Answering a Christian about why non-theists celebrate Christmas


A friend on Facebook posed this question last year.  I answered her, but not on Facebook because I didn't want to offend anyone.  Then I wondered why I should be afraid of offending believers by expressing my views when believers feel totally free at any time to send little "inspirational" comments or religious stories, anecdotes, sermonettes to everyone they know. I guess it's because I'm aware  that Christians will think I'm an evil and crude person if I express my views while I only think they are illogical and superstitious when they express theirs.
Here's her question:

Question to an atheist: "Why do you celebrate Christmas?" I just kind of laugh at people who are diehard atheists all year, but have no problem accepting Christmas gifts and "celebrating" the holiday. Yes, I know it's far removed from its original intention, but STILL, it's common knowledge what the Christ in Christmas why don't the non-believers refuse to take part in ANY of it, to honor their own philosophy? Just curious!
And here's my answer:

Well... obviously you have a good point.   However there are many reasons non believers or secular humanists or agnostics or atheists celebrate Christmas.  Just some thoughts here, most not original with me. And of course non believers do ask themselves this same question and struggle, at least a little,. to answer it.  We don't necessarily make public our unorthodox beliefs or go out of our way to distinguish our brand of celebration from yours, partly because we don't want to offend.


1.  Christmas is really pretty much a pagan holiday in origin in the first place.  Christians (I think Constantine had a lot to do with this) adopted pagan customs and superimposed them on a previously unimportant and largely unobserved holiday. At some point winter solstice festival traditions got added to the mix.  Also the actual beliefs of Christian mythology (most of the elements of a virgin birth etc), are patterned after Greek and Roman myths.  Googling the subject will turn up all kinds of examples. Just think of non-believers celebrating the Winter Solstice instead of Christmas, but not bothering to change the name.


2.  Many non believers were themselves brought up with Christmas traditions, so the warmth and happiness of the season are deeply imbedded in our psyches.  We probably know, at some basic level, that a celebration in the "dead of winter" is something that meets very elemental human needs.  And while we might smile wistfully at those who manage to convince themselves that they're going to live forever and don't really have to actually die, we (maybe) believe that comforting and holding close those we love while we DO have life and breath is the best we can do to help all of us keep going.  Christmas doesn't give us hope of eternal life, but it gives us hope that our "brief moment" of consciousness is still worth living-- just because we have each other to share that moment with.  As for materialism, I've always felt that what all of us are really seeking from the holiday season is not the spectacular gift or extravagant wishes that come true in the form of something outrageously expensive, but rather the colorful lights that first thrilled us as children --and the fellowship-- and hopefully a few special moments each season when the family is enjoying just being together, having fun, or snuggling in "by the fire".  I think it is THOSE images and experiences that we are seeking and those moments usually surprise us and happen somewhere during the season.  And obviously one does not need to be religious in the slightest to feel that this is a time of year to do something to help feed the hungry and brighten the lives of others.  I think Christians and non-Christians alike can agree that we don't do anywhere near enough.


3.  We don't believe in Santa and reindeer either, but we still enjoy those symbols.  And we embrace (again, somewhat wistfully) the human sentiments that draw people to a story of a mother and a newborn baby and simplicity and animals and starry skies.  I think that even literal Christians don't believe that the elements of that story happened in quite the way they are described in biblical passages and children's books.  But...   that little donkey, peaceful barn animals,  shepherds following a star around in the middle of the night paint an appealing picture.  We WISH, maybe, that something like that could have happened.  And I believe our instinctive and heartfelt enjoyment of the rural, simple nature of the tale shows something important and lovely about our better natures.


4.  If nothing else, think of Mr. Hooper making sure that Bert and Ernie each had a gift to give each other and that it was exactly what each of them wanted!


Well... that's just a stab at an answer.  I don't know whether the idea that it's all good for the economy is much of an excuse to non believers in choosing to go ahead and celebrate the holiday.  Maybe it is... because the economic boost is undeniable.  I also think that many of us do cut waaaaay back on some of the hoopla and only include those elements that we like.  We skip church and don't send cards (who needs to with Facebook and email) and decorate our houses just enough to please ourselves and nobody else. 


 Also, for what it's worth, I'm pretty sure that even those who DO believe in the religious meaning of Christmas have a very hard time figuring out what in the world gifts of Xboxes and war toys for little boys and Malibu Barbie have to do with anything! 

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I agree, Valerie, though it sounds strange.  Those religious Christmas carols, in the right setting (which is NOT blaring at a hectic discount store), have a direct, emotional connection to childhood and wonder and happiness.  Being an atheist doesn't change that, odd as it sounds.  I don't have to believe that the carols tell a literal, true story any more than I believe that "Frosty the Snowman" tells a literal, true story.

What does bother me is the awareness that for religious people the reality of mortality and death can be swept under the psycholigical rug and not dealt with due to their magical fantasies about "living after they are dead". For me, there's a sense of aloneness when I try to be close to people like that.  I agree with Carl Sagain that "far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides."   But that's a different subject...

secular christmas is an oxymoron

akin to the little giant

or the white black...

in the word christmas the ROOT is christ

christ is not a secular thingee is it...

why dont adults just be adults and say

"i celebrate xmas cause i fruckin want to, and i do not have to justify it to anyone beyond myself?"

i do NOT celebrate xmas

because i do not foster lies, encourage lies, and or perpetuate them.

especially when dealing with my children...


cause I AM AN ADULT, and a PARENT, and my children look to ME for example...

if i show them that it is "ok to lie about some stuff" then can i reprimand them adequately when they lie to me about "some stuff"?? no....

really simple science..

i understand that many people have "time off" from work during this season and would like to spend that time off with children knew that santa, jesus, moses, easter bunny and BUGS BUNNY are of the same ilk, from the time they could understand english

and they are happy children..their mother gives them presents, and so does the majority of my family...

but they know that daddy was solid, and unwavering when it comes to deceit, no matter what form it comes in.

Hallelujah brother

Nafir Nun says (among other things): I do NOT celebrate xmas because i do not foster lies, encourage lies, and or perpetuate them, especially when dealing with my children...

why?  cause I AM AN ADULT, and a PARENT, and my children look to ME for example... children knew that santa, jesus, moses, easter bunny and BUGS BUNNY are of the same ilk, from the time they could understand english.

....they know that daddy was solid, and unwavering when it comes to deceit, no matter what form it comes in."

Nafir Nun, I respect and understand (I think) your perspective, but I have some questions.  Maybe there's a difference in approach based on gender of the parent. ??  As a mom, I was very comfortable with make believe play with my children.  We pretended that my daughter's dolls were real, that her favorite stuffed Halloween cat could fly, and, I suppose, that Bert and Ernie and Grover were real creatures.  I didn't feel compelled when watching Sesame Street to sternly step in and point out from an early age that the characters were only puppets or that Thomas the Train and his friends didn't really have human emotions.  I just assumed that "playing along" was age appropriate and that, with growing up, distinctions between reality and fantasy would become clear.  Do you disapprove of fantasy in literature and theater for children?  For adults? 

The problem, of course, with religious fantasies is that Christian adults never grow up and admit to themselves that their star players are make believe.  And I honestly don't know what I would have done with the "Bethlehem story" if I had been an atheist when my children were small.  (I wasn't)  Often it seems I have more questions than answers...

Valerie asks if growing up in a very religious bacground might make it more difficult to feel festive at Christmas if one is a relatively new atheist.  The symbol that bothered me most during the first holiday seasons after I became a rational person (I'd say I've been an atheist for around 15 years) was the "baby in the manger" image.  I mean, a sweet, sleeping baby was the icing on the celebration of Christmas joy and light.  What's not to like? Now I'm able to look at Baby Jesus as a pleasant myth, maybe symbolic of love and peace-- which is what it is and was all along.   Surely even the religious folks know deep down that a Bethlehem stable with a five pointed star perched on the roof and wise men and shepherds and singing sheep is as much a fabrication as Cindy Lou Who and Santa and Frosty.  Oh, and I loved the comment someone made on another thread about telling her kids that "someone should cover up that baby--he's cold!" when they drive by a manger scene.  Funny.

Hmmm... how do young children ever sort it all out anyway?  I have an Xtian friend who did not introduce the Santa story to her children because she didn't want them to get confused about Christmas when they eventually learned that Santa and flying reindeer were imaginary and think that the religious aspects of Xmas were imaginary too.  With my children, there was so much playful fantasy and make believe of all sorts in our lives that I felt it would gradually become clear that Santa was a game we played along with other make believe.  (At the time, I basically believed the baby Jesus mythology so just assumed that this part of the Xmas story would remain in the "reality" category.)  However, my children, young adults now, are both atheists and just naturally grew into that perspective once they had the distance to look at church and religion objectively.  Sometimes some distance is all it takes.

I'm rambling a bit, but I think it stinks that your in-laws secretly told your children an opinion of theirs as if it were factual. (Atheists are much too polite to do that with other people's children).  But your three year old will have a lot of sorting out to do over the coming years and, at this point, pretend stuff and real stuff is all mixed together anyway, I would think. 

I can top your inlaw story though.  My children had attended a fairly liberal United Methodist church in the midwest.  We moved to the deep south when my daughter was in the fourth grade and the next summer I let her go to "Vacation Bible School" at my mother-in-law's Southern Baptist church, thinking it would be some harmless crafts and stories.  I didn't learn until over a year later that my daughter had been lying awake at night terrified that the devil was going to swoop down and claim her because she hadn't "given her heart to Jesus" at Bible School.  The pastor of this same church declared from the pulpit one Sunday when my children were there that anyone in the congregation who hadn't been saved had better do it NOW because you just never know when you might get in an accident and die on the way home from church and spend eternity in HELL.

put the "n" in santa after the other "a"

what do ya get?


santa claus

satan clause

satan claws

for all of the "believers" lol

the worst is when indigenous cultures are forced to make the blonde surfer dude, their god...

the problem with us adults, is that we are acting like irresponsible brats.

our children will have much less sorting out to do, if they are presented with the truth, before they are presented with lies.

magic is REAL, and energy manipulation OCCURS period.

this in now way justifies us lying to our children.

just because we do not understand the relationships between various energetic phenomenon, does not negate them and does not mean that we have to make up gobbledigook just to "look smart" or " nice".

for example

if you have a 2 yr old, u may just say " stay out of the kitchen"

when they hit 3 " hey dont go by that( the stove)"

4- " hey that is a stove it is HOT do not touch it"

5- " hey when you see the red light on that means the stove is on do not touch it"

7- " hey wanna help me make pancackes on the stove"

at no point did anyone have to say " theres a monster in the kitchen"


baby jesus isnt real.

does hippo have wings?


why is it sooo hard to tell lil children the truth?

what is the fear?

Nice explanation and comments.  Tim Minchin also does a great job of explaining why atheists love xmas in this lovely song.

I celebrate Christmas for the same reasons the early Christians celebrated Saturnalia.

Christians 'own' christmas, so why are we butting in on their celebrations?

We have never really had a choice have we? christmas has become a celebration all over the world and the original reason for it has been lost all together. Apparently it has something to do with christ's birth, but he wasn't really born then and blah blah the debate goes on.

The same goes for easter and it infuriates me when christians ask why we celebrate these events. Really? We don't have much of a choice anyway because they are a little hard to avoid, these events are pretty much in your face, besides, buying useless gifts, over stuffing ourselves with food is a religious event?.

And while I am on my soap box, atheists shouldn't celebrate christmas because we don't believe in god or jesus, then do all christians actually think that santa and the easter bunny actually exists?

When the word christmas comes out of my mouth, it has the same meaning as thanksgiving or halloween, just another day to have fun and enjoy family and friends.

On my last note, I don't actually 'celebrate' christmas. I could quite easily live without it - shopping at the grocery store would be much much more of breeze without it :p

If anything, the question should be 'why do Christians celebrate the 24th/25th december'?

I mean, very little of it has any true bearing on Christianity

As mentioned, There's nothing particularly Christian about most of Christmas - even the date isn't correct. It was borrowed from other pre-Christian pagan religions, such as Mithraism.

How dishonest, how ingratiating do you have to be to attempt to slip your own religion into existing festivals by subversion? It only goes to show how ill-defined the early church was to have to do this.

This is how advertising techniques work (and we all know what a rat's nest industry that is!)  - you associate a product with an existing desire or concept so that they become inextricably linked and ultimately synonymous. Manipulative. Would an omnipotent god have to resort to manipulation like this? no!

No one knows - or if - exactly when jesus was born. You'd think if he really was divine someone would have written something like that down.

Christmas trees, evergreen wreaths, yuletide, the 12 days of Christmas are all from Norse paganism.

The winter solstice has been practiced by many pagan religions.

Santa Claus of course has already been pointed out.

Even the giving of presents pre-dates Christianity. Really, all that's left is the story of the nativity. And a lot of that also mirrors earlier non-Christian stories.


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