I have written this post in response to the million times I have been asked “why do you celebrate Christmas when you’re an atheist?”
I generally start many of my posts by asking a question in the title. My first title was Can Atheists Celebrate Christmas which then changed to Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas and I added the word “families” and switched back and forth between the the “can” and “should” before settling on “why” and changing “atheist” to “non-Christian.” When I start to plan my posts, I look at a topic and then pose a question to be answered (or at least for me to attempt to), kind of like what is expected in an essay.
Unlike a professional peer reviewed journal or article, my posts sometimes include references to sources or even links to them, but as most of my posts are opinion pieces with some, often extensive but half-baked research (trawling the Internet rather than peer reviewed journals) and my own thoughts, you can either believe what I’m saying, rebuke my words, or have this as a starting point for your own research on the topic.
If I was to have kept the title “Can Atheists Celebrate Christmas?” or even gone with “Can Non-Christian Families Celebrate Christmas?” then this could have been a really short post. Can they celebrate Christmas? Sure. Yes. Of course they can. The post could have been nothing more than the word “yes” without needing any further explanation.
If I went with the title “Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas?” or even gone with “Should Non-Christian Families Celebrate Christmas?” then this would have made things a little more interesting for me to think about in detail. The word “should” is a word used to express;
- obligation or duty,
- probability or expectation,
- conditionality or contingency
- or used to moderate the directness or bluntness of a statement.
In the context of my question, the first meaning would be the one that would apply. In that case, the question can be reworded to ask “Do Atheists or Non-Christian Families have an obligation or duty to celebrate Christmas?” The answer, when putting it that way is a resounding “no.” One of the best thing about being an atheist is that when it comes to obligations or duties, we are obliged to follow the laws of the land and we should, using the second meaning of the word should, live up to the expectations of community standards and morals that are not part of any written and enforceable law, but are good and decent things to adhere to.
Atheists are not bound by ideologies such as having foods that need to be halāl or kosher, or other dietary restrictions such as fish on Fridays, giving up something they like for Lent, or fasting between dawn and sunset for Ramadan. Atheists are only bound by dietary restrictions based on intolerances or allergies to certain foods, or by their own moral compass when choosing to eat the meat from an “evil” cow, but not from a cute little doggy, or doing away with eating any animals and becoming a vegetarian, or going the whole hog (or not actually) and deciding that eating or using any product from animals is not for them and going vegan.
Atheists are not bound by restrictions on how they should dress, what they should think or believe (other than scientifically proven theories and absolute facts such as 1 + 1 = 2), which minorities they should dislike, which other religious groups they should hate, and what they should be doing to best spend their time on Sunday mornings, Friday afternoons, Saturdays, or…… well, you get where I’m going with this.
I went with the title “Why Do Non-Christian Families Celebrate Christmas?” not to deflect anything from this being about atheists alone, but because the reasons as to why atheists celebrate Christmas and also Easter are often the same reasons why Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus celebrate this Christian observance as well.
As I stated in my opening line, I have been asked a million times over the years as to why I celebrate Christmas when I am an atheist. I had friends, colleagues and acquaintances ask “if you don’t believe in Jesus, why do you celebrate his birthday?” I’m not going to go into the repeated rhetoric of the non-believers such as “Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas Day,” and the like. That’s not what I am trying to make this post about. If you are a believer, that’s fine; this post is not designed to be a post to try to convert, nor is it one designed to bash my Christian friends.
To an atheist, celebrating Christmas is like watching a Star Wars movie and enjoying it, but not buying the merchandise. And even if we do buy a little bit of the merchandise, it’s like being into Star Wars but knowing that this galaxy that is far, far away is as fictional as the Kingdom of Heaven, Jedi powers and the Force are as fictional as the power of prayer, and Anakin’s role as “the chosen one” is as fictional as the human form of God coming down to Earth and then killing himself to save our souls; souls of course being as fictional as midi-chlorians.
Christianity remains the dominant religion in the Western world, where on average 70% of the populations are Christians. Although most of the countries in the Western world are seeing a steadying decline in the percentage of the population calling themselves Christian, there are still many countries where Christianity is accepted as either the official state religion, or as the main religion or religion on which the country and its traditions were founded.
Here in Australia, whilst we have separation of Church and State, the country is, by and large, a Christian country; the majority of the population call themselves Christian and with all of the main Christian observances including Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas Day being official public holidays in all the states and territories of Australia, that makes this a Christian nation.
When Christians question me about why I celebrate, many of them suggest that if I don’t believe in Jesus, maybe I shouldn’t have the day off, and maybe I should work on that day. Since the age of 14 when I had my first after school job, and all the way through my adult working life since, I have worked for companies who close on Christmas Day. Not only that, they are closed on Boxing Day and/or the deferred Christmas or Boxing Day holidays that can occur when either day falls on a Saturday or Sunday. When Christmas Day falls on a Saturday, it’s pretty much a four day holiday for the majority of Australian workers.
As a result, seeing that I cannot work on Christmas Day, it’s a pointless suggestion that I should work on that day. Suggesting that a non-believer shouldn’t have the public holiday is a moot point in the argument when their company, and the majority of their clients or suppliers are having the day off. Besides, there will be plenty of Christian police officers, nurses, doctors, fire fighters, journalists, road-side assistant mechanics, chefs, wait-staff, cinema attendants and service station attendants working that day.
But what if it wasn’t a public holiday and only Christians could have the day off?
Although it’s really nothing more than a hypothetical question, if it ever came down to it and I had to pledge my love for Jesus to get a day off of work, sure I’d be happy to lie because it would be no different than those Christians who say they believe but never no to church – unless there’s a wedding, christening or baptism, or funeral to attend – saying that they believe (which really, sometimes I think they say they do just so that they can have these days off guilt-free). But, as I’m fairly vocal on my beliefs, or lack thereof, I guess I would be working those days.
As a tax-paying member of this nation, I too would need to have as many public holidays granted to me as my fellow Christians who are employed and benefiting from a day off, and for many, celebrating these Christian festivals the same way non-Christians currently do now. In my home state of New South Wales I’m covered by the Holiday Act (Act 31 of 1944) which would see the government needing to make provision for all those other religions as well as the non-religious to have three days in lieu of Good Friday, Easter Monday and Christmas Day. We could all enjoy the Boxing Day public holiday, because that has little to do with religion, and it’s more of a token day off in the Commonwealth countries who acknowledge the day.
But it’s not going to happen. Even though Christianity in Australia has dropped from 73% in 1986 to 61.1% in 2011 and with non-religion rising from 25% to 31.7% in that same time period, we are forever going to be a nation that celebrates a gift giving celebration in December, whether it is known as Christmas, Xmas, Yuletide, or if we resort back to the pagan festivals of summer solstice. Retail has too much invested in it for it not to go ahead, and tradition, be it with or without the religious connections has Christmas Day and Boxing Day etched too much within our culture for us to simply dismiss this celebration.
If the trend was to continue and Christianity drops 11.9% of the next quarter of a century as it has, and if non-religion gains the 6.7% is has, that would see Christianity falling to less than half the population by the year 2036 with 49.2% and non-religion moving up to 38.4%. Combined that would see 87.6% as either Christian or non-religious, leaving 12.4%, more than 1 in 10 people of another religion. With Buddhism growing five-fold, Hinduism growing 13 times larger, and Islam three times as greater in percentages in the 2011 census as was reported in the 1986 census, the trend over the next 25 years will obviously see these groups growing while Christianity declines in Australia.
I predict that by the end of this century, Christianity will have nothing or little to do with the (almost) end of year celebration that is Christmastime, at least in countries like Australia, and it will simply be a cultural thing within the Western World to celebrate this time of year with the giving of gifts, and getting together with family and friends, and drunken colleagues at the end-of-year celebration for your place of work.
And there it is. That’s your answer. Well part of it.
As a non-Christian, I celebrate Christmas because;
- The tradition of getting together with friends and family to exchange gifts and feast on glorious foods allows and almost dictates that we do,
- It’s part of the culture I was brought up in, even without it needing to be about “the true meaning of Christmas”
- It’s so, well, fun…
Now, I will admit that, although I don’t believe in the story of Jesus or any of the stories in the New Testament, or the old one for that matter, I do enjoy singing along to the Christmas carols because some of these songs and hymns have some of my favourite melodies or chord structures. And sure there would be people who say;
“Well, if you don’t believe in Jesus, and you’re not buying the merchandise, why would you sing along to something like ‘Mary’s Boy Child,’ ‘Silent Night,’ or ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’?”
I know this response from me is more for my fellow Southern Hemispherians, but seeing that there are a plethora of Christmas songs that mention how much fun it is to have Christmas in winter and play in the snow, I have to ask, why do you sing along to these? I mean, how many times have you sing along to…
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow”