Tuesday, December 23, 2014

An Atheist Celebrates Christmas

I love Christmas. [insert shock and awe]

No, truly. Christmas is one of my favorite times of year. Those freaking adorable clay-mation specials showing on ABC from dawn 'til dusk, colorful lights strewn down every snow-covered lane, mulled wine -- who doesn't love seasonal drinks? Bill O'Reilly's face gets as red as Rudolph's nose because putting a plastic baby on a courthouse lawn is a sacred right. Christmas has, for the course of my existence, proven to be a time of gaiety, family, closeness, and more than a small sprinkling of hedonism. 

But wait! my detractors surely cry. That kind of blatant materialism is not the reason for the season, etc., ad nauseum. 

Surely, no one needs another run down of the theological history of the holiday. Blah blah, Yule, blah blah, Saturnalia, blah blah Festivus, blah blah stolen traditions. That's one record we've all heard before and it's no longer impressive. Rather than discuss what Christmas was, I'd rather remark about what it is, or what it's to become. 

There is a joke screenshot of an exchange floating around the Internet that was recently posted to my Facebook wall. Sadly, I don't know how to find the original source in order to give it credit, but here it is: 

The flip response, while funny, didn't really answer the question, which I feel is a valid one. The most obvious and perhaps important response is that Christmas and its hybrids are not actually considered religious holidays by a government standard (rather a contradiction, considering the use of the contraction of "holy day"), and are instead treated as national holidays. Atheists couldn't go to work on Christmas if they wanted to in many institutions, and if they were somehow obliged to on account of not sharing religious fidelity with the event, would likely be unable to complete the tasks required in most jobs. Can you imagine a single worker in a restaurant acting as host, server, cook, etc., while all his or her colleagues were off? It's not exactly a reasonable expectation. 

More to the point, however, the adherence to the religious implications of the holiday are, in my opinion, no longer applicable as the holiday is no longer religious in entirety. Christmas is, in many ways, now a secular holiday. The abundance of corporate capitalism and advertising notwithstanding, the truth is that many unbelievers have been celebrating Christmas for generations and find the holiday uniquely special for no reasons pertaining to a manger and a magically unbroken hymen. 

For myself, Christmas was (when I had the means to visit) a time to see my father and his family, who lived several states away. It was special for the bond we shared during those weeks and the love we expressed as a family. Ultimately, that hasn't changed -- I write this post two days before I go to see my mother and the rest of that kin, knowing that, due to a lot of trying circumstances, it will not be a lavish experience: there will likely be few or no presents and dinner will be an understated affair. This is just fine. In the course of my experiences, I've learned to associate this time of year with sharing oxygen with people I love. A few ribald jokes and some complaints about the weather -- presto! Christmas has occurred. In many ways, Christmas has become much of a second Thanksgiving -- god is less and less necessary to understand and enjoy the points of life on which we are meant to reflect. For every good thing I have, the people responsible are to whom I am thankful. 

This may seem tawdry to an alarming number of people, and much less impressive than the vaulted exaltation of the birth of a god-king from which all blessings flow. I'm inclined to think that such elitism is a bit of a shame, really. Sure, my Christmas doesn't have Christ, and nor do I think it should. But December 25th marks a tradition that has always been changing, evolving, and adapting to cultural climes. Perhaps the new mark of its evolution will be its secularization. And while loving my family and sipping some cheap whiskey may not be quite the same as a Palestinian Jew's apotheosis, my family and my love for them at least have the upper hand of existing in the first place. And that, in the words of Robert Frost, has made all the difference.   

P.S. With a similar viewpoint, albeit much better presented, here is Tim Minchin. Because, why wouldn't you? It's Tim Minchin.