Fellow Atheists, What Do You Like Or Dislike In Holiday Cards?

Marta is one of my Christian friends who comments a lot around here and always seems to sympathize with my secular values quite a bit. She raises a good question that I’d love to see you readers address:

I wonder about your thoughts on atheism/secularism and holiday cards? Recently I tried to find some cards that were suitable for atheist friends and were not just coopting Christian symbols and heritage in a way that was inappropriate. As an atheist, do you believe it is appropriate to send holiday cards to atheists (both to fellow atheists and those who claim a religious connection to the holidays of the season)? And if so, what would an appropriate atheist holiday card look like? It might make an interesting post, if you were so inclined.

As I said in reply to her, I really dislike getting stuff with religious messages personally. The messages don’t resonate with me, they put me off, they remind me of beliefs and traditions I really don’t like, they remind me of a conflict and barrier I have with my friend or family member, and they strike me as pushy. Even if the friend or family member doesn’t mean it as a way of insisting I accept their interpretation of the holiday’s value and meaning, it always feels like that’s what they’re doing sending out religious cards indiscriminately. I honestly feel like they’re telling me “This is about Jesus, you know, and screw you for not accepting that.” Especially as an ex-Christian, getting things from Christian friends from my Christian days with religious messages always strike me as a way of denying the legitimacy of my apostasy. They feel like messages which say, “you may claim not to believe, but we’re going to remind you we still believe and we’re just waiting for you to come back and will not honor your disbelief in the meantime.” I really do take such messages as thoughtless and passive aggressive. I know I’m probably an exception among atheists at large, but I doubt I’m that much of an exception among other self-conscious atheists and apostates. I also will note that religious people who met me as an atheist seem to be far better at avoiding ever inappropriately trying to rope me into accepting their religious categories like that. But, then again, most of the religious people who have met and befriended me since I became an atheist are academics, so they’re atypical to begin with.

I think there are plenty of universal, irreligious secular images. The Christmas tree is fine, the presents are fine, the snow is fine, the candles, wreathes, all cartoony stuff about snow people and Santa Claus, etc. are fine. There is so much seasonal iconography that makes no reference to mangers or blessings, which I would be delighted to see coupled with an inclusive message.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • rolin mains

    to me holiday cards are the equivalent of saying, “hi, how are you?” to people in passing…and never expecting an answer to that question. i can say “hi” and leave it at that, or i can vocalize a little more than just a grunt and add the “how are you?” part. it is about connection. it is about recognizing the existence of another human being. do i, when i don’t expect an answer, not care? no. it is a convention of passing communication…a step beyond a nod or wave.

    holiday cards fall into this same category. it is a convention of this season that people reach out to people they have talked to 364 other days of the year. with the advent of FB, this is rapidly changing since now we can keep in touch with those same people all year…at our finger tips.

    i agree that the religious tones are off-putting, and i usually smile at their uniform naivete. but the meaning behind them is connection. someone somewhere signed the card, put it in the envelope, licked the flap, stamped it and took it to the USPS. it is energy expended in my direction. it really is the thought that counts.

    BUT don’t get me started on businesses who do this and have all their employees sign their names. this feels like crass pandering to my human sensibilities by saying, “hey look…we are christians and love you just like your aunt martha loves you!” not one of those signatures is aimed at me…they are done because the boss required them to sign it.

  • grumpyoldfart

    Early in my life I told everyone that I wasn’t interested in the Christmas celebrations, and slowly but surely the number of cards and gifts began to dwindle. Decades later – no cards, no gifts, no invitations to Christmas dinner. I just love it.

    What happens to the cards when you do send them? A few years ago I worked in a paper recycling depot and I was amazed at the number of Christmas cards that started arriving on the rubbish trucks from about mid-November onwards. Thousands of them every day. It was actually a little bit sad sometimes, to pick up a card from “Auntie Joan, wishing you all the best for Christmas XXX” and here it was, one day later, on its way to the pulp machine.

  • Ƶ§œš¹

    I’m with rolin mains. The sentiment is usually fairly benign. I spend my life rolling with the punches of others assuming a Christian worldview, so a hey-everybody-look-at-my-Christian-family portrait isn’t too much of a strain for me.
    A roommate of mine once even got one of these Christmas cards with an overtly political message. It seemed in poor taste, though I was told most of the recipients were of the same political mind anyway.

  • Cuttlefish
  • http://langcultcog.com/traumatized DuWayne

    They feel like messages which say, “you may claim not to believe, but we’re going to remind you we still believe and we’re just waiting for you to come back and will not honor your disbelief in the meantime.” I really do take such messages as thoughtless and passive aggressive.

    Spot on with my own experience, though I would add that I think it important to recognize that many of my friends believe I will suffer eternal damnation if I don’t come back, as it were. It has still managed to alienate me from some very close friends, but I understand they were doing it because they care.

  • Aliasalpha

    Well I’m not a fan of greeting cards for anything but the ones that shit me the most are the really really NICE ones. You know the type, the revoltingly sweet things that are like being submerged in a vat of treacle and your only air comes through a snorkel made of toffee that somehow also manages to pipe doris day musicals into your ears. Given the number of these I’ve seen over the years, I’d probably rather welcome one that threatened me with eternal torture for not joining a lunatic cult.

  • Steve

    I have no problem receiving them. My friends all know I am atheist, so the cards from them are in the way of a picture of mom, dad, et al., with a generic “happy holidays” message. My older family members who don’t know I am an atheist send the usual Jesus-y cards, but I don’t mind as I know they aren’t trying to be offensive.

  • peterh

    Christmas is an almost faceless blend of religions and philosophies with a secular overly. I find it easy to view most holiday cards as stereotyped “hellos.” Except the obviously gooey, proselytizing ones. As it says in The Guide, “mostly harmless.”

  • carlie

    I have become a big fan of this year’s happy monkey card.

    Apart from it being a silly in-joke to a few people, it’s odd enough to cause confusion rather than a mean “oh, they’re trying to avoid the religion of the holiday” response from any religious people, and it’s so adorable nobody can be mad at it.

  • Lauren Ipsum

    We’ve been designing our own cards for, jeez, twenty-something years now. I have in-laws call me up and demand to know why this year’s card is late, because they’ve been so looking forward to whatever insanity we’ve come up with! (Speaking of which, I need to start working on our 2011 cards…)

    This is the one time of year I don’t complain about getting religious stuff. I have friends and relatives who are Christian and Jewish. They’re going to send me Christmas, Jebus, and Hannukah cards. It would be silly to complain. Just as most of them know we’re non-theists, so we’re not going to send Jebus cards, and would be silly for them to expect one from us.

    We display all the cards we get on the mantel, and when we take down all the holiday decorations, we keep the cool ones and the family photos and recycle the rest.

  • carollynn

    As a long time atheist, I’m with Tim Minchin. ‘I really like Christmas. It’s sentimental, I know, but I just really like it.’ I send generic cards to a lot of people wishing them peace, happiness, and happy whatever they are celebrating. I get very few pushy “religious” cards, and I wince but just shrug those off and bury them in the back of the card basket. Ones with religious images and generic wishes do not bother me at all.

  • dali_70

    I’d say don’t bother sending me a holiday card, it’s a waste of paper. Send me a text message or an email, and don’t include any religious messages or pictures of mangers and jeebus. Instead send me a picture of your family and wish me well. thats what I’d like in a holiday card.

  • Stacy

    Even if the friend or family member doesn’t mean it as a way of insisting I accept their interpretation of the holiday’s value and meaning, it always feels like that’s what they’re doing sending out religious cards indiscriminately.

    Remember that lot of people just buy a box or three (or more) of the same cards and send them to everyone on their list. And if that sounds too one-size-fits-all, consider that it may be quite a long list, and these cards are often bought, signed, addressed, stamped, etc., by busy moms who are also gift shopping and holiday cooking in addition to everything they usually do, so they don’t have time to get individual cards for everyone.

  • TX_secular

    I like generic winter-looking cards or picture cards of friends/family that say “Season’s Greetings.” The best cards are free of religious themes and stick to winter, Santa, etc.

  • http://kupuramiekka.blogspot.com Tuomoh

    Kafka have a short novel about rejection. There is man walking in street and bypassed by a woman. Man ask the beautiful girl to go with him, but woman walks by silently. Man can understood what woman say. That after that bypassing both of them think it is best that they go home alone.

    Getting religious card is a bit like that. It can be seen more or less like “hi, i hope you well”, only sayed through card’s sender personal belief, which is not something which force to participate or share this belief.

    In normal cituations I have an short way to handle problematic situations. If someone says “Herran siunausta” (Finnish word~god bless you”) to me i answer back “Haista itte” (Means something like saying “screw YOU” in English. But it have some strong connotations with taste of “mainly returning the senders bad words”. And I have not idea how to translate that!) But in Christmas Cards you can got messages from older relatives, which have actually no idea what atheism or agnostism mean, and could not care less, so they just send the religious card without thinking there might be anything offensive. And it is just rude to say “haista itte” for them, off course. (Haista itte is just a “rule of thumb” not a law of nature.)

    So I think there is three parts
    - if cardsender REALLY care and think, the card is off course just the “Hi I hope you well”. Message got through and there is no need to think is there something “this is something you should think in christmastime and not at all that WoW -stuff you are wanking”)
    - It is better to get religious card than be totally rejected because you are atheist. So religious card is usually better than no card.
    - It is better to send religious card than reject atheist just becouse religious people scare that sending it could hurt too much.

  • Makoto

    If the card quotes scripture of any flavor (NKJ, Torah, Koran, etc), it’ll probably turn me off a bit, but I try to go with the “it’s the thought that counts” school. Unless you add a message along the lines of “I hope this brings you to/back to the church of my choice”, in which case it gets tossed. A card with a line from a book you like to read does not persuade me, and don’t be surprised if I respond with a line from some “opposing” book, which often (sadly) means the Koran here in the US.

    If it’s a general card for just about any holiday, I appreciate the fact that you care enough to send me a card for a holiday you care about. I care more if you send me a card just because you want to send me a card, not because it’s for a holiday, though. Holiday cards are like those Valentine cards in grade school – you’re kind of forced to send them to anyone you even sort of care about and/or your classmates.

  • The Vicar

    There are some really excellent secular holiday cards from Pomegranate Communications — images by Edward Gorey and Charles Addams. I send those out.

  • lrah

    My Christmas cards are usually stuff I’ve drawn, and while I like Christmas too, I usually go for something either nice and vaguely wintry/holiday-ish or something fireworks-y with a New Years Eve angle (mainly because they’re much more fun to do, and both Christmas and the new year are usually mentioned in cards around here).

    My atheist friends nearly always get another one that takes the piss out of some religious aspect of Christmas. Never wildly offensive (If I can imagine the tolerant “more-or-less-Christian” friends/relatives/acquaintances with a sense of humour being upset by it, I go for something else), but still most definitely not something I’d send to everyone.

    I don’t think I ever *received* an explicitly religious card… at least not more religious than kitschy nativity scenes on the front. ;)

  • fennekeg

    Anyone stuck in a christian environment (or other religious environment for that matter) and longing for a non-religious, warm and friendly spark in these dark days, send me your snail mail address at fenpost @ hotmail.com (without the spaces) and I will send you a non-religious christmas card (would that be a yule-card?)

  • peterh

    Yule celebrations are of Germanic origin (as is the christmas tree) and pre-xianity; they’re quite firmly part of winter solstice observances.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

    Thank you, Dan, for putting this together. I bookmarked it to read/reply once you had collected some replies – and then didn’t have time to come back in the rush of grading research papers until this morning. There are some great perspectives both you and your commenters.

    One of the things I have struggled with and sorting out what images are truly religious from the secular ones. The Santa Claus legend has a religious meaning, and in many Christian circles it’s framed as a sort of stand-in for God’s generosity; so seeing Claus iconography strikes me (rightly or wrongly) as a religious symbol. The Christmas tree, candles and wreathes and so on do have more of a pagan origin of course, but even they have been taken on by Christians for so long that they have a “churchy” feel to many Christians. Even wintry scenes often have a church at the center of them. The upshot being that everything can seem religious-tinted, which in turn makes it seem like nothing could be appropriate. Seeing all the opinions and perspectives here has been helpful.

  • Becky

    Ok…my question is this: Is it appropriate for an Atheist to send out cards USING the word Christmas? To me, a Christian, it made me think my Athiest friend had converted to Christianity. When I inquired sweetly and ignorantly and honestly confused, I got a tongue lashing. Hence I find this website…and anyone answer this for me? Should an Athiest choose a Holiday card over a Christmas card?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Christmas is a national holiday in America, not just a Christian one. Many people love Christmas for a thousand reasons that have nothing to do with Jesus. I know this is going to sound rude, so please forgive me, but the assumption that only Christians could be interested in Christmas or would send a Christmas card, is to be a bit clueless to the enormous secular significance of the holiday or people’s abilities to appreciate all of that significance while rejecting the Jesus stuff. For better or worse, Christmas is our culture’s predominant winter solstice holiday and Christian possessiveness over it is annoying. (Most annoying is when Christians try to imply we’re not allowed to celebrate it or are somehow failing in our atheism if we do. You didn’t invent gift giving or family celebrations or the celebration of winter and no one needs to believe in Jesus to enjoy Santa Claus, Christmas trees, or It’s A Wonderful Life).

    • Justin

      Becky,

      Your story is a perfect example of how religion is (or should be) the most personal aspect of anyone’s identity. When and if your atheist friend decides to explore religion, you should really allow him or her to tell you, rather than to quiz the person because of torrid assumptions based on the theme of a holiday card.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1461597184 jeffclark

    You people are fascinating. Christmas is a religious holiday, period. If you will take a moment to look at the name of said holiday, Christmas. CHRISTmas. CHRIST-mas. CHRIST. Jesus Christ. It is a holiday for the religious to observe a day that recognizes and celebrates the birth of Jesus. Jesus Christ. Hence the name Christmas. What am I missing in the logic here?

    • Justin

      Jeff,

      What you are missing is the fact that, over the years, the prevailing interpretation of Christmas has shifted more toward a celebration of human commonality rather than a good old fashioned “be a Christian or die!” theme. I do not share your faith, but I defend your right to view the date of the winter solstice as the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth if that gives you comfort. In actuality, the majority of people who celebrate Christmas actually do so in a more secular manner than you probably know… The usual scenario is a family gathering, a meal (usually without a prayer), small talk, a few presents, and then back home. If Jesus did exist, I am sure he would encourage you to take a less abrasive view toward those who do not share your faith.

  • http://www.steamatic.com/member/237410/ Guideline

    The interaction of Sun in Gemini, which Angelina has, and Sun in Sagittarius, which Brad has, is one particular of complimentary opposites. Equally are outgoing and involved about daily life. They are each not specially practical and rational.

  • Dave Mehoff

    I am an atheist. I love Christmas and even better – I love a Christmas card that pokes fun at the religious aspect of it. There are a few free sites doing this well. AtheistCards.com is my new personal favourite simply because no one is funnier in their messaging! I attached one I really like, hope it shows… merry xmas!

  • andy stout

    Excellent free atheist cards are at atheistcards. com

  • andy stout

    Becky, my dear, you have it all quite backwards.
    “Christmas” was a centuries-old holiday celebrated word-wide which Christians stole from pagans and inserted their Christ nonsense into it. Read your Bible: (Jeremiah 10:1-5) Here Jesus condemns the “Christmas” tree, (the evergreen) which was originally celebrated as a symbol of life defying the hard winters:

    2 Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

    3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

    4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

    I suggest you take 5 minutes to (google) research the “true origin of Christmas”.

    Happy Solstice!

    -Andy Stout

    Winnipeg, Canada

    PS Here’s where I go to find Christmas cards: atheistcards.com

  • andy stout

    Thanks Dave!
    Here’s my favorite from atheistcards.com
    (Virgin or vixen?)


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