Can an atheist take part in a religious celebration? Is there some alternative way in which an atheist can enjoy the good things about the Christmas season?
Christmas is not really a Christian celebration. It was introduced by the Christian church in its campaign to stamp out other beliefs in its rampage across pagan Europe. It was made to replace the midwinter solstice celebrations that previously took place on or around the 21st of December, midwinters eve.
Christmas is not even a good Christian celebration. It is at the wrong time of the year. If Jesus did ever exist, he was born in spring or summer, when shepherds would have been out in the fields with their sheep (which, according to the bible, they were), rather than in the middle of winter when the sheep would have been inside out of the cold. Also, most of the symbols of Christmas are of pagan origin–the holly and ivy, candles, the tree, bells, gift-giving and feasting. Christianity used them all in its campaign to attract the natives away from their original beliefs because those original beliefs were stronger and very well more acceptable to the pagans than the new Christian propaganda.
Christianity couldn’t destroy the old beliefs, so it adapted and corrupted them for its own purposes. Moving the celebration a few days later didn’t make much difference to the pagans–despite what the Christian priests told them they still knew in their own minds what they were celebrating. They still believed that the gods of the old world were all around them and needed placating at midwinter.
Perhaps an atheist could celebrate the midwinter solstice, although even that had some quasi-religious overtones. As mentioned above, all the symbols would be the same but would have somewhat different meanings. The holly and ivy, and the tree, would symbolize the survival of life through the winter and its rebirth as the days lengthened and warmed into spring. The candles encouraged the sun to return and warm the cold earth. The bells rang out to attract the sun back from its winter position low on the horizon. The gift giving and feasting gave thanks that all the people and animals had survived another winter and would grow and flourish as the days got warmer, ready for the re-birth of life in the spring. All the celebration was aimed to please Mother Earth and ensure her fertility in the coming year along with the return of the sun. The solstice occurs on the 21st of December so its celebration should actually take place at that time, but it could be stretched a bit and moved to the 25th of December, as the Christians did without doing it too much damage.
But perhaps even that is too close to being a religious festival. Is there an alternative? Perhaps we can have something environmentally friendly or of secular importance?
We could see the symbols as relating to the earth and the environment. The holly and ivy are two of the plants that stay green throughout the winter and remind us that life will resume its usual course after the winter is over. The candle has often been seen as a symbol of spirituality, but we can see it as a symbol of our caring for all the world and people. Perhaps it can be seen as spreading our goodwill to all and wishing for peace in the world. Candles could symbolize life, with its sometime flickerings and instabilities that always seems to return to a steady, fairly benign state as long as we are careful. The candle also gives warmth and casts a pleasant glow over the festivities. Perhaps we can see it as casting our love for our family and friends into the air where we are all gathered to celebrate the family and togetherness, where we exchange gifts with those who mean the most to us, and to show that we enjoy their company and friendship in a celebratory atmosphere of feasting and conviviality. The celebrations might be for the family and peace, expressing our wish for a better world for all, where no one needs fear hunger or war.
Giving alms to those, such as the homeless and disadvantaged, who are worse off than ourselves, could be a positive step at this time of year that would help them to also be able to celebrate the season. While we celebrate our own good fortune we should remember those who will not be celebrating, those who are dispossessed by war, violence, or circumstances, and need our support. We could make a resolution to at least try to help them to have something to celebrate at next year’s winter solstice.
Unfortunately, we in the Southern Hemisphere have a bit more difficult problem! The 21st of December is the midsummer solstice. We are looking forward–not towards spring and rebirth–but towards winter and death, but we can still celebrate the family and friendship, and the symbolism of the candle will still apply. Perhaps we can celebrate surviving another period of summer heat and dryness, perhaps even of drought or famine, and look forward to the rains of winter that will cool and irrigate the earth ready for next year’s crops. Hopefully, we can give thanks for a good harvest that will see us through the rest of the year until the next year’s crops grow. We can still celebrate the cycles of nature as they happen, even though we are out of step with rest of the world.
My suggestion is that an atheist can celebrate in December. We don’t need to adopt the Christian festival of Christmas, nor the pagan festival of the winter solstice. We can, instead, give the symbols that are everywhere around us at this time of the year our own meanings that still manage to express the change of season, the goodwill to all, and the hope for a better future–elements that are part of both the pagan and Christian celebration–but in a secular, nonreligious way that does not offend our stance on life and religion. And we can spread our celebration from the winter solstice on 21st December, to Christmas day on the 25th of December, and then up to the New Year, giving us a longer time to celebrate and have a good time.
That leaves only the problem of what to call it.
A happy and worthwhile secular December celebration to all!