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