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

Slippery slope made of shit

Newshounds is a great web site. Their tag line is: “We watch Fox News so you don’t have to.”

It’s perfect for me because even though I know some people watch Fox “News” from time to time just for a laugh, I can’t do it. It (almost literally) makes my blood boil. I’d love to strap on a blood pressure machine and take some measurements while watching Fox “News.” At any rate, I have to settle for reading about their inanity and then seeking out clips on YouTube and such.

Newshounds, though, cuts my workload down quite a bit because they usually post the videos right there for me! I don’t envy them having to watch Fox “News” and I thank them for doing it so I don’t have to.

Today this little tidbit struck me. On his show, Bill O’Reilly—railing against equal marriage once again—said this:

“Remember, ladies and gentlemen, if gay marriage is okay then you’re going to have all marriages okay. You can’t say gays can marry but triads can’t, or polygamists can’t, or marrying your cousin [sic]. Under equal protection, it’s everybody can do whatever they want. You can’t say we’re just going to get one group in.”

There aren’t enough arghs and blergs in the world to capture how I feel about this.

Okay, first of all, I could just say this and end it right now: Heterosexuals are a group. Therefore, based on O’Reilly’s logic that you can’t just let “one group in,” then no one should be able to get married. “Thankfully straights can’t get married, because if they could then everyone would want to get married. Phew!”

I love how that logic seems perfectly…logical to him, but the same argument for equal marriage does not: You can’t say heterosexuals can marry but homosexuals can’t.

A big derrrr to that one.

Sadly this debate keeps going on and on and on, as if there is legitimately anything to debate. I can’t wrap my mind around it. Letting two consenting adults get married is NOT in any way equivalent to polygamy, pedophilia, or bestiality.

This “slippery slope” argument is often used by bigots, hatemongers, and anti-equal marriage crusaders to oppose equal human rights. It’s absurd. These slippery-slopers say, “If we let two consenting adults of the same sex marry, what’s next? People will want to marry their children, or their dog!”

I wish I could laugh, but sadly these arguments sometimes work on people. It’s a classic scare tactic used by fearmongers and hatemongers.

I also oppose this argument from proponents of equal marriage: “What the hell difference does it make who gets married? People should be able to marry whomever they want! I should be able to marry a chicken or this chair if I want to!”

No.

When people use arguments like this to support equal rights, they instead embolden the enemies of equal rights. It lends credence to ridiculous arguments. No, we should not be able to marry a chicken. Nor a child. Nor a chair. That’s absurd, and to even put it in the same category as a woman marrying a woman or a man marrying a man ridicules and weakens the real and logical arguments for equal marriage.

Marriage between two consenting adults of the same sex should not and must not be lumped in with things like bestiality, pedophilia, and whatever the hell it would be called if people could marry inanimate objects. There is the consensual agreement and commitment between two adults, and then there’s everything else. Equal marriage does not fall into the “everything else” category.

The bigots are now calling their campaign “defense of marriage,” as if equal marriage will somehow endanger the oh-so-stellar reputation of this pristine institution that has a 40% divorce rate.

(By the way, for those religious folks who claim that the bible dictates that homosexuality is wrong, and therefore it is wrong: The bible condemns divorce waaaaay more than it condemns homosexuality. And the argument that it condemns homosexuality at all is specious at best. Oh, and the bible also condemns worshipping false idols, like all those little Jesus and Mary statues and pictures you’ve got in your house, around your neck, or on your car’s dashboard. And it condemns gambling. And owning stuff. It also condemns the observance of special days, like Christmas and Easter and Good Friday and…. )

Let’s get real here and address the fears these scare tactics are meant to stir. Netherlands was the first country to federally legalize same-sex marriage, in 2001. I think Netherlands is still a country, eight years on, and that it hasn’t fallen into the sea. Belgium followed, in 2003, legalizing same-sex marriage country-wide and it didn’t melt into a seething lava pit of sin. Canada (yay!) and Spain were the third and fourth countries, respectively, to federally legalize same-sex marriage, in June 2005.

I live in Canada. It’s been four years. So far I have personally witnessed the happy weddings and marriages of a few homosexual couples, as well as those of a few heterosexual couples. What? Did I just say heterosexual marriages? Yes I did. And no, I do not jest. It was a surprise to all, but allowing same-sex marriage did not cause the institution of marriage to instantly implode.

South Africa was the fifth country (2005) and Norway the sixth (2008) to legalize same-sex marriage. Yes, apartheid South Africa.

So can everyone please just shut the fuck up about gay marriage ruining whatever-the-hell? “It will ruin the institution of marriage!” “It will ruin families!” “It will ruin children!”

You know what’s ruining the institution of marriage? You, when you watch The Bachelor, get quickly and drunkenly married in Las Vegas, or abuse your wife.

You know what’s ruining children? You and your hatemongering. Like it or not, gay exists. A significant portion of the population is gay. Someone you love is gay. One (or more) of your children may be gay. A child is born gay. If you believe such things, then god/the gods made her that way. She is told all her life that she is wrong, sick, bad, sinful, distasteful, dangerous, gross, and that she is not afforded protection under the law or equal human rights. She is told these things by you. Do you know that the highest suicide rate among teenagers is among gay teenagers? Yeah, that’s all on you. Have fun living with that.

This argument is always used whenever people fear something, even if they fear it for no legitimate reason. Oh, think of what it will do to families! The institution of marriage! The children! Won’t somebody think of the children!?!?

Families will not crumble if two consenting adults are allowed to get married. Society will not crumble if two consenting adults are allowed to get married. The institution of marriage will not crumble if two consenting adults are allowed to get married. And children will not suffer if their parents are allowed to be married.

In fact, two consenting adults are already allowed to get married all over the world—as long as they’re straight. If they happen to be infected with “the gay” then they can only get married in Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, South Africa, and Norway. For now.

Secondly, can we please start focussing on things that actually do hurt society? How about rape? We could start with priests raping children—that’s a good place to start if you care about the children. What about “deadbeat dads” who don’t pay child support, thus stigmatizing and sending into poverty single-parent families? There are a few wars going on somewhere I think, not to mention some genocides that could use our attention. Homelessness? Addiction? Poverty? Hey, how about the fact that we’re killing the earth, which is already overpopulated and unable to sustain its population? Human trafficking. Child labour/slavery/abuse.

There. I’ve just given you anti-equal marriage crusaders plenty of things you can do to fill your time rather than opposing two consenting adults committing to one another in a loving and legal way, thus enjoying all of the rights they are entitled to as human beings.

Go fight those wars because this is not a war. And even if you think it is, you’ve already lost anyway. Society is always ahead of the law when it comes to civil rights; it’s just a matter of time now before the law catches up in most of the world. So save your breath, your time, your energy, and some trees, and stop protesting equal marriage.

Use your resources for something important. If you really care about children, then go save a child from a real enemy right now—an abusive parent, a pedophile priest, slavery, poverty, gang violence, illiteracy…. Go. Go now.

For further reading on the “slippery slope” argument: http://www.slate.com/id/2100824/.