Can Atheists Celebrate Christmas?

Can Atheists Celebrate Christmas? November 30, 2016

CulpeperBaptistby Bruce Gerencser cross posted from his blog The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser

Growing up in an Evangelical home, I knew that Christmas was all about the birth of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Gifts were sparse, often just two or three packages, but never far from view was the most wondrous gift of all, salvation through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The churches I attended spent significant time each holiday season reminding congregants that Jesus was the reason for the season. Sermons against Santa Claus, consumerism, and idolatry were common, as were pleas for money to help the poor and disadvantaged.

Polly and I started dating in September 1976. On Christmas Eve of that year I drove from my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio to Newark to meet Polly’s parents and attend her family’s Christmas gathering. This was the first time I had the opportunity to be alone with Polly, and we took advantage of it, using trips to the apartment complex’s laundry room to get as much kissing in as possible before returning to Midwestern Baptist College and its thou-shalt-not-touch six-inch rule. The family gathering was held at the home of Polly’s aunt and uncle, Jim and Linda Dennis. Jim was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Prior to gathering at their house, we dutifully attended the Christmas Eve service at the Baptist Temple. During the service, Polly’s uncle decided to thoroughly embarrass both of us by pointing out that Polly had a special visitor with her. He then said, “Bruce and Polly have a shirt tail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirt tail is.” I can imagine Polly’s Mom saying to herself, not very long if I have anything to do with it.

After Christmas Eve service, we drove over to the Dennis’ home. As I walked in the door, I couldn’t help but notice the largest pile of Christmas gifts I had ever seen in my life. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but it was quite evident that receiving a lot of gifts came in a close second. Prior to the gift-giving orgy, someone — I can’t remember who — gave a quick devotional, reminding all of us, yet again, as if we haven’t heard before, that Christmas was all about Jesus — his virgin birth, death on the cross, resurrection from the dead. Once the Sermonette for Christianettes® was duly delivered, it was time for the gifts to be distributed. Polly and I had already traded gifts, so I didn’t expect anything for myself. I was surprised (and embarrassed), then, to receive a gift from Polly’s parents — a leather belt.

After Polly and I married, we settled into a holiday routine that had us celebrating Christmas Eve with her family and Christmas Day with mine. Things continue this way until the late 1980s. I had stumbled upon material that purported to reveal the pagan history and true meaning of Christmas. Wanting to be obedient to Christ and untainted by the world, I decided, as the head of the home, that we would no longer practice Christmas. I can only imagine how heartbroken Polly was when I gathered up all of her Christmas decorations and donated them to Goodwill. I did make an allowance for us attending family Christmas gatherings. We bought no gifts for our children, treating Christmas as if it were just another day. For several years, our family drove to the Charity Rescue Mission in Columbus to help serve food to the homeless. Several families from the church I was pastoring at the time — Somerset Baptist Church — went with us. While I deeply regret becoming the Grinch that stole Christmas, I do think feeding the homeless put Christmas into perspective.

Somewhere in the 1990s, I realized that you could make Christmas into whatever you wanted it to be. Much to the surprise and delight of our children, we bought a Christmas tree and decorations. We also allowed for limited gift-giving. As I look back on this, I realize that I did with Christmas exactly what the Catholics did when they took a pagan practice and repurposed it for Christian use. Yes, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday, as were many of the practices associated with it, but I believed that such things could be used to further the gospel of Christ and give witness to Jesus. From that point forward, in the churches I pastored I allowed Christmas decoration to be put in the church auditorium. For the next decade, our home and the churches I pastored celebrated Christmas as most other American families and churches did. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but gift-giving was a close second. To assuage the lingering guilt I had over consumer-driven gift-giving, I made sure our family and the churches I pastored gave liberally to missionaries and the poor.

Eight years ago, on the last Sunday in November, Polly and I attended church for the last time. For the longest time, we found it impossible to attend anything remotely associated with religion. We had just gone through a nasty divorce with God, and we didn’t want to go anywhere that would remind us of our ex. After a few years, the distance between deconversion and the present was sufficient that we were able to attend Christmas programs and concerts without wanting to commit homicide. If I remember right, our first foray back into the religious world was attending the production of Handel’s Messiah at a nearby church. That same year, we attended a Christmas concert put on by a Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover band — Siberian Solstice. One of the mainstays of the group is my counselor.

Evangelicals often deride me for practicing Christmas. How can an atheist practice a religious holiday? they ask. Christmas is all about Jesus, and are you being hypocritical if you celebrate a holiday set aside to worship a God you don’t believe in! I suppose that this would be a valid question if the evidence at hand showed me that, indeed, Christmas was all about Jesus and his virgin birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. However, the evidence clearly shows that Christmas is all about family, food, and gift-giving. While many Evangelical churches will attempt to put Christ back in Christmas, most church families will practice Christmas in the same manner as their non-Evangelical neighbors. While Polly’s family still practices Christmas just as they did 40 years ago, it is now evident that the obligatory attendance at the Christmas Eve service and the devotional before presents can be opened are mere formalities — things to be endured until the real reason for Christmas begins.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fall on a Saturday and Sunday this year. It will interesting to see what local churches will do since Christmas falls on Sunday. The last time this happened, many churches held a short Christmas Eve service (so the tithes and offerings could be collected) and canceled Christmas Day services so congregants could spend time with their families. Some Baptist churches who normally held two services on Sunday canceled their Sunday evening service. Of course, wanting to show that they are not like “liberal” churches, a few Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches maintained their regular schedule of services.

As atheists, we thoroughly enjoy the holiday season. In fact, Polly and I both say that Christmas is far more enjoyable now than it was when I was pastoring churches. Quite frankly, the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were so busy that we had little time to enjoy the holidays. Like many Christian churches, who once a year want to show the poor and disadvantaged that they really, really care, we put together several food baskets and delivered them to the poor. (Isn’t it amazing that the poor only need food and help during the holidays?) Not only did we have to do obligatory alms to the poor, we also had to prepare for special services such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. By the time the new year rolled in, Polly and I were quite glad the holidays were over.

These days, we are free to enjoy Christmas without worrying about whether we are giving Jesus his just dues. For Polly and me, Christmas is all about family. We eat lots of food with no worries about waistlines. Polly loves to bake and I love to eat what she bakes, as do our children and grandchildren. For the next month, Christmas songs will waft through the air of our home —  yes, even religious ones. You might be surprised if you stop by to hear us singing Joy to the World, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, or many of the other religious songs associated with Christmas. The lyrics of the songs are but reminders of our cultural heritage. This is why you will also find us singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. For us, family and not Jesus is the reason for the season. If Christians want to focus on Jesus during Christmas, that is certainly their right to do so. However, I refuse to let them ignorantly suggest that Christmas is a Christian-only holiday. When confronted with such historical ignorance, I remind them that Christmas means different things to different people. It is a holiday that should bind all of us together, reminding us of the blessings of family and our common heritage. Evangelicals who stupidly say that there is a war against Christmas deserve a double barrel gun salute. There is no war against Christmas, and no matter how many times Sean Hannity says that there is, the fact remains that Christmas is a religious and a secular holiday. Christians are free to worship the baby Jesus and sing praises to his name, the rest of us are free to practice Christmas without the religious garb.

How do you practice Christmas now that you no longer a Christian? Are the holidays stressful for you? Do you still attend Christmas services? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

moreRead more by Bruce Gerencser:

The Emotional Effects of Divorcing God


Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Bruce Gerencser blogs at The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser He writes from the unique perspective of having been a pastor for many years and having seen it all in churches. His journey out of being a true believer and pastor has been an interesting and informative one.

Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 35 years. They have six children, and eleven grandchildren.

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  • SAO

    I really like the way Russians do it. They decorate a New Years tree and exchange the presents under it in a big family celebration. Grandfather Frost, who has a long white beard and a red suit trimmed with white fur also gives presents, with his assistant Snegoruchka (Snowella). Christmas Day (January 7th) is a religious holiday that the devout spend in church and everyone else just has a day off.

    It’s a legacy of Communism, where the communists didn’t want anyone to celebrate Christmas, but couldn’t kill the trappings, so they moved it to New Years. But it means no one is confusing the celebration with anything to do with God.

    My religion dwindled away without my really noticing, so our Christmas didn’t change much. It was more the addition of husbands and poor timing of our church’s candlelight service that made us drop it.

    My view is that I can celebrate Christ’s message of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men and women without believing He is real. After all, I don’t believe in Santa Claus, either.

  • katiehippie

    I haven’t gone to church for 4 years now (except funerals) and my ex had ruined Christmas for me many years before that. Now I’ve moved in with my boyfriend and as he hasn’t had many traditions, we can start making our own. I look forward to that.

  • texassa

    Christmas has become a secular holiday. Much like marriage, it can have religious ties or not.

  • Nightshade

    Celebrate whatever, however you want, atheist or not!

    That being said, I actually enjoy Christmas more now that I’ve discarded the religious crap. No obsessing over whether the celebration is honoring the ‘reason for the season,’ none of that ‘gotta read the Christmas story before opening presents,’ no worrying about the tree being a pagan tradition. It’s just fun now!

  • Astrin Ymris

    According to Stephen Nissenbaum, there was an American folk custom of exchanging gifts and visits on New Year’s day which preceded what we think of today as a “traditional Christmas”.

    The two holidays have always been sort of intermingled. They were both once included in the Twelve Days of Christmas, after all. ;-D

  • Hannah

    In the UK everyone celebrates Christmas (or at least it feels like they do.) There was a newspaper article where they spoke to families of different faiths who had put up Christmas trees and were planning festivities. It’s so ingrained into our culture now. It’s gone back to how it used to be pre Christianity, when we had Yule on the shortest day of the year as a way to break up the winter and have a party while looking forward to spring. I still think some people go way overboard and get far too stressed about it though!

    I’m going to church on Christmas morning, our church does have a Christmas service but I never go to it, but it’s a Sunday so I shall. Instead of three hours it’ll only be one though!

  • guest

    In Spanish tradition, gifts are exchanged on Three Kings’ Day, or Epiphany (January 6th). Children are told that the Three Kings bring gifts to all children who were “good” throughout the year and those who were “bad” only get coal. I bought my kids some candy coal last year when we were in Spain for Christmas and I put it into one of their shoes for Three Kings’ morning. Our breakfast was a Roscón de Reyes (traditional yeast cake baked in the shape of an oval wheel).
    Yes, it was all about gifts, food and candy. Their Three Kings’ Day gift, three little hamsters, escaped from the cage causing quite an uproar that morning!

  • Astrin Ymris

    BTW, has anyone but me noticed a lot of trouble in getting onto Patheos using a Mozilla Firefox browser?

  • Suzanne Harper Titkemeyer

    It does not like Firefox. It’s what I use too and it sometimes hangs up my browser. I’ve complained so hopefully they’ll resolve it soon.

  • Astrin Ymris

    We can only hope! I prefer Firefox, but I’ve been using Chrome as a stopgap.

  • zizania

    There was never any religion involved in my family’s Christmas celebrations. It was a day to get together with various relatives, exchange gifts, and eat ourselves silly. (Fortunately my family wasn’t much into heavy drinking – our tipple of choice was and still is cranberry juice mixed with gingerale.) My husband’s family was pretty much the same. Living on an extremely limited income has caused us to give up buying gifts for anyone outside the immediate family, which now includes our son’s girlfriend. Last year they went to her mother’s place for Christmas dinner and we had them over for his Dad’s birthday on the 28th, and we will probably do the same this year. Living in a small, isolated town means that we seldom see anyone from our extended families. Son and GF have decided not to have children, so we’ll be spared the temptation of being indulgent grandparents. And no, we don’t buy gifts for the dog, although she ends up with some pretty tasty leftovers. By the way, this will be my first Christmas after my diabetes diagnosis. Not going to be easy.

  • ShinyZubat

    My Christmases haven’t been religious in nature ever since my parents figured taking five kids to mass in the morning was too much work. We tried Xmas Eve mass for a while, but as soon as one person was allowed to stay home, the rest of us wanted to as well, and it was all over. I like it better this way. 🙂

    All I want my Christmases to have is a few nice decorations, some food, and as many family members as we can get together. Presents are a nice bonus. No Jesus stuff needed though.

  • Aloha

    What a really nice article – telling the story of your many Christmases. I also think it’s easier to celebrate without the load of guilt that you’re not honoring Christ enough, or needing to take spare chances to convert non-believers.

    These days, I don’t question what Christmas is really about. I just enjoy the festivities, family and fun. In the Northern hemisphere, it’s nice to have a warm indoor holiday during winter. When we lived in the Southern hemisphere, I enjoyed Christmas for its familiarity in a foreign country.

    I hope that this Christmas is special to everyone!

  • Sameera Sheikh

    i know far more muslims who consider it a religious holiday and dont celebrate then actual christians who do
    i’m muslim but we have the tree, presents and trip to local church in the morning to listen to service before meeting up with friends for lunch