10 Christmas Carols Even An Atheist Could Love

This piece was originally published on AlterNet in 2010. I’m dragging it out again for the holidays.

carol singing
What do you do if you’re an atheist who likes Christmas carols?

It’s widely assumed that atheists, by definition, hate Christmas. And it’s an assumption I’m baffled by. I like Christmas. Lots of atheists I know like Christmas. Plenty of atheists recognize the need for rituals that strengthen social bonds and mark the passing of the seasons. Especially when the season in question is dark and wet and freezing cold. Add in a culturally- sanctioned excuse to spend a month of Saturdays eating, drinking, flirting, and showing off our most festive shoes, and we’re totally there. And we find our own ways to adapt/ create/ subvert the holiday traditions to our own godless ends.

Sure, most of us would like for our governments to not be sponsoring religious displays at the holidays. Or any other time. What with the whole “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” thing. And some of us do rather resent the cultural hegemony of one particular religious tradition being crammed down everybody’s throat, in a grotesque, mutant mating of homogenized consumerism and saccharine piety. But it’s not like all atheists are Grinchy McScrooges. Many of us are very fond of Christmas. Some atheists even like Christmas carols. I’m one of them.

It is, however, definitely the case that, since I’ve become an atheist activist, my pleasure in many Christmas carols has been somewhat diminished. It’s harder for me to sing out lustily about angels and magic stars and the miracle of the virgin birth, without rolling my eyes just a little. And I do notice the more screwed-up content of many Christmas songs more than I used to: the guilty self-loathing, the fixation on the blood sacrifice, the not- so- subtle anti-Semitism. I’m content to sing most of these songs anyway (except “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which always makes me cringe). But for some time now, I’ve been on the lookout for Christmas songs that I can sing entirely happily, without getting into annoying theological debates in my head.

So, with the help of my Facebook friends, I’ve compiled a list of Christmas songs that atheists can love unreservedly.

The rules:

mary and baby jesus
Songs cannot have any mention of God, Jesus, angels, saints, or miracles. Not even in Latin. This is the key, the raison d’etre of this whole silly game. I’m not going to start making exceptions just so I can sneak in the “Boar’s Head Carol.” And yes, this rules out “Good King Wenceslas.” Hey, I like it too, it’s pretty and has a nice (if somewhat politically complicated) message about how rich kings should help poor people. But come on, people. It’s about a Christian saint with magical powers. No can do. (I will, however, grant a “saints with magical powers” exemption to Santa.)

Songs must be reasonably well-known. Yes, this rules out some truly excellent stuff. Many of my favorite Christmas songs, atheist or otherwise, are on the obscure side: from the grisly, gothy, paganesque “Corpus Christi Carol” (I do love me some gruesome Christmas songs), to the simultaneously haunting and peppy “Patapan,” to Tim Minchin’s funny, touching, pointedly godless “White Wine in the Sun.” But it’s no fun singing Christmas songs by yourself. For a song to make my list, a reasonable number of people at your holiday party should be able to sing it… or at least chime in on the first verse before trailing off into awkward pauses and “La la la”s.

No song parodies. It hurts like major surgery for me to make this rule. Some of my very favorite Christmas songs of all time are song parodies: my friend Tim’s hilariously on-target Christmas-themed parody of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Christmas Rhapsody”; the entire “Very Scary Solstice” songbook from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society; every Mad Magazine Christmas carol parody ever written. Song parodies are an excellent way to redeem a pretty Christmas tune from cringe-inducing lyrics, and many are just excellent songs on their own. But the idea here is that atheists can have a completely heartfelt, non-snarky love for Christmas music. So to make it onto my list, songs must be entirely sincere. (I will, however, give bonus points to classic Christmas songs that have spawned good parodies.)

Songs have to be good songs. A subjective judgment, I realize. And for the purposes of this game, one that is to be made entirely by me. Deal with it. I don’t care how secular it is: “Suzy Snowflake” is not making it onto my freaking Christmas song list.

Bonus points: A song gets bonus points for not mentioning the word “Christmas.” It’s okay if it does — I don’t think the word has to mean “Christ’s Mass,” any more than “goodbye” has to mean “God be with you” or “Thursday” has to mean “Thor’s day.” But songs that have become widely accepted Christmas carols without even mentioning the concept get bonus points: for chutzpah, if nothing else.

And songs get bonus points for being written more than 100 years ago. I’m not a reflexive hater of modern Christmas songs; in fact, some of them I quite like. But some of the best stuff about Christmas music is the old, old, tunes: the soaring, haunting melodies and harmonies that resonate back through the centuries. If a song can do that and still not mention the baby Jesus, I’m sold.

So with these rules in mind, here are my Top Ten Christmas Carols Even An Atheist Could Love.

white christmas
10: White Christmas. This is a funny one. I don’t even particularly like this song: it’s kind of drippy, and it lends itself far too well to unctuous lounge singers. But come on, people. It was written by a freaking agnostic. A Jewish agnostic at that. And it’s become one of the most classic, wildly popular entries in the Christmas music canon. How can you not love an entirely secular Christmas classic written by a Jewish agnostic?

jingle bells
9: Jingle Bells. A bit overplayed, I’ll grant you. But it’s cheery, and it’s old, and it’s fun to sing. The second through fourth verses (you know, the ones nobody sings or has even heard of) are all about courting girls, racing horses, and getting into accidents, so that’s entertaining. And the thing doesn’t mention the word “Christmas” once. Heck, it wasn’t even written as a Christmas song; it was written as a Thanksgiving song. You can happily teach it to your kids without worrying that you’re indoctrinating them into a death cult. Plus it’s spawned a burgeoning cottage industry of children’s song parodies, in the time-honored “Jingle bells, Batman smells” oeuvre. (Tangent: Do kids still sing that even though “Batman” isn’t on TV anymore?)

sleigh ride
8: Sleigh Ride. For those who like jingling bells, but are a bit sick of “Jingle Bells” after all these years. Relentlessly cheerful. Lots of fun to sing, except for the weirdly tuneless bridge about Farmer Gray’s birthday party…. but then you get back into the sleigh bells jingling, ring- ting- tingling too, and you’re back in business. And no God, or Jesus, or even Christmas. Just snow, and singing, and pumpkin pie, and friends calling “Yoo hoo!” A trifle saccharine, I’ll grant you — a bit too nostalgic for a Norman Rockwell America that never really existed — but still good, clean, secular fun.

silver bells
7: Silver Bells. I’m sure I’m going to get roundly hated on for this one. Lots of people truly loathe modern Christmas songs, especially the ones in the drippy lounge- singer category. (See “White Christmas” above.) But I have a genuine soft spot for this one, for a very specific reason: It’s one of the few Christmas songs that celebrates the urban Christmas. Most Christmas songs sing the bucolic joys of sleigh rides and forests and holly and whatnot… joys that are entirely outside of my own experience of Christmas. My own experience of Christmas is shopping and crowded streets and lavish decorations and electric light displays that could power a goat farm for a year. The very joys that “Silver Bells” is celebrating. And the tune is really pretty. Also it’s in 3/4 time, which means you can waltz to it. So thumbs-up from me. If you sing it in a peppy, up-tempo beat, you can avoid the whole lounge-singer vibe pretty easily.

we wish you a merry christmas
6: We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I was going to include at least one wassailing song in this list. Wassailing songs are among the finest secular Christmas traditions, and the general concept is familiar to a lot of people, even if the specific examples of it aren’t. But alas, every single one of them either (a) is entirely obscure outside folk-nerd circles, or (b) mentions God at least once. Even if it’s just in an “And God bless you and send you a happy New Year” context. I couldn’t find even one completely secular wassailing song that’d be familiar to anyone who doesn’t go to Renaissance Faires. So I’m letting “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” stand in for the “going from door to door singing and begging for food” wassailing genre. It’s reasonably pretty, it’s fun to sing, a lot of people who don’t go to Renaissance Faires know it. And it celebrates two great Christmas traditions: pestering the neighbors, and eating yourself sick.

let it snow
5: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Another in the “Christmas songs that are really about the entirely secular joys of snow and winter” oeuvre. I like this one because it’s not about mucking around in the actual snow, so much as it is about staying the hell out of it. Canoodling in front of the fire where it’s warm and dry — there’s a Christmas song for me! Plus it’s about being in love at Christmas, which is a lovely theme… and one that, like the urban Christmas, is sadly under-represented. And it’s another classic Christmas song written by Jewish songwriters, which always tickles me. Thumbs up.

santa baby
4: Santa Baby. Yeah, yeah. Everyone loves to gripe about the commercialization of Christmas. I griped about it myself, just a few paragraphs ago. But it’s hard not to love a song that revels in it so blatantly, and with such sensual. erotic joy. Cars, yachts, fur coats, platinum mines, real estates, jewelry, and cold hard cash, with the not- so- subtle implication of sexual favors being offered in return — the reason for the season! Plus it has the class to get the name of the jewelry company right. (It’s Tiffany, people, not Tiffany’s!) And the only magical being it recognizes is an increasingly secular gift-giving saint with an apparent weakness for sultry, husky- voiced cabaret singers. (And who can blame him? Faced with Eartha Kitt batting her metaphorical eyes at me, I’d be pulling out my checkbook, too.)

carol of the bells
3: Carol of the Bells. A trifle hard to sing in parts. But it’s awfully darned pretty. No, strike that. It is stunning. It is lavishly, thrillingly beautiful. It has that quality of being both eerie and festive that’s so central to so much great Christmas music… and it has it in trumps. It is freaking old — the original Ukrainian folk tune it’s based on may even be prehistoric — and it sounds it. In the best possible way. It is richly evocative of ancient mysteries, conveying both the joy and the peace that so many Christmas carols are gassing on about. And it does it without a single mention of God or Jesus or any other mythological beings. Just a “Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.” I’m down with that.

winter wonderland
2: Winter Wonderland. Yes, I know. Another modern one. Hey, what do you expect? Christmas got a whole lot more secular in the last century. But I unabashedly love this song, and I don’t care who knows it. It has a lovely lilting saunter to it, a melody and rhythm that makes you physically feel like you’re taking a brisk, slightly slippery winter walk with the snow crunching under your boots. It gets bonus points for being a ubiquitous, entirely non-controversial Christmas classic that doesn’t mention the word “Christmas” even once. And it’s another Christmas love song, which always makes me happy. I get all goopy and sentimental whenever I hear the lines, “To face unafraid/The plans that we’ve made.” Sniff.

And finally, the hands-down runaway winner, the no-question-in-my-mind Best Atheist Christmas Song of All Time:

deck the halls
1: Deck the Halls. It’s totally gorgeous. It’s unrepentantly cheerful — jolly, one might even say — with just a hint of that haunting spookiness that makes for the best Christmas songs. It celebrates all the very best parts of Christmas: singing, playing music, decorating, dressing up, telling stories, hanging around fires, and generally being festive with the people we love. It’s old as the hills: the lyrics are well over 100 years old, and the tune dates back to at least the 16th century, if not earlier. Absolutely everybody knows the thing, and even the folks who don’t can chime in cheerfully on the “Fa la la la la” part. It’s ridiculously easy to sing without being boring. Plus it’s spawned one of the finest song parodies ever: “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie,” from Walt Kelly’s Pogo, a parody that’s almost as beloved as the original song.

And it doesn’t mention God, or Jesus, or angels, or virgin births, or magical talking animals, or redemption of guilt through blood sacrifice, or any supernatural anything. Not even once. Heck, it doesn’t even mention Christmas. This is a Yule song, dammit — and proud of it! If there are any gods at all who inspired this song, they are entirely pagan pre-Christian ones. Totally, 100% made of atheist Christmas win.

Honorable mentions. The 12 Days of Christmas. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Up on the Housetop. Over the River and Through the Woods. Jolly Old St. Nicholas. The Christmas Song (a.k.a. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire). I’ll Be Home For Christmas. Frosty the Snowman. Jingle Bell Rock. O Christmas Tree. All these fit all my criteria, and would be perfectly reasonable additions to your secular Christmas songbook. They just didn’t quite make my Top Ten.

So Merry Christmas, to everybody who likes to celebrate it! Enjoy your decked halls, your ringing bells, your food, your hooch, your snow, your staying the hell out of the snow and fooling around, your sleigh rides, your expensive jewelry, your neighbors who you’re pestering with endless Christmas carols — and above all else, the people you love. There’s probably no God — so stop worrying, and enjoy Christmas!

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10 Christmas Carols Even An Atheist Could Love
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21 thoughts on “10 Christmas Carols Even An Atheist Could Love

  1. 1

    Yes, children still sing the ‘Jingle Bells, Batman smells’, version. I’ve two children and they both still think it’s hilarious.
    Does ‘Fairytale of New York’ count as a carol? I think most people I know would know most of the words to that.

  2. 3

    I love O Holy Night and Can You Hear What I Hear. Mostly I love the songs I like to sing. I also like Angels We Have Heard on High for its beautiful descant. I know they are religious, but still…. Of the secular songs, I like Jingle Bells, again because I know two beautiful descants.

    Have – a – very happy holidays
    May your home be filled with happiness.
    May your Christmas be a jolly day
    For everyone you love and bless.
    May your troubles all be tiny ones
    And your faults be not worth mentioning.
    May you new year be the very best
    It possibly could be.

    Oh hear those sleigh bells as they come around the corner
    Telling all of us that Christmas time is not so far away.
    Don’t you hear those sleigh bells as they come around the corner
    Telling all of us that Christmas time is in only a few more days.

  3. 4

    On “O come, O come Emmanuel”:

    Wow! Not having seen the 2nd verse before, I didn’t quite get the reference to anti-Semitism, but now I can see it in the 1st verse (the one everyone knows).

    OTOH, in her youth, my wife had a game of doing the fortune cookie thing with hymn titles, and who can resist O come, O come Emmanuel between the sheets?

  4. 5

    Crossing the streams a little, I like Bad Religion’s “Christmas Songs” album. It’s traditional religious carols (plus “White Christmas”) done straight but in punk style. I can’t say it’s quite as good as their usual work, but I still have a soft spot for those songs.

  5. 7

    “Oh Tannenbaum”
    Bonus, kids version:
    Oh Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum, die Oma hängt am Gartenzaun
    Der Opa ruft die Feuerwehr
    Die Feuerwehr kommt nackig her
    Oh Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum, die Oma hängt am Gartenzaun

    Oh pine-tree, oh pine-tree, gran is hanging on the garden fence
    Grandpa calls the firefighters
    The firefighters arrive naked
    Oh pine-tree, oh pine-tree, gran is hanging on the garden fence

  6. 9

    A case could be made that “Sleigh Ride” violates one of your rules: whose birthday do you think they are celebrating?

    I would like to nominate the whole score of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. And as for Carol of the Bells, please enjoy this version by the a capella group, Pentatonix.

  7. 11

    Long time reader. First time commenter. PS. Love your blog.

    However, because ‘White Christmas’ comes from a movie where characters appear in black face, AND Irving Berlin has a complicated history with negative racial stereotypes in his lyrics, the song should probably be retired from holiday playlists.

    I would suggest as an alternative, Dan Bern’s Christmas Song, in which Santa proposes extending Christmas benefits to non-Christians, and his elves stage a strike for better labor conditions [http://danbern.com/lyrics/dan-berns-christmas-song/].

  8. 14

    I’m astounded no one’s mentioned “Greensleeves”! It was around for, like, a hundred years before it got Christmasfied a la “What Child Is This?” and is basically a trite love song sung by a creeper dude, but I love it anyways, and it isn’t Jesus-tastic in its original form, and it still might even be more recognized by its original title than by the new one.

    Though I guess it upon further thought even the original would be disqualified on grounds of the lines “Well, I will pray to God on high,” and “God, I pray he will prosper thee,” though I’d argue that since they’re more an aside than the subject and not really integral to the song, it works for my book 🙂 It’s certainly lovely as an instrumental.

  9. 15

    leftwingfox @2- I have a coworker who still loves that song, and made me watch it with her this year. I don’t know what happened. I used to love it. Then I worked somewhere with a coworker that stutters, and just can’t laugh at it anymore.

  10. 16

    Sufjan Stevens’ “Come Thou Fount of Evry’ Blessing”, although it might be vaguely religious
    Guaraldi’s “Christimastime Is Here”- just love it
    “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”- the Judy Garland version, with the original “We’ll have to muddle through somehow” verse
    “Somewhere In My Memory” by John Williams, off the original “Home Alone” soundtrack

  11. 18

    The Pogues and Kirsty Macoll’s Fairytale of New York is the best Christmas song and probably the best love song ever recorded. Is it well known on your side of the Atlantic? It seems to be the “official” Christmas song it is OK to like in Britain and Ireland but I never see it on lists made by Americans.

    Kids now sing “Jingle bells, that kid Jim Gordon obsesses about smells”

  12. 19

    I’ll also put Rudolph on the list, with the caveat that it’s the little kids’ version with random stuff shouted between verses. That just takes me back to when I was 9 like my daughter is now and just buzzing off the walls about Christmas.

    I also really love playing with regional/cultural variations in language so it’s fun to read how different people learned it differently.

  13. 20

    @culuriel: I understand. For what it’s worth, I find the joy of the song is in the performance of playing that specific character, and the tonal fake-outs, rather than mocking a stutter.

  14. 21

    Er, Come Thou Fount is neither Christmas-y nor vague about it’s religiosity. My mother loved it and we sang it often at home. Second verse goes:

    Here I raise mine Ebenezer (KJV biblical reference)
    Hither by thy help I’m come
    Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
    Prone to leave the god I love
    Here’s my heart
    O take and seal it
    Seal it for thy courts above

    It’s actually fairly fun to sing, rather like Washed in the Blood, but every bit as religious.

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