An Essay on Christmas

(This article was originally posted December 24, 2005.)

Several weeks ago, on a gray, blustery October morning, I visited a country market with some family friends to buy decorations for Halloween. On tables outside the store, the trappings of the season were on full display: grinning scarecrows, candy- and caramel-coated apples, tables of pumpkins waiting to be carved into jack-o’-lanterns, embroidered black cats, and walls stacked with corn sheaves and garlands of autumn leaves for decoration.

Inside the store, however, was a different story. Though it was not even Halloween yet, an entire section had been set aside for the display of Christmas-themed merchandise. All around the edges of the room, artificial trees were wrapped in tinsel and garland and hung with gaudy silver balls and strings of twinkling white lights. In tiny, quaint model villages, light shone from the windows of ceramic Victorian houses, and plump cherubim, winged angels, and Santa Clauses of every shape and description packed the shelves; nothing, it seemed, was too garish to sell as long as it had a connection, however tenuous, to Christmas. Thanksgiving, the third major holiday that falls in between these two, was omitted. Evidently the marketers and merchandisers that drive our economy see it as less of an opportunity to sell things.

The rampant commercialization of the holiday season has never been more apparent or more rapacious than it is in America today. To a large extent, Christmas has lost whatever religious meaning it ever had, and instead has become just one more excuse for corporations to sell things. Massive traffic jams, packed shopping malls, and lines stretching around the block have become hallmarks of the holiday season. Even uglier, holiday sales now regularly lead to pandemonium – fights and mob scenes where shoppers are beaten, knocked down and trampled. And every year, it seems, the holiday season starts ever earlier and comes with ever more enticements to debt, as retailers and credit-card companies strive to convince us that our love for friends and family can be gauged by how much we spend on gifts. At no other time in the year are the efforts of American consumer culture to erase the distinction between what we want and what we need so obvious or so glaring.

This is not to say that the holiday season no longer has anything of spiritual significance to offer. On the contrary, I believe there is a wealth of important lessons to be drawn from it still – about which, more later. First, however, I must turn to another topic – the timeworn religious imagery that accompanies the year-end holidays. The evidence reveals that some of the most familiar trappings of the season should be reconsidered.

For example, consider the well-known Christian symbol of the creche – the infant Jesus and his parents in the manger, with the three wise men in attendance. Ironically, this scene does not actually appear in the Bible. There are only two books in the New Testament that say anything about Jesus’ birth, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke; the familiar nativity scene is a selective combination of elements from these two stories. The Gospel of Matthew, which contains the account of the wise men, says nothing whatsoever about a manger, or indeed about any difficulty suffered by Mary and Joseph in finding lodgings; it says that the magi found Jesus and his parents in a “house” (Matthew 2:11). The Gospel of Luke, by contrast, mentions the manger (Luke 2:7) but says nothing about wise men at any point. Only by picking and choosing certain parts of each infancy story, and suppressing the incompatible elements from each, can the artificial pastiche of the nativity scene be created.

Since angel imagery is so common around Christmas, another relevant example is the cherubim. Usually pictured as plump, ruddy-faced infants with tiny wings, biblical cherubim are in reality bizarre and frightening creatures, part human and part animal. Although chapters such as Exodus 25 mention that statues of cherubim covered the Ark of the Covenant with spread wings, the fullest description of them comes from the Book of Ezekiel, an allegedly prophetic volume filled with surreal and hallucinatory mystic imagery. Ezekiel 41:18-19 describes cherubim as having two faces, one the face of a man and one the face of a lion. This number is increased to four in the even stranger chapters 1 and 10, which describes cherubim as also having four wings and four hands, as well as the faces of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle.
Nor were these beings peaceful messengers, but very much the opposite: they were, from all indications, warlike and ferocious. Genesis 3 points out that cherubim were placed at the entrance to Eden to bar the fallen humans from reentering, while Psalms 18 mentions that God rides upon cherubim to deliver his wrath, bringing with him earthquakes, darkness and devouring fire.

Or consider the most familiar holiday tradition of all, the Christmas tree. Ironically, the nearest thing the Bible says about this custom is to explicitly forbid it! As Jeremiah 10:3-4 says:

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

Admittedly, this passage is referring to trees prepared for worship as idols, focal points of pagan religious belief, and not the custom of decorating trees per se. Still, modern Christians should ask themselves if they feel entirely comfortable reenacting ancient pagan rituals whose first practitioners were condemned by the biblical authors in no uncertain terms.

The answer to this question is made even more pertinent by the fact that Christmas itself is a co-opted pagan holiday. The date of December 25 was not chosen because it was the actual date of Jesus’ birth – this is all but impossible, as the Gospel of Luke depicts shepherds herding their flocks in the field on that night, which would have been unlikely in the extreme in the dead of winter. The true reason this date was selected is because it was the date of a Roman holiday, Natalis Invicti – the Feast of the Unconquered Sun, a state-supported cult of solar worship introduced by the emperor Aurelian in the third century CE to celebrate the annual “rebirth” of the sun following the winter solstice. The early Christian church deliberately scheduled one of its major holidays on this date as a way of competing with the Roman religion. In this respect Christmas is similar to Easter, another co-opted pagan holiday whose origins as a fertility ritual are still echoed by the day’s association with eggs and rabbits.

Pointing out these things will doubtless be interpreted as another anti-Christian salvo in the religious right’s imagined “war on Christmas”, which now seems destined to become an annual holiday fixture. More and more each year, media watchers are treated to a proliferation of books, op-ed columns and websites replete with hysterical pleas for donations and support to “save Christmas”, as if the holiday were teetering on the brink of extinction. A 2004 Jerry Falwell column is entitled “The impending death of Christmas?“, the Christian Law Association breathlessly asks, “Has Christmas Become Illegal in America?“, and this year, conservative author John Gibson discerns a “liberal plot to ban the sacred Christian holiday”. No slight, real or imagined, seems too minor to provoke these people’s ire; every store greeter who says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, every use of the phrase “holiday tree” rather than “Christmas tree”, is taken as evidence of a dire conspiracy whose nefarious plans have come almost to fruition.

At this point, the obvious needs to be said. American Christians today, of every denomination, are entirely free to sing Christmas carols, decorate Christmas trees, and exchange Christmas presents. They can put up nativity scenes, crosses and “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs on their own property to their heart’s content. They can spend all of Christmas Day, if they so choose, in prayer in any of the massive, ornate, tax-free churches that dot our land. In fact, American Christians today enjoy literally unprecedented power, wealth and access, and possess enormous influence in the media, the government, and the court of popular opinion. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a society in which they had more freedom to spread their message or in which their ability to do so was greater. To say that Christmas needs to be “saved” from anything is a ridiculous joke, and to compare this state of affairs to past societies in which Christians and others actually were persecuted, tortured and killed for practicing their beliefs is an insulting travesty.

And yet, for some of them, this is not enough. Powerful as Christianity is, its followers are still rightly treated as equals to other citizens, and for some of them – the so-called “dominionist” Christians of the religious right – this is intolerable. These militant fundamentalists demand, not equal treatment, but special treatment. They want their beliefs to be singled out, both legally and culturally, for extra deference and pampering. In short, they expect to be treated as if they were superior to everyone else.

This phenomenon is clearest in the behavior of those media pundits who take extreme offense at being wished “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings”. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News claimed that these sayings “offend[] millions of Christians“; CNN’s Lou Dobbs insisted, bizarrely, that these inclusive greetings somehow “exclude[] everyone who is celebrating Christmas“. James Dobson’s American Family Association called for a boycott of the retail chain Target because their holiday advertising did not mention Christmas enough for the AFA’s taste. But it can also be seen in the protests of religious right groups who object, for example, to public schools who remove specifically Christian holiday songs from annual concerts; evidently such people either cannot understand or do not care that parents who are not Christian might not want their children singing carols like “Silent Night”, with its chorus of “Christ the Savior is born”.

There are two separate issues here, but they have been presented by the religious right in its typically muddled, imprecise way, without calling attention to the important distinctions that exist between them. First is the issue of whether the state can endorse Christian beliefs by displaying religious symbols or language on public property in a way that conveys endorsement. Second is the issue of whether private businesses should pay homage to Christmas specifically or whether they should strive for greater inclusiveness. Only the first is a legal issue, governed by the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Admittedly, what constitutes “endorsement” can be a complex matter, and the Supreme Court’s rulings on the issue have not been consistent. However, the easiest way to resolve this problem is to do as many schools and communities have done and simply withdraw all specifically religious messages from government forums, instead leaving it up to private individuals and organizations to commemorate the holidays as they see fit. This is fully consonant with the Constitution and offends no reasonable person. But if a public agency chooses not to do this, then their course of action is clear: they must allow all religious and secular groups equal access to public land to display their holiday messages. (If religious-right groups advocate the latter alternative, can we assume they would not object to allowing the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s winter solstice sign along with the creches and menorahs?) Again, it is important to note that no one is being prevented from celebrating Christmas, if they so choose, in their own homes, businesses and churches. As usual, the religious right’s cries of persecution arise from the fact that they are not allowed to use the state’s power to impose their beliefs on everyone else, and that their religion is not treated by society as superior to all the rest.

The second issue is not a constitutional, but an economic one. Again, the obvious needs to be stated: There are other holidays in addition to Christmas during this season, and not all people celebrate Christmas. While I do not take offense at being wished a Merry Christmas, I appreciate the consideration of those who use a more inclusive greeting because they recognize that not everyone is a Christian. It is unfortunate that some Christians cannot accept this same moral, and instead insist on special privilege and deferential treatment for their beliefs. For all the religious right’s complaints about political correctness, if anything they are the ones who are being thin-skinned and overly sensitive, threatening to boycott any business that does not give them special treatment and disregard the traditions and practices of others. While a private business has every right to do this if they choose, many have chosen not to do so in order to include a greater cross-section of society. The dominionists’ paranoia about how this constitutes an attack on their beliefs are comparable to the tantrums of a spoiled child. If anything, the greatest enemies of Christmas have historically been Christians – such as the Puritans, who explicitly outlawed any celebration of Christmas during the seventeenth century both in America and in England, due to their belief that the holiday had pagan origins (true, as already discussed), and that it promoted un-Christian merriment rather than the proper Christian virtues of hard labor, gloominess and death.

Finally, one recurring and frankly annoying false belief needs to be addressed: the conspiratorial belief that the abbreviation “Xmas” is a sinister secularist plot to “X out” the name of Christ from the holiday. This is a ridiculous misconception. “Xmas” is actually a Christian abbreviation, one whose origins date back at least a thousand years. The term derives from the Greek letter chi, which resembles the English letter X and is the first letter in the word Christ as it is spelled in the Greek alphabet. References to “XPMas” as an abbreviation for “Christmas” can be found as early as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1021 CE. (The P is the Greek letter rho; the chi-rho combination is an ancient Christian symbol known as the Labarum.) This amateurish error is promulgated even by those who should know better – for example, the front page of the reference site offers the following poll question for December 2005: “What concerns you the most about how the world is attacking Christmas, a Christian holiday?”, to which one of the possible responses is “Using an ‘X’ to replace Christ’s name in Christmas – i.e. Xmas” (view screenshot). That Christmas is under attack seems to be a belief taken for granted by the site’s administrators.

If the rampant commercialism and militant religious fundamentalism is set aside, what remains of the holiday season? Some may feel that there is no longer anything worth celebrating, but I do not agree with that conclusion. While we atheists do not and should not accept the religious dogmas that usually accompany them, the virtues that have traditionally been associated with the season are still good ones, and still deserve to be remembered and put into practice. There should be a day when we gather with family and loved ones to enjoy each other’s company and celebrate the good things life has to offer. And if there be such a holiday, there is no better time to have it than in the deep of winter, when the chill of ice and snow naturally drives us indoors to be with one another; when the heat from a brightly blazing hearth warms body and spirit, and the early fall of darkness helps us appreciate the brightness of good company all the more. There is no better time than when frost feathers the windows and blustery winds howl at the door to bring us to the understanding that we must care for and shelter each other, and that we are dependent on our fellow human beings for all the good we can ever hope to receive.

It is fitting, as well, that there be a day when we remind ourselves of the obligation to be generous to those who have little, when we look on the unfortunate with compassion and reach down a hand of charity to them, and when we realize that the only good we can ever expect to accomplish is to help our fellow human beings who are suffering and in want. In truth there should be three hundred and sixty-five such days each year, but it may be overly optimistic to expect that much from humanity at this time in our moral development; and one such day is far better than none.

And finally, it is right and proper that there be a day when we look back on the year and take stock of what we have accomplished. It is a tradition, and a good one, that at the beginning of each year we make resolutions for what goals we wish to achieve and how we hope to improve ourselves during that year. It is fitting that there be another holiday at the end of the year, mirroring this one – a day when lesser priorities are suspended and mundane concerns set aside, even for only a few hours, so that we can reflect on what we did and did not achieve during the year and reconsecrate our lives to the tasks that will face us in the next one.

In short, I believe in leaving space for the sacred. I use this term not in the religious sense, but in the deeper and more fundamental sense: the human capacity for spirituality, our ability to feel awe and wonder. All societies need this, but our need for it is especially great, in light of how fast-paced our society has become and how focused we are on achievement and competition to the exclusion of all else. These things have important parts to play in any meaningful life, but they are not all there is. It is equally important that there be times when we set out to achieve nothing, but simply to be. The rushing current of the everyday makes it far too easy to lose sight of the higher concerns altogether, and we need intervals set aside for clarity and reflection to counteract this. It is right that there be times of peace when we can rise above and turn our minds to higher things, when we can fill our minds with contemplation of the sublime and the beautiful and stand in humility and awe before the deeper and more majestic truths that surround our lives.

It is true that throughout our history, religion has played a major part in making this possible. Despite all its faults, and I do not for one second excuse or overlook these, religious belief has caused people to turn their attention to higher matters and inspired them to produce creations of great beauty. Some of our civilization’s most sublime architecture, art and music owes its existence to religion, and it does not pain me in the least to admit this. Though I do not agree with the beliefs that gave rise to them, I too can appreciate the stirring chords of a Mozart Requiem or the soaring vaults of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But it is equally undeniable that religion has given rise to much hatred, oppression and bloodshed. The question is whether we can keep the good aspects of religion without taking the bad moral teachings or the unprovable supernatural baggage along with them, and I believe that we can.

One of the charges commonly leveled at atheists is that, since we reject religion, we must not believe in anything at all. This accusation, I hope, I have amply demonstrated to be false. In fact, I would suggest that what atheists believe in is neither more nor less than the baroque beauty of the world and the immense potential for good implicit in human nature. We can and do believe in these things, as surely as we believe that love and generosity exist and that they confer on life its greatest beauty and joy. We can believe that the customs of the holiday season are good things, and wish to see them perpetuated – of kissing under the mistletoe, of hanging stockings, of decorating a tree, of hanging wreaths and lights, even of exchanging gifts, so long as it is done out of a genuine desire to show love and not out of shallow materialism or a sense of mere obligation. (I confess to some doubts as to whether atheists should deceive their children with the story of Santa Claus. While that tradition, too, has its well-established place, would it not be better to tell them that their gifts come from the love of their caretakers and not from some fictitious supernatural being?) We can appreciate the astronomical and symbolic significance of the winter solstice, shortest day of the year, and the beauty and serene peace of falling asleep during a whirling snowfall and awaking the next morning to see the world made anew beneath a blanket of white. All these things are traditional parts of the season, and we would be poorer without them. As atheists, we can adopt this viewpoint without giving up one scintilla of what defines us and makes our worldview worth fighting for. As I have said elsewhere, in the transition from religion to atheism, we need lose nothing worth holding onto, and we gain much that is good and worthwhile as well.

I will close this essay, and this year, with one of my personal favorite compositions, written by a great man who understood very well the idea of leaving space for the sacred, and whose words ring as true and as beautiful as the day they were first written – Robert Green Ingersoll’s 1897 sermon “What I Want for Christmas“:

“If I had the power to produce exactly what I want for next Christmas, I would have all the kings and emperors resign and allow the people to govern themselves.

I would have all the nobility crop their titles and give their lands back to the people. I would have the Pope throw away his tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not acting for God – is not infallible – but is just an ordinary Italian. I would have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology, nothing about hell or heaven, nothing about the destiny of the human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels. I would have them tell all their ‘flocks’ to think for themselves, to be manly men and womanly women, and to do all in their power to increase the sum of human happiness.

I would have all the professors in colleges, all the teachers in schools of every kind, including those in Sunday schools, agree that they would teach only what they know, that they would not palm off guesses as demonstrated truths.

I would like to see all the politicians changed to statesmen – to men who long to make their country great and free – to men who care more for public good than private gain – men who long to be of use.

I would like to see all the editors of papers and magazines agree to print the truth and nothing but the truth, to avoid all slander and misrepresentation, and to let the private affairs of the people alone.

I would like to see drunkenness and prohibition both abolished.

I would like to see corporal punishment done away with in every home, in every school, in every asylum, reformatory, and prison. Cruelty hardens and degrades, kindness reforms and ennobles.

I would like to see the millionaires unite and form a trust for the public good.

I would like to see a fair division of profits between capital and labor, so that the toiler could save enough to mingle a little June with the December of his life.

I would like to see an international court established in which to settle disputes between nations, so that armies could be disbanded and the great navies allowed to rust and rot in perfect peace.

I would like to see the whole world free – free from injustice – free from superstition.

This will do for next Christmas. The following Christmas, I may want more.”

May all my readers, as well as all other people everywhere, enjoy good cheer and joyful companionship this holiday season, and hope and happiness in the new year ahead.