Repurposing Christmas: A Holiday Post for Non-Theists

Posted on December 26, 2010


About a week ago, a friend invited me to a Shambala Buddhist Children’s Day celebration at a local temple. At the time I was busy packing for my trip home, and I know embarrassingly little about my friend’s religion, so I nearly didn’t go. I was eventually convinced by another invitee to tag along, and we spent an hour sitting on comfy big blue cushions on the floor while kids ran around us and an elaborate and fascinating sequence of poetry, music, dance, and even comedy took place in the center of the room. I’m now glad to have received the invitation. Despite my total confusion at what was going on, I found the whole thing delightful.

After arriving home I decided, mainly for my grandparents’ benefit, to go with them and my parents to the Christmas Eve service at the nearby Anglican church. It was much as I had remembered the services of my youth and adolescent years. Lots of chanting, kneeling, and old people. I expected to cause some family drama with my decision not to take communion, but nobody seemed particularly bothered by it. My father stayed behind with me while the rest of the family went up to the altar, and the priest came back to us to serve communion to my grandfather, who could not walk all the way to the front.

I’m not going to fall into the old and tiresome cliche that these two rituals were really just the same heartwarming holiday celebration from two different perspectives. The Anglican service and the Shambala service were fundamentally different in substance, purpose, and cultural underpinnings. A service in a mosque or synagogue would be radically different still. But there was one striking similarity that I noticed: I enjoyed the fellowship and ritual of both services in much the same way.

This was perhaps more of a surprise for me than it would be for many. Those who know me in real life will likely know that I am not a religious believer. I self-identify as a strong agnostic: I’m almost certain that specific religious claims are false,  but I don’t think a mere mortal like me has any business saying that God does not, or even probably does not, exist. In terms of religious politics, I pretty much fall into the new atheist camp. I think the world would probably be better off without blind faith, and that religion can be blamed, at least in part, for a large number of pretty terrible things. Suffice to say that at the Anglican service, I did not feel anything resembling the presence of the divine. Being uninitiated, I didn’t know what effect the Shambala ceremony was supposed to have on me, but my beliefs (or lack thereof) prevented either one from having any spiritual significance.

What I enjoyed about these two experiences had nothing to do with the content of either religion, but was instead rooted in the social importance of the ritual itself. The church and the temple were both places of community, companionship, moral education, and comforting ritual. These are all things which need not be tied to blind faith in ancient scriptures, or a belief in the supernatural. All of these things, which are traditionally associated with religious practice, are entirely compatible with life as a nonbeliever.

I think that this is something that the atheist movement has missed out on a little bit. Religious rituals, festivals, and communities have existed for millennia not only because people believed in gods, but also because they serve a very useful and enjoyable social function. If atheists are interested in carving out a place in society for those that place reason and enlightenment over spirituality, then they would do well to keep that in mind.

So for that reason, I propose the adoption of Christmas as a secular holiday. I am not, of course, the first person to propose this, and it appears that this process is already well underway with or without any input from the atheist movement. Most nonbelievers will know that Christmas actually emerged as a Christian co-option of a variety of pagan traditions in the early middle ages, so the holiday can certainly be once again re-purposed. It might be beneficial, however, to add some directionality to the process. Conscious decisions can be made as to new forms of celebration and ritual, new meanings, and perhaps a new name for the holiday. The possibilities are endless, and we would do well to explore them.

For my part, I think that a re-purposed Christmas would do well as a celebration of humanity, and all that it can achieve. Despite all the horrible things that people have done to themselves, each other, and the planet, the human race is, on reflection, pretty neat. It’s really quite amazing that something as complex as a symphony, something as beautiful as Santa Maria del Fiore, or something as sophisticated as the Space Shuttle should spring unprompted from the primordial ooze. This is worth celebrating, and many possible ways to celebrate it, including charity, music, literature, good food, and family, are already part of Christmas festivities. It wouldn’t take much to write some festive music and literature with an explicitly humanist bent, and to shift the focus of charity away from religious organizations and towards other forms of giving.

This is a necessarily subjective matter, and so I’m not doing much more than idly musing on the topic. But I think that more people should do the same. If we want to offer a reasonable alternative to religious belief, then it will have to involve a more substantial cultural component than the rehearsing of anti-creationist debate points.