Christmas Is for Stories

There exists an argument that atheists (or more particularly anti-theists, but it’s not phrased that way) shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. Christmas is a Christian holiday, and if we want to celebrate a holiday, we should make our own and keep it away from the Christian cooties. More seriously, the argument is made that contribute to Christianity’s cultural hegemony by celebrating Christmas.

The group that argues this isn’t large. Tom Flynn of CFI heads it up, and most of the rest of the people carrying the torch appear to be the sort of men who think that anything that doesn’t hold their attention is automatically lesser and perhaps in need of banning for the good of society. The whole thing would be almost entirely escapable if it weren’t for Beth Presswood‘s quest to single-handedly keep the joy in Christmas for atheists.

As someone who has never had a non-secular Christmas, I find the hand-wringing over atheists celebrating Christmas puzzling. To me, Christmas is a storytelling holiday. It brings us together out of the dark and cold to share indulgent food, spicy drinks, sparkling lights, music, and mutual generosity. And stories.

Is there Jesus in all of that? Sure. Even if you don’t believe, the music isn’t going to let you forget. But the first Christmas story that captured my imagination–seized would probably be a better word–involved Clara and Godfather Drosselmeyer and the Rat King and a remarkably nimble wooden doll. That’s the core of my Christmas, then and now.

Santa got a spot in there sometime shortly thereafter, I’m sure, once I got over the trauma of being forced to sit in a stranger’s lap, but he was quickly pushed aside by more interesting stories. Santa? Sure, but can we talk about Bumble instead, and Dolly and Hermey? They had things to say to me.

Christmas accretes stories the way Thanksgiving accretes recipes for disguising vegetables. Charlie Brown and his lonely tree. Scrooge and his ghosts. The little girl with the matchsticks. Jo’s Christmas “without presents”. Reindeer on the house-top. A Grinch with an undersized heart. A snowman willing to sacrifice himself for a little girl. A desperate man on a bridge. A ski resort in need of saving for the old man. A couple with nothing but the ability to sacrifice for each other. A consuming desire for an unsafe “toy”. A hostage situation, of all things.

I’m not close to running out, but I’ll stop anyway. I think I made my point.

What is a magical baby born in a manger in the middle of all that? More importantly, what do we have to fear even from talking about him, much less celebrating all the rest of it? It’s a good story. It’s strong enough to have held on through the centuries, but it’s a story. It’s nothing we have to run from.

More than that, it is never more obvious that it’s a story than when we place it squarely in the midst of other stories, other magical stories, other stories compelling enough to get us through the darkness. We see it for what it is. We see it for what it does.

It’s a story, one of many. It’s a testament, if you will, to our creativity. Even if we don’t need it anymore, the ability to make lasting stories like this is part of what makes us us. And now is the time to celebrate that, together, before going back to undervaluing it for another year.

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Christmas Is for Stories

2 thoughts on “Christmas Is for Stories

  1. 1

    As someone who has never had a non-secular Christmas, I find the hand-wringing over atheists celebrating Christmas puzzling

    Me too.
    When my daughter asked me “why do we celebrate christmas, we don’t believe in god and Jesus?”, my answer was “’cause we like it” which was enough of an answer for her.
    If you don’t like it, it christmas is stressing you out and not giving you anything, do drop it. But don’t demand that others forfeit something that brings them great joy (and does not actually harm anybody) so you can make your point. It makes you look like the love child of Scrooge and the Grinch, but at the start of the story…

  2. 2

    And Christmas accretes meta-stories — stories about the stories. You wrote “The little girl with the matchsticks,” and what immediately jumped into my head wasn’t so much the story — it was the meta-story. It was the story of the time I was talking with my mother about The Little Match Girl, and she said she hated the story because it was a justification for why it was okay for children to freeze to death in the streets, and I suddenly saw through the gloppy sentiment and realized that Mom was right and did a 180 turn, and had a small moment of growing up.

    I’m sure everyone has stories about the stories: stories about the first time they watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, the time when they’d just moved into their new home and watched It’s A Wonderful Life sitting on lawn chairs in a house full of boxes, the time they put on the Christmas play and accidentally set fire to the manger. The stories aren’t just stories: they become part of our own stories. (Of course, that’s true of all stories…)

    Okay, this clearly needs to be a blog post.

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