I stirred up some strong emotions two years ago when I wrote the article “Christmas Will Do,” a critique of the Humanist holiday of HumanLight. As a result, I have had some enlightening conversations on the discussion forums and elsewhere about the holiday season, and how the nontheist community celebrates it. One thing I took from those conversations was that there was a larger debate out there. It is a question that nontheists in modern Western society deal with every year: what to do about the seasonal juggernaut that is Christmas?
I decided to put pen to paper (well, fingers to keyboard) again, and this time approach the topic in a more-positive way. In my critique of HumanLight, I noted that I liked to find secular counterpoints to Christmas, not secular counterparts. That, in a nutshell, is the topic of this essay. There is a secular side to Christmas, one that a nontheist can enjoy with the rest of society without betraying their nontheist views. In fact, I propose that the very shape and spirit of the holiday is significantly nonreligious, from twinkling lights and fake snow to the eggnog and fruitcake. Yes, Virginia, there is an atheist’s Christmas!
Conflicted About Christmas
It’s clear to me that nontheists are conflicted about Christmas. I see more guilt, avoidance, overjustification, and overcompensating in nontheists this time of year than I do in any other. Some people participate, but are apologetic–“my mother-in-law would find out I’m an atheist if I didn’t participate!” Others celebrate, but insist that because they call it “Yule,” “Festivus,” or “Givmas” that they’re not really celebrating Christmas–the “have your fruitcake and eat it, too” approach. Others eschew the holiday season altogether, while a few even get downright irate at those nontheists who do celebrate.
As the holidays approached last year, it began again, as regular as holiday sales and reruns of Frosty the Snowman. Over in the IIDB’s Secular Lifestyle forum one thread opened, “I have decided not to celebrate Christmas this year, and I’m looking for a way to let my family know that does not result in an intervention.” A second declared, “Ack! I cannot stand the time of year fondly referred to as ‘the holidays,'” and asked, “Is there an alternative atheist holiday I can celebrate instead?” A third post observed that “The holiday is an emotional powder-keg … I wouldn’t be surprised if most suicides occurred during or a little after this day.”
I find myself frustrated by the hand-wringing because it has been my experience that the end-of-year communal calendar custom most commonly referred to as “Christmas” is, in fact, a secular celebration. Not necessarily because of where it came from–though there’s plenty that has been written about the decidedly non-Christian origins of this “Christian” tradition–but because of where this Western calendar custom is today and where it is going in the future. When looked at plainly, it is clear that Christmas is a secular celebration that has become more and more brazen in its secularity as the years pass.
Increasingly Secular Holiday
Don’t scoff! I am not saying that there is no religious tradition of Christmas, nor that religion has not placed a hefty stamp upon the proceedings. But Christians are only part of the celebration … and an increasingly small part, at that.
To demonstrate, consider holiday music. During the Christmas season of 2005 I put together a list of 100 popular and traditional Christmas songs, including songs sung by carolers and choirs, songs commonly found on Christmas albums/compilations, and those regularly played on the radio during Christmas. I spent a lot of time browsing CD racks, paying attention to store muzak, and listening to a local radio station that plays nothing but Christmas music from November 1st until Christmas Day. My goal was not to be exhaustive or encyclopedic, but just to produce a fair sampling of holiday music that is typically sung or popularly played during the holiday season. (See the complete list following the body of this article for.)
The result? Over half of the songs (52) had either no religious content or negligible religious content. Included in these songs were many extremely popular and recognizable tunes, such as “The Christmas Song,” “Deck the Halls,” “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Carol of the Bells.” In general, these songs also tended to be more modern, with many having been written in the last 100 years, many during a Christmas song boom of the 1930s and 40s. Their themes ranged from humorous (“Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”) to maudlin (“Blue Christmas”), but the one thing they shared was a complete lack of religious message.
9 of the songs were of mixed religious reference. In general, these songs had both highly secular and plainly religious elements, or were simply hard to classify. “The Wassail Song,” for example, has the clearly religious “And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year” repeated in its chorus, but the song itself isn’t a hymn of worship; it’s a social carol about fellowship and celebration.
Only the final 39 songs were clearly religious, either hymns that came straight from the church or songs that spoke directly of the Nativity or related Christian elements. Without question, some of the most-identifiable Christmas tunes are on this list, including “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” What surprised me, however, was the lack of modern songs on this list. Out of the 40 religious songs noted, very few were written in the last 100 years: only a handful, including “The Christmas Shoes” (a horribly schmaltzy piece of glurge, by the way) (2002), “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (1962), “Mary’s Boy Child” (1958), and “The Little Drummer Boy” (1958). The vast majority of religious songs are 19th century or older; they have modern arrangements but are of older origin.
So not only is the list dominated by secular or mixed content songs, but the secular songs tend to be newer than their religious counterparts. In other words, in the case of Christmas music, the holiday is dominated by a nonreligious theme.
That’s not the end of it, though. I could just as easily have sampled popular holiday films rather than songs. While traditional favorite It’s a Wonderful Life features affable angel Clarence, the film itself is an affirmation of our human lives. The most religious element of A Miracle on 34th Street is its title; the story itself centers on Santa Claus. In more recent years Hollywood has given us such fare as The Santa Clause, The Polar Express, A Christmas Story, and Elf, but until 2006 never the birth of Christ or the voyage of the Magi. The first significant religious Christmas release in decades, The Nativity Story, is only now hitting the screens, and that is likely more a reaction to the recent success of The Passion of the Christ than to any real resurgence in the Christian side of Christmas.
I could also have chosen television shows. The herald of Christmas on American television is not Jesus Christ but Santa Claus, who makes his first appearance before we’ve even carved our Thanksgiving turkeys. The popular Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is generally rolled out within a week of Thanksgiving. Christmas episodes of popular television series rarely feature more than a token religious element, focusing instead on modern social customs, the importance of family, or parodies of A Christmas Carol. That Dickens masterpiece itself sees wide play over the holidays, and while it features some nominal religious message (“God bless us, everyone!”) it is not a story of faith. The most outwardly religious yearly fare I can think of is It’s Christmas, Charlie Brown, but it stands virtually alone in primetime holiday offerings as having an actual Christian message. And it was made in 1962!
Or, heck, just take a look around any big-box chain store you happen to frequent. The number of Santas, Christmas trees, and snowmen festooning everything from wrapping paper to dinner plates greatly outnumbers the number of angels, mangers, or Magi. The religious messages are rarely overt; while the Nativity may be well-represented, there’s a real minority of Bible verses or other truly religious passages amongst all the “Happy holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.” And as soon as you leave the more-traditional Christmas fare, the religious iconography disappears almost entirely–I don’t think I’ve ever seen a heavenly hosts shower curtain or a pair of baby Jesus boxer shorts. Nonreligious iconography dominates the shelves.
These observations reveal a simple truth. More and more people from more and more religious, ethnic, and regional traditions are joining in on Christmas, both in America and elsewhere. As these new cultures and identities join in, the holiday must adapt or die, and like any good custom, Christmas is choosing to adapt. It is becoming more things to more people, and as a result it is becoming a secular celebration. Not that Christmas has a real tradition of being Christian in the first place; while I do not wish to delve into history here, there’s a veritable library of writings that reveal the multifaceted cultural origins of this “Christian” holiday. I would especially recommend Stephen Nissinbaum’s award-winning Battle for Christmas, which records in fascinating and well-sourced detail how our modern version of the holiday came to be.
The Importance of Christmas
Origins are beside the point, though, when compared to the modern expression of the holiday. Folklorists have observed that human beings express their communal identities in calendar customs and folk festivals–times where the group can get together and share the manners, mores and traditions that bond them together into communities. And of all the communal gatherings out there, the Christmas season is one of the biggest. It’s a true folk festival that touches half the calendar year: merchandise starts appearing on the shelves as early as July; advertising can be seen as early as October; Thanksgiving begins an entire month of preparation and observances; both business and educational calendars are arranged to accommodate the holiday; and popular entertainment caters to its celebration. Christmas is everywhere! This pervasiveness speaks to the power that this old midwinter/end-of-year calendar custom has in our society.
Christmas is unique in the way it has become a centerpiece custom, and as such it has become a bellwether for other midwinter and end-of-year traditions. Its popularity is so great that everyone wants in on it. The Jewish faith has elevated the status of Hanukah, a relatively minor holy day that happens to coincide with the Christmas season, into their most-recognized festival. The Neopagans have tried to resurrect (and since information was lacking, completely reinvent) the ancient customs of Solstice and Yule. Both African Americans (Kwanzaa) and Secular Humanists (HumanLight) have invented celebrations for the Christmas season. Even Muslims found their holiday of Ramadan in the spotlight, at least for a few years; as Ramadan is a roaming holiday, however, it no longer coincides with the Christmas season, and as such seems to have faded from the popular mindset.
Such cultural homogenization of ritual and custom is not universal–it takes a powerful tradition to accommodate so many comers. Easter, by comparison, has made few strides towards secularization. It is still primarily a religious celebration celebrated by Christians; its films include such religious fare as The Ten Commandments and The Robe; its presence in secular music or television is nonexistent; and its effect on business and educational calendars is mixed. Even its traditional non-Christian symbols, like bunnies and eggs, contain themselves to a largely Christian audience. Easter is not widely celebrated outside the Christian community, and no group has strived to attach their own celebrations to it.
Christmas is different. It is not about being a Christian. It is about being a member of a community–a family, a workplace, a town, or a country–that wants to come together and celebrate.
This isn’t to say that being a nontheist isn’t important. But this time of year I always ask myself, what am I first? I suppose some are nontheists first. But this time of year I am first a member of my family. I am a father, a husband, a son, and a son-in-law; I am an employee, and a coworker, and a supervisor; I am a stranger, a friend, and a loved one; I am a Detroiter, a Michigander, and an American. On so many levels, I am part of groups who values Christmas and the farrago of traditions associated with it. I like being a part of those groups, and so I celebrate Christmas.
I am also a nontheist this time of year, and in that role I like the core message that Christmas brings. That classic Christmas motto of “Peace of Earth and goodwill towards all” expresses my Humanist leanings quite well. This is something I have in common with the Great Agnostic, Robert Ingersoll. He wrote that “[t]he good part of Christmas is not always Christian–it is generally Pagan; that is to say, human, natural,” and noted that:
Christmas is a good day to forgive and forget–a good day to throw away prejudices and hatreds–a good day to fill your heart and your house, and the hearts and houses of others, with sunshine.
The “Christ” in Christmas is just a veneer, a shallow top layer of a much deeper cultural strata. Calendar customs–even the religious ones–are social at their core, meant to bind a community together. They are a reason for us to gather, to enjoy each other’s company, to remember times past, and to engage in some familiar (sometimes silly) rituals just for the sake of engaging in them. I have never needed religion to enjoy a holiday, and I never will. I have friends, families, and traditions, and that’s enough.
This is not meant to be a plea for those who do not value Christmas to change their tune; no custom is universal and one should not be labeled a “Grinch” or “Scrooge” for choosing not to celebrate. But for those out there suffering traditional Christmas angst, don’t be discouraged. If you feel left out, if you miss being a part of the celebration, then join in. Merry Christmas!
APPENDIX A: Christmas Songs
The following list contains 100 popular and familiar Christmas tunes, evaluated for their religious content. I generally ignored parodies and joke songs (Eric Cartman singing ‘Swiss Colony Beef Log,” for example) unless they demonstrated longevity–that is, unless they had become a “traditional” holiday song (“Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”). I have also noted their dates of composition, where possible.
Songs with No or Negligible Religious Elements: These songs contained either no direct religious reference, or contained only minor or passing references to religion (e.g. ” And Father John / before he’s gone / Will bless the house and all” in “Christmas in Killarney,” which was about the worst one).
- All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth (1948)
- Auld Lang Syne (1787?)
- Blue Christmas (1949)
- Carol of the Bells (1916/1936)
- The Chipmunk Song (1958)
- Christmas in Hollis (1984)
- Christmas in Killarney (1950)
- The Christmas Song (1946)
- A Christmas to Remember (1984)
- Christmas Without You (1984)
- Deck the Halls (19th c.)
- Feliz Navidad (1970)
- Frosty the Snowman (1950)
- Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer (1983)
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1943)
- Holly Jolly Christmas (1964)
- Home for the Holidays (1954)
- I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (1952)
- I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas (1953)
- I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1948)
- If Every Day Was Like Christmas (unknown)
- It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (1961)
- Jingle Bell Rock (1957)
- Jingle Bells (1857)
- Jolly Old St. Nicholas (19th or 20th c.)
- Let It Snow (1945)
- Merry Christmas, Darling (1978)
- Mistletoe and Holly (1957)
- The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1963)
- O Christmas Tree (19th c.)
- Over the River and Through the Woods (19th c.)
- Please Come Home for Christmas (1947)
- Pretty Paper (1962)
- Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (1958)
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949)
- Santa Baby (1953)
- Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1932)
- Silver and Gold (1964)
- Silver Bells (1950)
- Sleigh Ride (1950)
- Snoopy’s Christmas (1960s)
- Step into Christmas (1973)
- Suzy Snowflake (1951)
- This is Christmas (20th c.)
- The Twelve Days of Christmas (uncertain)
- Up on the Housetop (19th C.)
- A Visit from St. Nicholas (1823)
- We Wish You a Merry Christmas (1600s)
- White Christmas (1942)
- With Bells On (1984)
- Winter Wonderland (1934)
- You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (1966)
Songs with Some Religious Elements: These songs were not primarily religious in subject or purpose, but did contain evident religious elements.
- Christmas Bells are Ringing
- Do They Know It’s Christmastime?
- Gloucestershire Wassail
- Greatest Gift of All
- Here Comes Santa Claus (1947)
- My Grown Up Christmas List
- One Little Christmas Tree (1970s)
- Pat-a-Pan (1833)
- The Wassail Song (17th c.)
Songs with Heavy Religious Elements: These are songs whose primary subject matter is religious.
- The Angel Gabriel (a.k.a. Gabriel’s Message) (19th c.)
- Angels From the Realms of Glory (1816)
- Angels We Have Heard on High (1862)
- Ave Maria (15th c. or older)
- Away in a Manger (1885)
- Children, Go Where I Send Thee (trad., date unknown)
- The Christmas Shoes (2002)
- The Coventry Carol (16th c.)
- Ding Dong Merrily On High (either late 19th or early 20th c.; tune older)
- Do You Hear What I Hear? (1962)
- The First Noel (17th c.)
- Gentle Mary Laid Her Child (1919; tune older)
- Go Tell It On the Mountain (19th c.)
- God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (16th or 17th c.)
- Good Christians All With Sweet Accord (19th c.)
- Good King Wenceslas (1853; tune older)
- Hallelujah Chorus (18th c.)
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1739)
- The Holly and the Ivy (trad., date uncertain)
- I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (1863)
- I Saw Three Ships (trad., arranged 19th c.)
- I Wonder as I Wander (trad., date unknown)
- In Dulci Jubilo (17th c.)
- In Excelsis Gloria (15th c.)
- It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (1849)
- Joy to the World (18th c.)
- Let Us the Infant Greet (traditional; date unknown)
- The Little Drummer Boy (1958)
- Mary’s Boy Child (1956)
- O Come All Ye Faithful (1751)
- O Come O Come Emmanuel
- O Little Town of Bethlehem (1868)
- O Holy Night (1847)
- Once in Royal David’s City (1848)
- Silent Night (1818)
- Sweet Little Jesus Boy (lyrics unknown, prob. 19th c.; modern composition early 1900s)
- We Three Kings of Orient Are (1857)
- What Child is This? (1865)
- While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks (1833)
APPENDIX B: Brief Bibliography
Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1996. The Study of American Folklore. 4th ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
Ingersoll, Robert G. 1892. The Agnostic Christmas. Reprinted on The Secular Web, www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/agnostic_xmas.html.
—. 1892. A Christmas Sermon. Reprinted on the Secular Web,
Nissinbaum, Stephen. 1998. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Vintage.
Toelken, Barre. 1996. The Dynamics of Folklore. Revised and Expanded ed. Logan, UT: Utah UP.