Seven Reasons for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays

This piece was originally published on AlterNet. I’m reposting as part of my holiday tradition thing.

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It’s often assumed that the atheist position on what is politely termed “the holiday season” is one of disregard at best, contempt and annoyance at worst. After all, the reasons for most of the standard winter holidays are supposedly religious — the birth of the Savior, eight days of miraculous light, yada yada yada. Why would atheists want anything to do with that?

But atheists’ reactions to the holidays are wildly varied. Yes, some atheists despise them: the enforced jollity, the shameless twisting of genuine human emotion to sell useless consumer crap, the tyrannical forcing of mawkish piety down everyone’s throats. (Some believers loathe the holidays for the exact same reasons.) But some of us love the holidays. We love the parties, the decorations, the smell of pine trees in people’s houses, the excuse to eat ourselves sick, the reminder that we do in fact love our family and friends. We’re cognizant of the shameless twisting and mawkish piety and whatnot — but we can deal with it. It’s worth it for an excuse to drink eggnog with our loved ones and bellow out “Angels We Have Heard On High” in half-assed four-part harmony. (In fact, when it comes to the holidays, atheists are in something of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. If we scorn them, we get called Scroogy killjoys… but if we embrace them, we get called hypocrites. Oh, well. Whaddya gonna do.)

So today, I want to talk about some of the reasons that some atheists love the holidays: in hopes that believers might better understand who we are and where we’re coming from… and in hopes that a few Scroogy killjoys, atheist and otherwise, might be tempted to join the party. (If not — no big. I recognize and validate your entirely reasonable annoyance at the holidays. And besides, Scroogy killjoys are an important holiday tradition.)

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Reason #7: Holiday traditions are comforting. The human need for tradition and ritual seems to be deeply ingrained. It’s comforting to do things at the same time every day or every year: things we did as a child, things our parents and grandparents did. It gives us a sense of continuity, of being part of a pattern that’s larger than ourselves, of passing along ideas and customs that we hope will live on after we die. For those of us who don’t believe in an afterlife, that last bit can be extra important. And when those customs and rituals are about joy and celebration and people we love and so on… that makes it extra nifty.
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#6: The holidays connect us with our ancestors… and with the earth and the seasons. In modern civilized culture, we tend to treat the changing seasons largely as a fashion challenge and an excuse to complain. (Even in San Francisco, where the temperature rarely gets above 80 or below 40, we still gripe about the weather.)

But for our ancestors, the changing seasons were a critically important part of their lives: a matter of life and death, which they watched and marked with great and careful attention. The winter solstice holidays rose up as a way to mark those changes… and to celebrate the all-important imminent return of the sun and the warmth and the longer days. Celebrating the holidays reminds us of what life was like for the people who came before us — the people who are responsible for us being here.

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#5: Presents. ‘Nuff said.
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#4: The War on the War on Christmas. Watching Bill O’Reilly and the Christian Right work themselves into an annual lather over the fact that (a) not everyone in America celebrates Christmas and (b) some well-mannered businesses choose to recognize this fact by using ecumenical or secular holiday greetings… this is some of the best free entertainment we could ask for.

Sure, it’s theocratic. Sure, it’s bigoted. Sure, it has its roots in anti-Semitism and white supremacy. But it’s also freaking hilarious. Watching these hypocrites twist themselves into knots explaining why America is a Christian nation and it’s the grossest insult to acknowledge the existence of other religions by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”… and why this stance somehow isn’t shameless religious bigotry? It’s the best contortionist act in town. And like the circus, it comes around every year.

axial tilt is the reason for the season
#3: The holidays connect us with the universe. Axial tilt is the reason for the season! For many atheists, one of the greatest joys of atheism is that it opens up an awe-inspiring world of science. It’s not that believers don’t care about science: many of them do. But the passionate love of science is a defining feature of the atheist movement, and many of us will take any opportunity to gush about the topic ad nauseam. Usually in embarrassing, Carl-Sagan-esque, “billions and billions of stars” purple prose.

And the holidays are another excuse to go gaga over the wonders of science. They’re another way to celebrate the fact that we’re living on a tilty rock whizzing through frigid space around a white-hot ball of incandescent plasma. Neat!

oh what fun holiday music poster gay mens chorus
#2: The music. You heard me right. I actually like holiday music.

Not the gloppy shopping-mall Muzak that gets forced into our bleeding eardrums every year, despite our cries of pain and pathetic pleas for mercy. I hate that stuff as much as anyone. But some holiday music is seriously pretty. The soaring eerieness of “The Angel Gabriel”; the strangely haunting cheeriness — or cheery hauntingness? — of “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah”; the lilting saunter of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”; the majestic transcendence of “Angels We Have Heard On High” (especially when sung in half-assed, eggnog-addled four-part harmony). Some of this stuff is freaking gorgeous. The really old stuff especially. If you like the tunes but can’t stomach the lyrics… well, there’s a wide world of holiday song parodies at your disposal. (My personal faves: the H.P. Lovecraft ones, and the Christmas-themed parody of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”)

And as I discovered when I was digging up lyrics for a Christmas party songbook, a lot of holiday music is entertainingly grotesque and surreal. You don’t have to dip into the Lovecraft Solstice Songbook to find holiday songs about blood, suffering, torment, and death. I mean, “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/ Breathes a life of gathering gloom/ Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/ Sealed in a stone cold tomb”? What’s not to like?

And the Number One Reason for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays:

whoville singing
#1: For the same damn reason everyone else does. Because it’s dark and cold, and it’s going to be dark and cold for a while… so it’s a perfect time to decorate and light lights and celebrate the fact that we’re alive. Because we’re all going to be cooped up inside together for a while… so it’s a perfect time to have parties and give presents and eat big festive dinners and otherwise remind ourselves of why we love each other. Because this time of year can truly suck… so it’s a perfect time to remember that the cold and dark won’t be here forever, and that the warmth and light are coming back.

Any day now.

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Coming Out Atheist
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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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Seven Reasons for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays
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6 thoughts on “Seven Reasons for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays

  1. AMM
    1

    Speaking of music, my favorite has to be “O Holy Night.” I prefer to sing it in the original French, for two reasons:
    (1) with rare exceptions, translated lyrics are always embarrassingly worse than the original. This is not one of them.
    (2) hearing it in a language you didn’t grow up knowing separates you a little from the ghastliness of the text. (IIRC, it’s _very_ Catholic.)

    If you like to sing and you like non-pop (so-called “classical”) stuff, it’s really hard to avoid religious music. Most of Western vocal music before the 20th century is religious. Of course, most of _that_ is in Latin which, with luck, your dictionary Atheist friends won’t understand anyway.

  2. 3

    I do rather like the Cthulhu carols. Hearing “Joy to the World” played in a minor key with lyrics about “Death to the World never fails to amuse. And, of course, there are those lovely variants we all sang as kids.

    For me, though, the best part of the holidays is the food traditions. I come from a mixed religion family, so Thanksgiving merges into Hanukkah, which folds into Christmas, and then continues into Twelfth night in one and a half month long binge of festival foods made only once a year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to test how these still warm snickerdoodles match up with some fresh egg nog.

  3. 5

    Like #1 AMM, “O Holy Night/Minuit Chrétiens” is a holiday favorite for this atheist, partly because I took French in my Catholic high school and we learned the French version and sang it in choir. I like all the Christmas music. Yes I call it Christmas, and yes I call my decorated and well-lit tree a Christmas tree. There are at least 3-4 Santa Clauses on every shelf of the house, plus a few snowmen.

    As a Humanist I have both hosted and attended the “Humanlight” winter holiday celebration, but it’s not very popular with members of our local groups in South Jersey. Central/North Jersey’s NJHN has an excellent annual Humanlight celebration, even though there is very little focus on the “Humanlight” aspect of the party.

    Like #3 Gregory, the food traditions are also important. If I don’t get a hot chocolate with a candy cane stirrer on Christmas Eve, and some spiked egg nog on Christmas morning, it just isn’t the same.

    Family, friends, fun, food, bringing in the lights during the darkest days, bringing in branches or trees (even fake trees) to remind us that there is still life in winter, these are cultural traditions that date back to many cultures and religions.

  4. 6

    Yes, some atheists despise them: the enforced jollity, the shameless twisting of genuine human emotion to sell useless consumer crap, the tyrannical forcing of mawkish piety down everyone’s throats.

    I’m one of them, and none of the reasons apply to me, not even the presents. I only celebrate Christmas because it is a social obligation, which is exactly why I hate it. That I’m suffering from winter depression doesn’t help either.

    But then again, if you enjoy celebrating Christmas, please feel free to do so. It would be foolish and childish if I’d call you less atheist or something.

    Happy solstice everybody.

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