Thursday, December 22, 2011

Atheist Christmas

I have posted here about my atheism before. It's a topic I tend to think about a lot at this time of year when various religions celebrate their solstice-based holidays. I am fully comfortable with my own atheism, but not everyone else always is. What can be puzzling to some are my reasons for celebrating Christmas wholeheartedly while dismissing Christmas.

My answer is simple: Christmas is not a Christian holiday. It is just a renamed pagan festival.

Before I go any further, I will give my usual disclaimers when it comes to religion. I am not some sort of atheist proselytizer. I have a very live-and-let-live approach to personal beliefs. I believe what I believe, and you can believe whatever you like, as long as you do me the same courtesy in return. But I will explain my own beliefs and conclusions about the nature of reality and how I came to them.

Christmas comes on December 25 each year. This date has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. It is not Jesus's birthday. The early church made an active attempt to replace pre-Christian holidays with Christian ones by overlaying a Christian meaning on a pre-existing festival. That's how we ended up with holiday traditions that are decidedly not related to Christianity - Christmas trees at Christmas, for instance, or the Easter Bunny (or even the name "Easter" which comes from the name of a pre-Christian goddess).

In my family growing up, which was nominally Catholic but quite lax about it, we never really talked about Christ on Christmas. It was all about decorations and food and presents (especially presents). It was always a fun day for me and I have many great memories of Christmas. My own kids enjoy it as much as I did, though I have never made any attempt to associate the day with Christianity. It is simply a fun day to get gifts from Santa.

Ah yes, Santa. Let me step aside to address that for a moment. Do you sense a sort of hypocrisy in my telling my kids there's a Santa Claus while not telling them there is a God? Why does Santa seem so much more benign to me? It's a fair question, but one that is not difficult to answer (at least to my own satisfaction).

Santa Claus is not a belief system. There is no set of dogma associated with him, and his existence or non-existence affects little about one's understanding of the nature of reality. He is not some end-all-be-all source of wisdom. He's just a guy who gives gifts. I don't mind allowing my kids to believe in myths. I enjoy cultivating their imaginations, and it is fun for them. But I do not feel comfortable telling them that there is some sort of God who is the explanation behind everything everywhere. I feel like that stunts their inquisitiveness. The explanation "because God made it that way" cuts off further digging, and I want them to dig further. I want them to seek knowledge and not stop at the first potential answer they get.

Anyway, back on the topic of Christmas, it is a holiday for me that is more of a cultural tradition than a religious one. I roll my eyes when I hear people talk about "the real meaning of Christmas". The real meaning of Christmas is, in our modern world, increased revenue for retail outlets. Whatever meaning the Catholics and their offshoots have grafted onto the holiday, that is not the "real meaning". It's just an imposed one.

I suppose any meaning is an imposed one, really. That's what we do - we impose meanings on days and objects and events that help us divide and differentiate the continuum of our lives so we can try to make sense of it all.

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