelievers have celebrated it with Christmassy events like parties and charitable giving.
In general, though, unbelievers enjoy Christmas celebrations.
In the words of Luis, a 17-year-old atheist from Tennessee: “I celebrate Christmas because I believe in the messages it brings. Peace on Earth, good will toward man, all of it. I believe in every last bit.”