Happy Christmas – from an atheist!
I love Christmas – but not its mass of crassness.
Christmas and religion have long since doffed their hats at each other and gone their separate ways. The idea that the festive season is something of a religious festival is as fanciful as the concept of a jolly fat man riding around the night sky on a magical sleigh delivering presents to the world’s children.
Some atheists refuse to celebrate Christmas, believing that they are submitting to Christian practices and beliefs, but the celebration has precious little to do with either. It’s primarily a secular festival with a sprinkling of Christian adaptations of pagan customs.
I have no conflicting emotions about whether or not to celebrate Christmas. Everything that I truly love, value and cherish about this time of year – enjoying great times with friends and family and the giving and receiving of gifts – is built on the solid secular humanist principles of peace, love and harmony. Life is too short, occasionally difficult and sometimes depressing, so we should make the most of any excuse for some happiness, merriment and charitable feelings towards others.
That being said, it’s jingle hell all the way as Christmas has long been taken over by nauseating over-indulgence and greedy consumerism, with people buying gifts they can’t afford, for friends they don’t like, and who don’t need them anyway.
These sentiments are also shared by Christians who take issue with the holiday season’s over-commercialisation. Their answer is to put the “Christ” back into Christmas, but you don’t need a mythical religious entity to stop the juggernaut of excess. All it requires is some healthy dissent against the following stomach-churning features that threaten to send us into bottomless pits of anger and despair.
The obscene amounts of money spent on presents, and crass commercialisation is truly sickening. Christmas is just one extended shopping fest as shelf after shelf is lined with identical and overpriced bath sets, chocolate confections and gadgets that no one ever uses. Most of the time shoppers buy just for the sake of buying. The hideous vulgarity of it all is too soft a target, but perhaps with the recession people will start to think twice about digging deep into their pockets and spending whatever credit they have left on their cards.
Yes, I know Christmas is a time for us all to feel warm and fuzzy inside, but forgive me if I’m not dancing in the streets every day. Some days I’m happy, other days less so. The pressure to be eternally ecstatic at this time of year drives me to utter distraction. And any smile is definitely wiped off my face when I see the enforced jolliness of tinsel wearing shop assistants with their fake smiles and seasonal “Santa’s little helper” name badges. Grrrr.
Office Christmas Parties
Fortunately, now that I am a freelance writer I no longer have to endure the dreaded round of office Christmas parties. I used to loathe the fake camaraderie of colleagues who have no scruples about treading all over you to climb the corporate ladder, yet fuelled by free booze want to be your best friend at the office party. Why does anyone want to spend time socialising with people they have nothing in common with other than work? The excessive alcohol consumption by Santa-hat-wearing adults waving sprigs of mistletoe in the air is a ghost of Christmas past that I’m still unable to exorcise from my memory banks.
Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer it when Christmas is celebrated somewhere around the 25th December and not the orgy of gluttony and greed that kicks off in early November.
Really? Where? You go shopping in any town or city during December and you’re pushed, pulled, scratched, kicked, bitten and trampled underfoot as the zombie-like masses battle to empty the shelves and get to the tills. Peace and goodwill to all men, but you just know there are parents out there who’ll kill to get the latest toy their little Johnnie or Jemima wants.
A few notable exceptions aside, television is pretty lousy all year round, but it plumbs new depths of awfulness at Christmas. The schedules are stuffed with anodyne and brain cell-zapping quiz shows and TV “specials” full of half forgotten actors trying to re-heat their careers with performances no one wants to remember. And that’s in addition to all the repeats that were even considered stale and hackneyed ten years ago. Every year the nation gathers round the television set only to be let down by unimaginative fare. It’s groundhog TV year after year.
And then there are the adverts. If they’re not from self-satisfied stores promoting their shops as magical Christmas wonderlands, it’s grade D celebrities flogging their own perfumes (honestly, why would anyone want to smell like Peter Andre or Britney Spears?), or some flavour-of-the-month toy that the kids think will make their life complete, but will be old hat come Boxing Day.
The Christmas Rush
Why, it’s a mystery that would even outfox Sherlock Holmes. Christmas hardly sneaks up on us, so there is ample time to prepare and purchase whatever we need to ensure that our festivities go off without a hitch. So why the Franklin D Roosevelt is there a blood pressure-raising frenzy on the high streets? And why are the shops still full of punters on Christmas Eve? Avoid the herds, pour yourself a glass of wine and shop online instead.
Look, Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody is still a rollicking good party tune, and the beautiful melody of Silent Night can occasionally move me to tears, but other than that most Christmas songs and carols are utterly banal. For the last few years we’ve also had to suffer the merciless slaying of a ballad by whichever wannabe warbler wins the X Factor before drifting back to the obscurity from which they came. And there is no punishment strong enough for the supermarket manager who first thought it was a good idea to transmit panpipe versions of Christmas “classics” over the loudspeakers while you shop.
The global economy is still at the bottom of the abyss and the planet is heating up. But hey, who cares about any of that, it’s Christmas. So let’s send the electricity bill soaring and slap down a giant carbon footprint by lighting up our houses like an explosion at a fireworks factory.
The excessively garish packaging and wrapping is snowballing out of control. You need a chainsaw to get at what’s inside and even small items are covered in the kinds of wrappings and bindings that are used to send rare archaeological artefacts around the world.
I used to work in an open-plan office of 50 or so people and we saw each other nearly every single day. So really, what was the point of exchanging Christmas cards? An appalling waste of time and paper. And nothing says “I don’t really like you” than a card that comes out of a box of 50 identical cards showing the same twee nativity scene.
Deep breath Paul, deep breath.
Christmas is a time to Celebrate
So let’s dial down the frippery and excess and focus more on what’s really important about Christmas – peace, love and goodwill to all. Christians don’t have the monopoly on these sentiments – in fact there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they are not particularly good at any of them.
Those of a religious persuasion don’t own this holiday, they never have done. The Christmas that we celebrate today is a hodgepodge of traditions, religious and pagan. I am not particularly bothered that its central myth is about the birth of a nice Jewish boy in a stable some 2,000 years ago. Whether it happened or not is of no importance to me and is not a reason not to celebrate along with everybody else, and to look forward to the future with hope and joy.
Of course we could do this at any point in the year, but it just so happens that traditionally the time for it falls on the 25th of December. Yes, the early church may well have subsumed a pagan festival but I think it’s churlish to strike a preference for celebrating the solstice, the New Year, or simply the holiday period. Or worse, ignore it all together.
To get into the spirit of the season you don’t have to be a Bible-bashing god-botherer. As an atheist there isn’t a glaring contradiction in my decking the halls with boughs of holly. And what’s not to love about many of the peripheral joys around Christmas, such as the smell of the tree and the pulling of crackers. If Christmas was to rest solely on its religious underpinnings it would just be another boring, blink-and-you-miss-it feast day.
I also have no problem with the name of the festival; it sends a cold shiver down my spine when I hear the words “warm winter greetings” or other such euphemisms when atheists refuse to say “Christmas” because it contains the name of a religious figure. Obviously people are free to say what they want, but really there are a zillion more things to get het up about than what a particular festival is called.
I will happily wish everyone a “Very Merry Christmas” and then go home to watch my chestnuts roasting on an open fire as I reach over to pore myself another generous measure of eggnog.
• Paul Arnold is a former BBC TV and radio producer now turned freelance writer. From his home in Spain he writes about numerous topics including business, social media, and open innovation.