My column in The Kerryman. 23 December, 2013
I’ve been asked in the past if I celebrate Christmas. Not an unusual question for an atheist. To some, atheists embracing Christmas may look like having one’s cake and eating it. None of the guilt and misery parts of Christianity, but huge bunches of all the fun bits of what is supposed to be a religious festival. Am I big fat hypocrite for loving Christmas? Oh yes I am and I don’t care who knows it.
The adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ applies. This time of the year has spawned any number of different festivals down through the millennia, today the season is firmly rooted in Christian mythology. We are supposed to be marking the birth of Jesus Christ. The more pious among us still cling to this ideal, but the festival has morphed into something else.
Christmas no longer cares about your religion. Christmas is at once a vast commercial exercise in flogging overpriced toys to overworked parents for their overindulged children and it is also a memory of childhood that inspires millions of men, women and children, to travel from all corners of the planet, on a vast pilgrimage back to their families and friends.
The numbers involved, the miles traversed, the resources expended, are without precedent outside of war or natural disaster. We do not collectively subject ourselves to anything like this kind of stress and expense for anything else. And we do it willingly, just to have those fews days back home, reliving and recapturing those memories of unwrapping presents, over-eating, family squabbles, television and true belonging.
This festive season generates a spirit of bonhomie, this wonderful unique time of the year inspires people to try for a smile rather than a grimace, just because it is this wonderful time of year. That is why Christmas is irresistible. Even a picky and prickly atheist like me cannot but love this festival’s many charms.
Of course as an atheist, I recognise a political context to Christmas. Living in a Christian country, I know everything operates to accommodate the Christian majority. Little or no thought is put into catering for non-Christians. No other time of year so reminds me that I am part of a very small minority.
Even the use of terms like ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’ can be a political choice. Intellectually I prefer the more secular ‘Happy Holidays’ but Christmas has become something of a victim of its own success. It has so penetrated the lives of every nation and culture with a Christian heritage, that it’s outgrowing its Christian origins. I think the less religious term, ‘Happy Holidays’ may become unnecessary even before it gains acceptance. I am often guilty of saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to other joyless atheists and they have said it back to me. Fortunately no one can be thrown out of atheism, so we can indulge in such heresies.
We indulge because no matter what happens in the future, no matter the cultural progress or regression, no matter the economic conditions or political atmosphere, no matter even the climatic calamity to come, or even because of it, our species needs the grand nonsense that is Christmas. A festival that laughs in the face of our darkest hours would have to be invented, if it didn’t already exist.