Secular Christmas

Every year since I’ve become politically cognizant it seems I’ve had to endure people bickering about the ‘controversy’ over Christmas. Is it a war on Christmas, as right-wing TV and radio hosts purport? Is it offensive to say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” as opposed to “Merry Christmas?” Is being inclusive and saying “Happy Hanukkah,” “Happy Kwanzaa,” etc. a slippery slope? Is it hypocritical at best, politically or ethically untenable at worst, for non-theists to celebrate Christmas? Some non-theists don’t celebrate Christmas because of its religious connotations, and some theists think that non-Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. It’s a whole, annoying bog.

The fact is that all of the alleged controversy can be rendered irrelevant by accepting that Christmas has become largely a secular holiday.

Out of the gate let me say that of course there is certainly a contingent of religious people for whom December 25th is the birthday of Jesus Christ, and who celebrate the date as such. But generally the majority in the world who celebrate Christmas—even in countries with very few Christians—celebrate it as a secular tradition rather than a religious one.

Christmas is mostly about giving and receiving presents, eating a lot of food, getting shmammered, attending parties, and spending time with family and friends. For some, it is about all of these things and attending church. (Although in my experience I’ve found that many of the Christmas church-goers attend more out of habit, tradition, or ‘keeping up appearances’ than to worship a god. In many cases, the folks who attend mass on Christmas only go to church once or twice a year—the other being Easter.)

If the devoutly religious want Christmas to be purely about religion, then they must eschew all of the other Christmas traditions: gifts, food, lights, trees, etc. If they don’t and yet still complain about the secular ‘co-opting’ of Christmas, then they are nothing more than hypocrites.

But what is Christmas, anyway? Is it historically a purely religious, Christian celebration?

If it is true that Jesus were a real historical figure, it is the consensus of most historians and theologians based on available evidence that December 25th was not the actual date of his birth. (Most accounts place it in the spring.) December 25th was originally a Roman winter solstice festival known as Sol Invictus, which celebrated the “rebirth” of the Sun; several Sun gods were worshipped, including Sol and Mithras. Because it was already such a popular pagan holiday, it was claimed as the birthday of Jesus. Even so, celebrating the birth of Jesus was condemned and looked down upon by Christians for most of history, and Christians didn’t start celebrating Christmas as we know it until the 1800s.

The gift-giving part of Christmas—some would say the #1 Christmas tradition—was actually introduced long after the Church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The tradition does not derive from the three wise men in the bible, as many believe. In fact, gift exchange derived from Saturnalia, a popular Roman holiday dating to 217 BCE that celebrated the god Saturn. Saturnalia involved sacrifices, a school holiday, and, yes, the exchange of gifts.

Even if we grant the war-on-Christmas types the two lies they claim as truth (that Jesus was born on December 25th and that the gift-exchange tradition comes from the three wise men), I wonder how Jesus would feel about people celebrating his birth by literally trampling each other to death in a Walmart in order to buy the $450 video game on sale for $350.

As for that exalted symbol the Christmas tree—it is a tradition that dates to 16th century Germany. It was considered good luck to hang an evergreen at the apex of a house, and over time this morphed into having the tree inside and decorating it. The tradition immigrated to North America along with the Germans.

Traditions are what society is based on, no matter where you live in the world or what your society looks like. Traditions are mostly benign. They are also malleable and tend to change over time. And generally society changes with them. We celebrate Halloween: kids dress up in costumes and beg for candy door to door; adults dress up in costumes and parade and/or party. We do not celebrate the Celtic festival Samhain, from which Halloween is derived, warding off evil spirits by disguising ourselves as them, or slaughtering livestock and casting their bones into bonfires. (At least I hope we don’t!)

Christmas may have meant one thing once upon a time, but now it means something different. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, but we can still celebrate Christmas. Even the non-religious can celebrate Christmas because it’s about tradition, merriment, nostalgia, and making new memories. It’s an excuse to get together with family and friends we don’t see very often. It’s fun to see the excitement and awe in children’s eyes. The food, candy, and chocolate are great and some people even like Christmas music. The sweaters are mostly bad, and feelings about egg nog are split.

As for me, I have grown increasingly weary of Christmas. It seems the magic goes out of it when you’re no longer a child and don’t have children in your life. But it’s the crass commercialism and pure gaudiness that I abhor more than anything. (But if that doesn’t bother you and you still have some names to cross off your shopping list, may I suggest The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, edited by the brain behind the atheist bus campaign, Ariane Sherine.)

Christmas is no Halloween, but if I remove the religiosity and the crass commercialism, it’s a pretty nice holiday. For whatever reason The Sound of Music is always on TV this time of the year, and that’s enough for me.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Festivus, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Human Rights Day, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy New Year, Happy Omisoka, Happy St. Lucia Day, Happy Winter Solstice, Merry X-mas …and Happy any-other-December-holiday-you-may-celebrate-that-I-may-have-inadvertently-left-out!

A few quotations from well-known scientists, skeptics, and atheists on this subject:

“But of course it has long since ceased to be a religious festival. I participate for family reasons, with a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics. I detest Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and the obscene spending bonanza that nowadays seems to occupy not just December, but November and much of October, too. So divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as happy holiday season. In the same way as many of my friends call themselves Jewish atheists, I acknowledge that I come from Christian cultural roots. I am a post-Christian atheist. So, understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.” – Richard Dawkins

“It seems to me to be obvious that everything we value in Christmas—giving gifts, celebrating the holiday with our families, enjoying all of the kitsch that comes along with it—all of that has been entirely appropriated by the secular world.” – Sam Harris

“My personal war on Christmas is fought in a way the Bill O’Reillys of the world don’t even recognize: I blithely wish people a Merry Christmas without so much as a germ of religious reverence anywhere in my body. I take this holiday and turn it into a purely secular event, with family and friends and food and presents. I celebrate the season without thought of Jesus or any of the other myths so precious to the pious idiots who get upset when a Walmart gives them a cheery ‘Happy Holidays!’” – PZ Meyers

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Just like Hitler

There’s an instructor at my gym who kind of shouts at us and makes us count down. If we don’t count down, she starts again at the beginning. She also makes us respond when she asks, “Can you feel it!?” She will yell it over and over again until we all respond. Whether we can feel it or not, we have to respond “yes!” It’s not as if we can say, “Sort of. Not really. Maybe I will tomorrow.” She’s such a Nazi. No, in fact, she’s Hitler!

I think the people who run NGOs are probably just using their socio-political humanitarian work as fronts to impose their own idealist “world peace” agenda. They’re all communists.

If you don’t wear deodorant in the summer time, you are imposing your disgusting body odour on others against their will and you deserve to be killed, you stinky Nazi.

Sometimes my cat scratches at my legs when his nails are too long and it hurts! Hitler cat.

When there is a line-up—stand in it! Don’t walk to the front as if you own the world. People who do that are no better than Hitler.

In my country, if I get sick or have an accident and break something, I can go to the doctor or hospital and get fixed. And I don’t have to pay for it. Clearly the Canadian system is just like Nazi Germany. Bunch of commies.

Sometimes when I get a coffee from the coffee shop in the lobby of my office building they don’t fill the cup to the top. Frickin’ Nazis.

Bob Ross was a painter who had a TV show called The Joy of Painting. He had an afro and painted mostly landscapes. He said things like, “I’m gonna put a happy little tree right here. Oh, but he needs a friend. Can’t leave him there all alone. I’ll put another little happy tree right next to him.” He spoke in a calm almost-whisper. He was mesmerising. Whether you cared about painting or not, you could not turn the channel when you stumbled upon Bob Ross. I think he was probably communicating something evil via subtext or subliminal messages. He was like a reincarnated Hitler!

There is hardly anywhere you can park in Toronto during the day without having to pay an arm and a leg. What is this, Nazi Germany?

The other day was the hottest, most humid day we’ve had in Toronto all summer. It was hard to breathe, the heat and humidity were so oppressive. Oppressive like Hitler.

There is gum stuck to the pedal of my bike. Argh! So annoying! It’s just like Hitler.

Assimilation

This guy Mark Krikorian wrote a blog posting at the National Review’s web site yesterday in which he said that soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor shouldn’t expect her name to be pronounced properly because she’s a foreigner. Further, he said that she should “adapt to us” and that “we” shouldn’t “be giving in to” her name’s weird pronunciation. Oh, and he implied that multiculturalism is bad.

This guy is from the Center For Immigration Studies; I don’t know what that means.

Here is the full quotation:

“Deferring to people’s own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English…insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn’t be giving in to. And there are basically two options—the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there’s a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.”

Oh, heaven help me. Sometimes I still get shocked that people like this exist.

First of all, Mr. KRIKORIAN, people’s names are their names. It doesn’t cause you physical pain nor inconvenience you greatly to say a person’s name the way it is meant to be pronounced. It’s just plain respectful.

It is true that in English we often Anglicise certain words or names. For example, we don’t refer to Germany as Deutschland in English. But that’s because it’s a translation. In English, Germany means Deutschland, just as the English translation of the French word cochon is pig.

There is no English translation for Sotomayor. That’s her name! And it’s not so difficult to show respect for someone’s name. Really. Come on, try it Mr. KRIKORIAN. Just once.

Secondly: Dude! You’re Armenian! WTF? Your family was once a “newcomer,” and your name is still Krikorian! Krikorian?!? Well that doesn’t sound like any English name I know! Why don’t you adapt to us and make it easier for us so we don’t have to strain ourselves trying to pronounce that foreign-sounding name. Can we just shorten it to Krik? And we’ll let people decide if they’d prefer to pronounce it “crick” or “creek”—whatever’s easiest for them.

Finally, as for his argument that it is unnatural to emphasize the final syllable in English, I wish I could ask Mr. Krekorian how he pronounces the word deny. Does he pronounce it DE-ny? How about annul? Is it A-nul?  What about garage? Is he one of those who says GARE-idge? What about one of the states in his very own country, Vermont—does he pronounce it VER-mint (like “vermin”)? How about inure, or imply, or bereft, or transform, or elect, or subside, or routine…. I really could go on and on, but you get the point.

And that is?

That likely to Mark Krikorian’s pleasure, the emphasis is on the first syllable in the word asshole. And bigot. And doofus. And foreigner.

Holocaust denial = bad. Rape and abuse of children = not so bad.

Israel has cut ties with the Vatican because Pope Benedict XVI decided to reinstate Bishop Richard Williamson. Williamson famously denied the Holocaust in an interview with Swedish Sveriges Television, conducted in November, 2008 and aired in January, 2009.

From Wikipedia’s Williamson page:

  • He has called Jews “enemies of Christ” and urges their conversion to Catholicism. He has also stated that Jews aim at world dominion.
  • He denied the existence of gas chambers and has claimed that not 6 million, but 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps: “I believe there were no gas chambers…I think that two to three hundred thousand Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps…but none of them by gas chambers.” – Richard Williamson

I don’t get Holocaust deniers. I put them in the same category as HIV deniers—those who deny that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Some of them claim that HIV exists but isn’t the direct cause of AIDS, and some deny that HIV exists all together. Sadly the most recent case of this deadly viewpoint is Christine Maggiore, an HIV-positive woman who gave birth to an HIV-positive daughter. In 2005 her daughter died, at three years old. The coroner ruled the cause of death was AIDS-related pneumonia. Maggiore refused antiretroviral drugs while she was pregnant, and she breast-fed her daughter. In December, 2008, Christine Maggiore also died.

You can’t deny AIDS. Over 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981. All evidence—all good, reliable, trustworthy, scientific evidence—reveals the truth about HIV and AIDS.

Just as all evidence reveals the truth about the Holocaust. Holocaust deniers don’t generally deny that the Holocaust happened at all. I’m sure they’d love to do that, but then how to explain the overwhelming evidence? Rather, they admit that something happened to the Jews (and others), but it wasn’t that big of a deal; they deny that it happened on the scale and scope that history reports. Like the aforementioned bishop, they may claim that only a few thousand or few hundred thousand people died, that there was no government mandate to exterminate Jews, and that concentration camps and mass-murder methods were not employed.

Ummm…people, this was not that long ago! This is not ancient history. Nor did it occur before recorded history. There is historical evidence: Written evidence. Physical evidence. Videos, audio recordings, and eyewitness testimony. Government documents. This was about 65 years ago. People are still alive who lived through it. And not just Jews living in Nazi Germany—people who witnessed this atrocity the world over have attested to its veracity. So it’s not a vast Jewish conspiracy, as deniers claim.

And so I ask: How could you possibly deny it?!

Okay, back to the subject at hand: This bishop Richard Williamson denied the Holocaust and the pope decided to give him a second chance. You know, the pope? Joseph Ratzinger? The guy who was a member of Hitler Youth?

Clearly this rant is all over the place—AIDS and Holocaust deniers, the stupid-ass bishop and the pope…. But I’m getting to my main issue.

Do you happen to know how many Catholic priests have molested children?

This is a very difficult statistic to nail down. There are no “true” numbers because the Catholic Church had an actual policy of keeping all of these cases hidden. Rather than removing priests from service and having them stand criminal trial (or at least get psychiatric attention!), they simply moved them to another diocese, to a fresh new batch of children. Generally with rape and child molestation, the majority of cases go unreported. That, coupled with the Vatican’s policy of secrecy, means we may never know exact numbers; statistics range from 2% to 16% to 45% of priests having performed “sexual misconduct.” That’s a huge range, but it’s safe to say, based on surveys, investigations, grand jury reports, books, and films, that for many decades thousands of priests have molested and/or raped tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands?) of children.

(By the way, it’s not just the Catholics.)

The first thought I had when I read about Israel officially severing ties with the Vatican was, “Now? Over this? Why not years ago, over the repeated rape and abuse of children?!?”

I think Holocaust deniers are batshit crazy. And I don’t particularly care if any country, state, or person respects or even acknowledges the Vatican as an authority (or whatever it’s supposed to be). But the state of Israel has decided to put its foot down with the Vatican over an issue, and I am disheartened that the issue they chose is one bishop’s deranged delusions and not the Church’s systemic policy of allowing the rape and abuse of children.

Years ago when the deluge of unequivocal information about the Catholic Church’s abuses came to light, all of society should have denounced the Vatican’s actions. Certainly purportedly good and righteous religious folks and institutions should have taken a stand.

I know everyone has their hot-button issue, and for Israel it is understandably the Holocaust. But the message as I see it is that one crazy bishop’s antisemitic ramblings made the Israeli leadership angry enough to cut ties with the Vatican; however, the sexual abuse of thousands of children didn’t rankle them in the same way.

By the way, here are some more fun facts about Richard Williamson (who will henceforth be known as “crazy uncle Richie”). Oh, he does believe 9/11 was an inside job! ‘Nuff said.

  • He opposes the wearing of trousers or shorts by women, and has urged greater “manliness” in men.
  • He promoted conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy assassination and the September 11 attacks, claiming that the latter were staged by the US government.
  • He denounced the film The Sound of Music as “soul-rotting slush” and stated that “by glorifying that romance which is essentially self-centered, [the film] puts selfishness in the place of selflessness between husband and wife, and by putting friendliness and fun in the place of authority and rules, it invites disorder between parents and children.”

– Courtesy of Wikipedia’s page on Richard Williamson