Published on December 11th, 2014 | by Katy Evans0
Confessions of a Christmas-loving American atheist
Originally published December 21, 2013
Christmas has always been my shining beacon – a celebration brandished as a glittering torch at the burdensome void of dark Northwest winters.
And long ago, for me it also had a little something to do with the birth of a savior, with something holy, with a different magic than the pagan or the commercial. Although I now operate as an atheist, this doesn’t mean I shy from wonder, mystery, and iconography, and most certainly doesn’t mean I forgo Christmas.
I grew up in a non-denominational Christian church and always found the miraculous and the magical aspects of Christ and his teachings to be much more aligned with my way of thinking than anything along the guilt and punishment side of faith.
I’m not sure how I managed to ignore so many of the disciplined, ascetic aspects of Christianity; although I embraced the rules that kept me safe, I was very capable of overlooking anything that felt too authoritarian or gave me any real pause about my own culpability. Maybe it’s because I was a good kid and knew it; I never felt that my ideas about learning, sexuality, or personal expression were a breach of faith, or that asking questions about religion was problematic. In fact, as a teenager I was honored with the “Devil’s Advocate” award by my Confirmation youth group.
The end of my faith was inspired by many elements (familial, philosophical, scientific, internal) but ultimately I found myself without a savior and scrutinizing many of the traditions I had always taken for granted. Could I still love Christmas without belief?
Yes, the moniker is decidedly Christian, specifically derived from the 1038 Old English term “Cristes Maesse,” but its origins are decidedly more complex. According to British historian Ronald Hutton:
“The trappings of the modern Christmas may be relatively recent, but the basic observation of the festive season hasn’t changed since history began. It depends on certain basic human needs. One is the obvious: for light, warmth, greenery, and merrymaking in the darkest, coldest and most dismal time of the year. Ever since records begin which in the case of Rome is way before Christianity people have reacted to it by taking a break at the darkest point in which to feast, booze, party, light, and heat up their homes, and bring in whatever plants are still green to decorate their walls.
“It is also the traditional beginning of the new calendar year for most if not all of the peoples of Europe, and so a great time for blessing, of people, homes and farms, to bring them good fortune in the year to come. This is where Christmas presents come from, having been New Year’s gifts until the 19th century.
“Another timeless need of the season is for charity. This was, after all, a period when the poorest, oldest and feeblest members of a community would become physically vulnerable to hunger and cold…In the Middle Ages poor women and children would go from door to door asking for gifts. The fitter men from the poorer families would visit their wealthier neighbours with plays, dances or songs, and earn the goodies in return; that is why customs such as mummers’ plays, sword dances and carols are so important at this time. Finally, the season has always been associated with fun…because short daylight, cold and deep mud meant that armies, robbers and pirates stayed at home. People could therefore afford to relax and let their hair down in a way impossible at other times of the year.”
We may call it Christmas in America but the celebration – much as it is everywhere in the world – is wholly an amalgamation.
Although early Christians shunned the observance of birthdays, eventually a Nativity Feast Day found its way onto the Liturgical calendar, conveniently corresponding with the solstice traditions of polytheistic cultures such as the Sumerians, Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks.
And in spite of this inclusion Christmas remained contentious: 17th century English Protestant Puritans loathed the celebration for its “papist” name and outlawed its celebration. Thanks to the intrepid Pilgrims, this attitude established itself in America, where Puritans and non would clash each December.
From 1658-1681 Christmas was outlawed in Boston, and after the American Revolution, fell out of favor in the new nation due to its association with British traditions.
It wasn’t until 1870 that the United States Congress proclaimed Christmas a holiday. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum contends our modern American celebration evolved from an attempt to refocus the holiday on the happiness and needs of children in order to halt the practice of groups of young men going from house to house demanding alcohol and food.
“Some of the things people lament, the presumed ills of modern Christmas like over-indulgence of food and drink, are actually its truest traditions…Boundaries were tested and social hierarchy inverted as the poor made demands on the rich. Wren boys, wassailing, carolling are all very old traditions that included plenty of drink, sexual escapades, and some fairly aggressive begging…For thousands of years, revelry and excess was the popular form of celebration, opposed first by the Church and later the emerging middle classes.
“The history of Christmas is also a history of religious and class conflict. Powerful interests have always tried to co-opt real human needs, and the battle to control this festival is an example of that. The Church tried to christianise it, the Victorians wanted to make it respectable, and then a group of New Yorkers invented the domestic idyll and Santa Claus. And from the latter grew modern consumer society.”
Now, American Christmas is a mid-wintery mix defined by English nostalgia thanks to Washington Irving (who celebrated Christmas through literature even before Dickens); German customs, (popularized by the Pennsylvania Dutch), economy, Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby, Norman Rockwell, world wars fatigue and recovery, pop culture, and many other historically weighty, culturally tangled elements.
Ricocheting each December between our historical pagan indulgences, our penchant for Puritanical repression, our commercial urges, and our seasonal affective disorder, Christmas in America (and Christmas for me) continues, even without direct inclusion of religion, to mean a lot more than an excuse to eat sugar, sing songs, and bedazzle my abode.
We may call it after Christ but in the face of the complex, compounding history of our need to commemorate and survive midwinter, our secular history is just as important. As much as we, each year, reassure ourselves that light, abundance, and warmth will return, we must also face the fact that light, abundance, and warmth aren’t here now and for many they never are.
It’s a lot to consider and for those of us seeking meaning in our celebration, this consideration necessitates both revelry and revery. For some this easily translates into faith. And although my Christmastime observances aren’t faith-based (and amount to extreme decoration, excess, and movie-watching) I do nevertheless observe. I embrace Christmas as a time to consider the midwinter, to remind myself of what I need, who I care about, and how I can express it.
As our traditions continue to mix and grow, and more and more elements are contributed, we are simply given more tools to craft our rituals. I happily celebrate the midwinter with an ever-expanding cast of characters including Santa Claus, the virgin Mary, Rudolph, Ebenezer Scrooge, Ella Fitzgerald, Frosty, baby Jesus, Krampus, the Grinch, Judy Garland, and Will Ferrell.
Honoring midwinter means seeing our place in a greater cycle, accepting the cold and dark but investing in the hope that one day the light will return.We – the collective human we – have and will always observe the midwinter as the time for fun, for blessings, for considering those less fortunate, and for doing something about it.
If our grand history of brightening the winter can illuminate anything, it’s that in our darkest moments, our base urge is humanist. And this is why I love the season.