Non-Atheists “Whine” About Christmas Too

Flickr looks like just a photo-sharing site to anyone who doesn’t use it much (like me). To photographers (like my husband), however, it’s a sophisticated social media site. Think Facebook before whatever particular change you really hated, with the bonuses of not getting friend requests from relatives and better ways of keeping track of things you’re interested in. In other words, people invest their personalities in their interactions there.

That’s why it was disturbing to see this:

So it’s distressing when someone puts Christmas lights on my virtual home. I’m not a Christian. I don’t care how secular the holiday is nowadays. I know about the holiday’s Pagan roots. None of that matters. The fact is, Christmas lights on a home are a signifier that the occupant is a Christian, the same way a mezuzah is a signifier of a Jewish occupant. These symbols have power, which is why we use them.

It’s not just that Flickr is smearing Christmas “cheer” all over itself. As a non-Christian in a Christian country, I’m grudgingly used to that. (Though it would be nice if clicking that “[x]” set a cookie that prevented it from loading on the next pageview.) It’s that my Flickr stream is my personal identity in the Flickr community. That’s my face there at the top. Flickr has added a Christian signifier to my virtual home and I have no way to remove it. In the eyes of the rest of the community, Flickr has turned me into a Christian.

Comments are predictably atrocious.

Christmas lights are just lights that were made to be safer than putting candles on a solstice tree. They have nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity as both candles and solstice trees that they go on both predate Christianity.

Which is why the people who bitch about the War on Christmas are asking people to boycott all the stores that put up lights.

If you clicked a little lamb and baby Jesuses started falling, the background turned into a glittery animated gif reproduction of the Sistine Chapel, and a string of light-up crosses went across the top, you’d have something.

As it is, it’s just secular holiday decoration.

Because the existence of one sort of symbol of religiosity precludes any others.

Even though Christianity is fading, this country is still predominantly a Christian one. Even though I’m no longer religious (I used to be, somewhat) I still respect the fact that this nation was founded & built on many Christian values & beliefs. So whereas I won’t tolerate someone trying to push the bible off on me, I have no problem with seeing Christmas decorations that truly represent Christianity being displayed at Christmas time.

It was also built on racist colonialism. Are we going to berate anyone who complains about having racism pinned on their profiles?

You’re letting your religious background taint your perception. Because you view Hanukkah as “The Jewish Holiday” you assume that Christmas is “The Christian Holiday.” Instead of recognizing that like Halloween, Easter and Thanksgiving none of the major American Holidays are primarily religious anymore.

I think the audience here understands just how religious many of the major American holidays still are.

You don’t see me bitching about Halloween’s paganness and or many holidays that grew out of similar origins or about Hannukah, Ramadan… the list goes on.

If other religions are allowed to announce their religious beliefs full throttle, wouldn’t it be equality to allow EVERYONE the right to celebrate their holidays as they please so as long as it doesn’t violate the other’s rights? I don’t see how the displaying of religiously ambiguous lights have violated other’s rights to not do so. It’s only the crazy/raidcal minorities of each sect of their beliefs/thoughts that pose a threat to what? Running a holiday universally celebrated by everyone in the world?

Emphasis added. “You don’t see me bitching about the traditions of the minorities whom I feel entirely comfortable erasing entirely in my next paragraph!”

Bullshit. Millions of non Christian and non religious people celebrate Christmas the world over. Stop trying to give something more meaning than it has. It can be a religious holiday and a non religious holiday which is what it has become. I’m not of any particular religion, same with many people I know and we all buy each other presents and meet with family on Christmas.

That would be millions of people who were raised Christian (like my husband) or celebrate with Christians (like me). It would also be a few people who see the lights or other traditions and decide they’re pretty enough to make it worth ignoring or subverting their role as cultural signifiers. People without these traditions don’t spontaneous acquire them.

There are a couple of excellent comments in there as well, from other Jews trying to explain the concept of exclusion. For the most part, no one wants to hear them explain that no matter how wishy-washy the Christian connection to their holiday lights is for some people, those lights are still a symbol that either has to be reconciled with other cultural identities and religions or overrides them altogether.

That’s something those who run social media sites need to learn. They need to know that embracing the symbols of one culture does exclude other cultures. Hats off to Derek Powazek for pointing it out to Flickr.

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Non-Atheists “Whine” About Christmas Too
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10 thoughts on “Non-Atheists “Whine” About Christmas Too

  1. 1

    Christmas lights are just lights that were made to be safer than putting candles on a solstice tree. They have nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity as both candles and solstice trees that they go on both predate Christianity.

    Naw. That’s not how culture works.

    You’re letting your religious background taint your perception. Because you view Hanukkah as “The Jewish Holiday” you assume that Christmas is “The Christian Holiday.” Instead of recognizing that like Halloween, Easter and Thanksgiving none of the major American Holidays are primarily religious anymore.

    Running a holiday universally celebrated by everyone in the world?

    My best friend from college, who’s an American, once told me that every time she saw a house festooned with Christmas lights and plastic snowmen, she thanked God that she hadn’t been born a Gentile. It made me laugh. I realized that outdoor Christmas ornaments are the tackiest things in the world, once I’d thought about it. I still like to put small Christmas trees indoors, though.

    In all seriousness, these are outrageous sentiments. It’s as if these people don’t realize there are seven billion human beings on Earth, and that most of them aren’t even culturally Christian. Dude, I thought I was insulated. But at least I’ve made a point of reading about cultures and politics outside of the United States. Given the literacy rate in this country, the majority of Americans without the luxuries of traveling abroad or living in the civilized parts of the country American cities with residents of multiple nationalities can at least do that much. So why does this crazy idea that Christmas is “universally celebrated” persist?

    Yeah, modern American merchants treat Christmas like a holiday about snow, Christmas has always been a combination of Christian and pagan celebrations and a number of non-Christians, including myself, celebrate Christmas for cultural reasons. So what? That doesn’t mean that it’s been magically rendered “universal” and “neutral”. It’s as if a bunch of historically ignorant people belatedly discovered that Christmas isn’t “pure” and then wildly leapt to the conclusion that the only way Christmas could retain any of its significance as a Christian holiday was if it persisted without being appropriated for any other purpose but for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Do you notice how many people have this same approach to the definitions of words as well as other cultural phenomena? It’s interesting.

    Comments are predictably atrocious.

    Once again, I am infuriated by people’s unwillingness to acknowledge other people’s rights to identify themselves as they prefer and to investigate in earnest perspectives foreign to their own. It’s exhausting to be the minority always straining to tiptoe around the majority; it’s exhausting to find yourself condescendingly dismissed whenever you finally get too angry to keep your mouth shut anymore.

  2. F
    2

    Those comments are pretty ignorant. I didn’t see it as far as I had read, but the only argument I might consider is that you have to decide to click on some tiny snowflakes in flickr’s header to see these lights. Not terribly invasive, yet still imposing a bit on a space which was nominally given to the user to control and represent themself.

    I’m sure flickr thinks it is cute. I’ve seen the same elsewhere for years in a variety of circumstances – for instance, the VLC media player puts a Santa hat on the logo around this time. Google puts up their silly logos, which include religious/holiday junk. While these don’t represent me, and I pretty much ignore them, the principal is that they are getting in my face. Which they really should not do.

  3. 3

    The fact is, Christmas lights on a home are a signifier that the occupant is a Christian, the same way a mezuzah is a signifier of a Jewish occupant. These symbols have power, which is why we use them.

    I have lights on my home because I like lots of little lights when it’s dark and crappy and raining during winter. I have a mezuzah on my doorframe because a dear friend of mine who happens to be jewish gave one to me as a gift when I moved, in a box labeled “Jewish Home Security System”. For what it’s worth, I have a festivus pole in my front yard, with a sign reading “Happy Festivus to Therestivus!”, which has only been vandalized once this year. I am an atheist in a very christian small town.

    To me, those symbols mean neither of the two things mentioned.

  4. 6

    For whatever it’s worth, I’ve just finished celebrating Christmas with my Goan Catholic in-laws over here in India, and there are a lot of Hindus (and at least a few Muslims) in these parts who give every appearance of thinking that Christmas is a fun excuse to party hearty—complete with all the European-Pagan-inspired symbology and assorted songs that contain theological and/or meteorological absurdities. (“Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” when it’s 35˚ C and no local within miles has ever seen snow?) Ganesha looks kind of cool in a Santa hat… though I do wonder what conservative Hindus think of that particular spectacle.

    None of this detracts from Powazek’s point (certainly none of the Hindus or Muslims in question would find it terribly difficult to avoid Christmas if they wanted to), but it does indicate that there are plenty of third-parties on the planet who think Christmas is swell without being raised Christian or celebrating with Christians. (To my understanding, millions of Japanese have a very secular blast on Dec. 25 as well.)

    In a related story, during my third year in law school I had two roommates—one Christian, one (reasonably observant) Jewish, and putting up a Christmas tree in the common living room was a major bone of contention over a span of several December days that year. It’s the first time I can remember finding myself as the middle member of a religious argument: the Christian roommate demanded she be able to put up a tree, the Jewish one said no way… and here I was, loudmouthed atheist but raised-Protestant-and-still-pretty-happy-with-Christmas-in-a-Tim-Minchin-style-way (and the deciding vote in the apartment, too), forced to agree that we had to honor the Jewish roommate’s perception that a pine tree in her/our living room was a Christian signifier being shoved in her face.

    A few days later, my Jewish roommate and I had a fierce argument (unrelated to the Christmas-tree one) about male circumcision, so I guess reassuming my more traditional “extremist” position wasn’t too difficult.

  5. 8

    I had a really strange conversation with a friend in Germany once where she insisted that wearing a cross necklace was not a religious symbol, but rather just jewelry. We were discussing the outlawing of French teachers wearing head scarves under a “teachers shouldn’t wear religious symbols” law. I pointed out that lots of French Christian teachers probably wore crosses and no one was outlawing that.

    I guess the invisibility of our own culture and it’s impact on people who don’t share it is interesting.

  6. 9

    I’m of two minds on this. On one hand, I feel like the secularization of Christmas traditions is a big win for the good guys. Not sure where you or where the author of the Flickr piece are each located, but up here in the Northern latitudes, we all need a damn good inclusive winter celebration with lights and feasting (the lights are no small thing — it gets dark really early up here this time of year, and having everybody’s houses lit up all the time, whether it be by Christmas lights or menorahs or a Festivus pole, is an important antidote to seasonal affective disorder) and it seems to me that, once you take the Christ out of Christmas, it fits the bill rather nicely.

    On the other hand, just because I don’t feel excluded by the constant press of Christmas lights (even forced on one’s own “virtual home”) doesn’t mean that everybody feels that way. It’s a fine line to walk. The universality of Christmas celebrating in America can be in turns oppressive or it can be a means of “breaking the spell” by retaking for secularism what was originally a secular (or at least not particularly pious) celebration to begin with.

    I guess the important takeaway for people — and why the comments are so frustrating, as you say — is that even if you disagree that Flickr putting up the Christmas lights is a bad thing (and I think I might, FWIW, I’m not sure), it’s crucially important to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the author of this piece on Flickr and understand how that might make someone feel. It’s a valid reaction, and one that ought to be treated with sensitivity if nothing else.

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