A Reflection on Celebrating Christmas as an Atheist

Do you know what I realized this year? The way I celebrate Christmas with my family today is really very little different from the way I celebrated Christmas in my family of origin growing up. Given that I grew up in a devout evangelical family but that my husband and I are not religious, this at first seems rather odd. In the end, though, I think it simply highlights just how secular Christmas is for most Americans, even those who are religious.

Growing up, Christmas meant music and cookies and decorations and presents. Some of the Christmas music we listened to was religious, but most was actually completely secular. The cookies, of course, had nothing to do with religion, and the only thing religious about our Christmas decorations, whether it be the tree or the house or lights outside, was the nativity scene that rested on a table in our hall. And the presents, well, those were wholly secular too.

The only overtly religious things we did as part of Christmas were attending Christmas Eve service at church and reading the Christmas story from the Bible on Christmas morning. However, neither of these things actually happened every year, as we frequently skipped the Christmas Eve service (getting that many kids in nice clothes and out the door was often more work than it was worth) and we usually forgot to read the Christmas story Christmas morning because everyone was clamoring to open presents. So really? My family’s celebration of Christmas was very secular.

It’s true that we often talked about how important it was to remember that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday, and that that was what really mattered. But honestly? We insisted Christmas was really and truly all about Jesus the same way some people insist that really, honest, they’re going to start an exercise regimen next week. It’s almost as though we were trying to reassure ourselves. Of course, we did enjoy the Christmas story. We children enjoyed arranging the nativity scene and sometimes even put on little Christmas plays. But in the end, the Christmas season as we celebrated it was more about holiday cheer than it was about Jesus.

And now, as an atheist adult and the mother of two children, I look around myself on this day after Christmas. The same tree, lights, and ornaments. The same scented candles and smells of gingerbread. The same cookies, the same old family recipes, the same songs in the background. The same greenery, the same scattered wrapping paper. The same stockings and fire in the fireplace. The same nativity scene, which Sally arranges and rearranges. It’s a storybook story with its own action figures, and she treats it the same way she would treat an Angelina Ballerina set.

The only thing that has changed, really, between how I celebrated Christmas as a child in a devout evangelical family and how I celebrate Christmas as an atheist with a family of my own today is the absence of church and the traditional Christmas Eve program and the increased place of the Santa story.

Growing up, we didn’t “do” Santa in our family, though Santa was still somehow present – in the stores, in the books we checked out from the library, and in the music. He was present, though, sort of guiltily. Mom and dad told us that the Santa mythology served to push Jesus out of the holiday (an ironic concern given the already limited focus on Jesus alongside the presents and cookies, and winter holiday decorations). Today, then, I no longer have to feel guilty about engaging in the Santa story, whether in books, songs, or decorations.

I’m not trying to say that Christmas is a holiday that doesn’t have Christian roots (it does). Similarly, I’m not trying to say that Christmas as it is celebrated in the United States today is “multicultural” or that its roots are not soundly Western, and even Anglo Saxon (they are). I personally enjoy celebrating Christmas in part because it is a way I can feel a historical and cultural connection with my ancestors. Further, I don’t mind the religious aspects that remain – the nativity scene, say – both because of the connection with the cultural celebrations of ancestors past and because I think we should be interested in learning about various cultures, traditions, and religious. I may be an atheist, but that doesn’t mean it I don’t see history or religion as things worth studying.

But to bring this back to where I started, the main point I wanted to make here was that Christmas as I celebrated it as an evangelical child was already more focused on presents, food, and seasonal decorations than it was on Jesus’ birth, and that that, quite simply, has made continuing to celebrate Christmas as an atheist adult remarkably easy. And I think that’s something worth pointing out.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Malitia

    Boldog Karácsonyt! (Merry Christmas!)

    Eh… The “why do (if not “how dare”) Atheists / Non-Christians celebrate Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter?!” question always baffled me: “Because it’s tradition / fun.” Not that hard to understand. My standard answer by the way is “And why do you celebrate people’s name day?” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_day#Hungary ) which I think sadly won’t work in the US. :D

    • Leigha

      Halloween would probably be a good bet in the US, or St. Patrick’s Day for anyone who is neither Irish nor Catholic. Those have both become almost purely cultural holidays here, to the point where many would be baffled to think that Halloween is in any way a religious holiday (let alone a 95% pagan, 5% Christian one).

  • http://considertheteacosy.wordpress.com Aoife

    Y’know, I’d never thought about it but this resonates with me so much. Thinking back to my own (Irish Catholic) childhood, Christmas was about family and presents and excitement and way too much food and, of course, Santa and Jesus. Who both coexisted perfectly. As an adult, Christmas is about family and love and oodles of food and, yes, giving and receiving gifts. We don’t go to mass anymore (my immediate family are all atheists or otherwise nonreligious now), and our Christmas dinners now involve an ever-changing circle of friends as well as relatives, but the essence of the day- and my dad’s amazing cooking- are the same.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Both my parents are atheists (and we kids never believed in god either) but we had a nativity scene (here called a Belén) when we were little because it was fun to put it up like the tree or the Christmas sweets for the Three Wise Men (the magical kings here, they are our Santa and they coem on January 6th) and the water for their camels. That said, probably our nativities would have scandalised your family (and not because we added superman action figures to it like other kids) but because here and in the Belén of most people, Mary, the baby, the animals,… although indispensable aren’t the most impressive parts but the shepherds (of all kinds, there’s one typical figurine of one pooping), the scenery (rivers and bridges more or less realistic), etcetera … They would seem a bit sacrilegious to them I guess :P

  • Inca

    Actually, you could really debate whether Christmas is a Christian holiday. People have been celebrating the midwinter solstice forever, and the reason behind December 25th being picked as Jesus’ birthday is that the young Catholic church just couldn’t get people to stop doing it so they tried to cover it up with a layer of Christian varnish. And how do you get rid of the godesses? Simple, you more or less turn the virgin mother into one…

    As a parallel, in some Scandinavian countries John the Baptist is celebrated by bonfires at the Summer solstice…very Christian. My tribe, the Swedish, haven’t really bothered with the whole Christian cover-up, every year at Midsummer we still happily dance around the fertility symbol. (And incidentally, my daughter was conceived on Midsummer’s Eve ;-) )


  • Christine

    I have noticed one difference between the standard secular Christmas celebrations and the religious ones. The secular Christmas seems to happen in the days leading up to the 25th, and ends around the 26th or 27th, just when the religious celebration starts.

    But so much of what evangelicals try to defend in fighting back against the “war on Christmas” is the secular celebration, not the religious one.

    (I didn’t make it to church until Christmas morning due to a ill baby, and it’s a nice change to go when the church is nearly empty).

    • Elise

      What else is weird and along this theme is that what used to be called “The True Meaning of Christmas”, the family, giving, love, cheer, has been purloined by the religious-folk so that the only “True Meaning of Christmas” belongs to Jesus. Has anyone else noticed that, too?

      According to them, then, the Peanuts Christmas, and The Grinch cartoon are blasphemous. I think they just don’t get it.

  • http://ramblingsofsheldon.blogspot.com Sheldon

    You bring back memories for me, too Libby Anne.

    My family refused to have me believe in Santa as well, because that would distract from ‘the real reason for the season”.

    I noticed that even though my fundamentalist parents still don’t know about my loss of faith, they still didn’t make Christmas as much about their faith as in years past, it was nice, just celebrating food and family.

    Glad you had a merry Christmas, Libby Anne!

  • Isaac

    I’d like to point out that while Christmas is a Christian holiday, the winter solstice festivals that are its very recent ancestors were certainly not.

    These are lightly Christian-coated Scandanavian/Germanic holidays by and large, and many elements of the Christian Christmas tradition, as well as stories about Santa Claus, were borrowed directly from north European traditions. They’re usually heavily modified, and sometimes disneyfied (look at other Christmas gift-bringers compared to the modern Santa Claus, for example) but they nonetheless come from a distinctly non-Christian and often Pagan origin.

    I tend to celebrate Christmas the way my Scandanavian ancestors might have, and look at it more as a respite from winter that fosters joy for the promise of spring and brings people together for community, fun, music, stories, and perhaps various conscious-altering substances.

    • Seda

      Christmas also has roots in Roman Saturnalia, which occurred at the solstice. We don’t see that so much since the northern European pagan rituals and legends have taken such a big position in our cultural Christmas, but it was a handy way for the early church to subvert a popular holiday and harness it to support the new order.

  • Seda

    In my family, composed of an atheist Jew, a Unitarian, and a Christian Scientist, we’ve started celebrating “Chrismanakah,” with traditions drawn from Judaism, Christianity, and Pagan-ity (menorah, “Christ”mas, tree, etc.) It’s forced us to consider the real meaning of Christmas, which, in my opinion, is not at all about Jesus, who was probably born sometime in spring or summer. It’s about *commitment* to family, but also to friends. There is simply too much to do to connect with everyone I’d like to connect with, but it sort of forces me to connect with family I often choose not to connect with on a day-to-day basis. Considering Christmas as a season of commitment to family, celebration for the sake of celebration, connecting to ancestors (thanks for pointing that out, Libby Anne!), and marking the winter solstice and beginning of lengthening days helps me to connect with the “spirit” of Christmas, with the gifting without being overwhelmed by the consumerism of it, and just have relaxed fun.

    I don’t know if that viewpoint would be helpful to atheists in general, but it has certainly made for a more pleasant and connected time in my household!

  • Plunderb

    I celebrate Christmas in the spirit of Dickens and his fellow Victorians; that is, as a rebuke to the Puritans.

  • Leigha

    My family was not tremendously religious growing up (though I identify with a lot of the things you talk about because I became very religious around age 13 and, never one to do things half-heartedly, dove full on into the Focus on the Family brand of Christianity)–we never went to church (I went every week for most of high school, until I started babysitting on weekends), but everyone believed in God and there was lots of bible stories and songs throughout my childhood, as well as VBS every summer. Most of my favorite Christmas songs were the more religiously oriented ones, especially once I became super-religious. Now, as an atheist, I have to admit that Christmas is a bit less fun. Had I not converted, it would have been perfectly fine. I would’ve been able to sing along with the religious songs and not cared one bit, just as I did as a child. But now they remind me of how completely immersed I was and how much harm I did to myself, and it makes me sad. It’s only been a couple of years now, so maybe it’ll get better, but it certainly puts a damper on what has always been my favorite holiday.

    Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Focus on the Family mentioned a few times before, either in the posts or in the comments (I can’t remember). Did anyone here read Brio magazine? That was actually what was responsible for my conversion. A friend of mine whose dad was a pastor gave me a big stack of them when she moved away, and a few issues in one article just clicked and I invited Jesus into my heart right then and there. After that, I gradually adopted the beliefs espoused in said magazine (and associated book series, as well as other series published by Zondervan and such, lots of Melody Carlson–our town library had a ton of Christian fiction, and it ended up being almost everything I read). It was a little bit more conservative than the church I attended in practice, though I think it lined up pretty well with their official beliefs (and they did have a subscription to all three magazines, which enabled me to read the guy’s one a couple times before youth group). Despite how I feel about everything else now, I still kind of want to like Brio. I really do believe the people involved in it were sincere and trying to do things right (I do NOT believe the same for the leaders of Focus. I’ve also seen that the magazine split from the organization and is now web-based only, but I haven’t looked into why that happened).

    Another question, do you ever feel sad over the loss of the culture you were immersed in? I’m a very nostalgic person and I tend to read the same books over and over again, and to cycle through the same songs I used to listen to every now and then, so the gap caused by all the Christian books and music I no longer go to can sometimes be painfully obvious. There are a handful of books I’m tempted to make exceptions for (the Lily series by Nancy Rue, for example, which I think did a good job of exploring the idea of figuring out who one is, and Lily was just so likable and identifiable to me), but I’m not sure how I’d feel while reading it. I don’t want to ruin my memories of it by realizing it’s more overbearing than I thought.

    Anyway, I just want to say that everything I’ve read here–both from Libby Anne and the comments–is rather therapeutic when it comes to things I’ve experienced, and makes me feel fortunate that it wasn’t worse when you discuss some things (my family was never involved, so there is no rift there, although I did influence some of them to become more religious and they don’t actually know I’m now an atheist).

    Oh, and one more thing. You mentioned in one post that seeing how much atheists and gay people differed in reality from what you’d been taught of them played a big role in you re-evaluating your beliefs. I wanted to comment on that one, but I think the comments were closed? I’ve been reading the posts very much at random, so some are a lot older than others. Anyway, what started off the process for me was the fact that I (as a Christian) was depressed, anxious, and struggling, and I met the guy who is now my boyfriend of several years and future husband, and he was an atheist and the happiest person I’ve ever met in my life, despite going through some pretty hard times in his life (while I’d had a pretty easy life, myself). He played both a direct and indirect role in me re-evaluating my belief system, but mostly he allowed me to truly consider the doubts I’d had for awhile and been ignoring.

    • Leigha

      Wow, I did NOT realize that comment was so long. I’m sorry for the wall of text.

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  • jaimie

    I’m Buddhist and I love Christmas! We have a nativity scene, tree, lights, and my lovely little town that I have been collecting houses for, for years. I know that many people don’t care for celebrating and I mind my own business about that. They probably have good reason. I work in a long term care facility and many people pass away at Christmastime. I never got the war on Christmas myself, but I suspect some Christians do not find the holidays magical, which is perfectly fine, but they resent those who do. Thus they try to, quoting my husband, piss in their cornflakes.

  • lucrezaborgia

    My family never was overtly religious or anything, but we celebrated the Christian holidays culturally. It was fun and still is.

  • Bret

    My family is a bunch of atheists/agnostics and we celebrate Christmas in pretty much the same way you describe, except that being half-Danish we used to get treats in our shoes ‘from the elves’ instead of hanging up stockings.
    It’s all lots of fun. It’s good to have a day when you know your family will be off work and be able to meet up. With my sister working weekends, that’s difficult the rest of the year. If we didn’t have Christmas we’d probably need to invent a similar celebration. People need festivals, it can’t be work all the time.
    Most of the traditions we associate with Christmas are pretty recent really. A lot of them are Victorian inventions. We probably wouldn’t recognise an anglo-saxon Christmas, here’s an interesting article about it:

    Christmas is very much an evolving holiday and always has been.

  • Jo

    The only thing Christian about Christmas, is the name.
    Pretty much everything else (besides the nativity scene) has its roots in pre-Christian traditions.
    The tree, the date (Jesus was not born in December), the whole idea of celebrating something at this moment in the year, etc, etc.
    Christmas is the ideal GLOBAL non-religious holiday because we’ve ALL been celebrating it for almost as long as there have been people on this earth.
    We celebrate the middle of winter, the shortest day, the time of the year when we know the winter has reached its peak, we have to eat some of what we have put in storage before it becomes uneatable and we spend our evenings indoors.
    All good reasons for a party.
    Long before anyone even thought of Jesus or God, people were celebrating the midwinter, the yule, or whatever they called it.
    I celebrate Christmas and have never been even remotely religious.
    I don’t even mind calling it Christmas because after all those thousands of years of PR and shaping Western History, I’m willing to let call the holiday Christmas now.
    It would also ruin a lot of nice old songs to change it.
    But really, this is a holiday for everyone, all over the world.
    No matter what religion you have (or don’t have), you are or should be celebrating this because as humans we always have and even in todays rich and spoiled society, we should still be happy at being alive, surviving winter, having food and being reminded that winter will eventually be replaced by another season.

  • The_L

    This is very late. However, I may as well add to the discussion with yet another perspective (I was too busy during the actual holiday season to write anything to anybody).

    My childhood Catholic Christmas vs. my current Neopagan Yule:
    1. Instead of a Christmas tree, I now call it a Yule tree. The lights themselves are not lit until the solstice, and there are no angels or Santas on my tree. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same (only a smaller, tabletop version because I live in an apartment). I am dating a Jewish man, and I had to reassure him that if we end up getting married, the abomination known as a “Hannukah Bush” will never darken our door.

    2. No nativity scene in the house. Mom always had a cute little Nativity by the fireplace (which was never lit, because we lived in the South) and an adorably anachronistic porcelain scene of Santa kneeling before the manger. I have nutcrackers and other secular-Christmas things, but most of the Christmas decorations I plan on continuing to use are the sort of things that were borrowed from Pagan celebrations in the first place (greenery, for instance).

    3. No Christmas Eve Mass. I shouldn’t have to explain this one, or why I prefer dancing around a bonfire. I will say, however, that Christmas Eve Mass wasn’t all that special when you went to Mass every Sunday anyway. The Sabbat system of 8 feast days a year strikes me as making holidays more special (because you’re worshiping on fewer occasions) and also more efficient (ditto).

    4. Smaller selection of store-bought cards that don’t have a religious message I don’t want to send. I still like sending cards around the holidays, but now they’re a generic “Season’s Greetings!” card, with the recipient’s applicable holiday on the inside, because now I actually know people who aren’t Christian. This way, everybody gets the greeting they want, nobody is offended, and I still only have to buy one card design! :D

    5. I don’t feel weird going to Yule parties, Chanukah parties, or Christmas parties. When I was a kid, I would have felt really out of place at a party to celebrate a holiday for somebody else’s faith, but now I feel honored that people value my friendship enough to want to include me in a celebration of their favorite holidays, and try to be as respectful as possible. I understand now that just because I was brought up to try to convert everyone, doesn’t mean that everyone else is out to convert me. That knowledge takes so much pressure off, and allows me to finally have a good time!

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