Yuletide Comfort for Atheists

I’ve been interested in and slightly amused by recent articles on how to find comfort when one is an atheist, so I thought I’d add my two cents.

I appreciate the fact that group support is especially helpful when one is trying to break away from the nastier coils of religion or from personal problems like addiction. Nevertheless, in more ordinary circumstances, and without other people clustering around, there are comforts for the atheist.

You can probably think of many. Comforts that come to my increasingly simple mind are music, national parks, the American Museum of Natural History, the scientific explanations of the universe, and lots of apples.

But here we are in the Yuletide season, when we are constantly being told in story and song that believing in certain aspects of the supernatural is the greatest comfort. Let me expand on that.

It would be easier on my typing fingers and my ability to sit at the computer if everybody just used Wikipedia—that nice contribution to the health of civilization—to find out about Yuletide, as well as about mythic figures like Santa Claus (St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, etc.) All these have a long history that begins before the whole seasonal thing got mixed up with current religions, when it was more closely connected to the winter solstice.

In my section of the universe, the happy event in mid-winter celebrates the time when the darkness of night stops increasing and starts decreasing as the days grow longer. This event is, I think naturally enough, connected to the human belief in the power of redemption, the turning of bad to good. Primitive people may have thought, “If the year can turn from short days to longer ones, perhaps we too should turn from bad to good!”

Indeed, many winter myths are basically about redemption, as in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I have enjoyed many dramatized versions of that famous story, but perhaps my favorite was seeing Sir Patrick Stewart, on Broadway, do all the parts, even Tiny Tim. I don’t even mind those last words, “God bless us, everyone!” although I know that we had better bless each other, because mythic entities are not very good at it.

This is also the time of year when I reread Hogfather, Sir Terry Pratchett’s brilliantly fantastic fantasy about a Yuletide god who drives a sled pulled by four gigantic hogs, while delivering presents in the stockings and under the Yuletide trees of little children on the fictional Discworld. He also says “Ho, Ho, Ho” a lot.

On Discworld, gods die when no one believes in them, so when the Hogfather goes missing, his job is temporarily performed by Death, one of Pratchett’s more lovable characters, a seven-foot skeleton who carries a scythe and always speaks in capital letters.

Death explains to his adopted granddaughter Susan that he’s doing Hogfather’s job because “HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN…YOU HAVE TO START LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.”

Susan then asked, “So we can believe the big ones?,”


Susan argues with Death that these are not lies, but he disagrees, saying that you’d never find one actual atom of justice or molecule of mercy in the universe…but humans have imagination and “NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME?”

We are not on Discworld, but we make our own myths to tide us over the fear of the unknown, the permanent darkness—and remind us to be just and merciful.

At the time of the darkness diminishing after the winter solstice, what is now known as the Holiday Tree becomes a focus for justice, mercy, and giving to others. This tree has a triangular shape that is supposed to represent the Trinity. I’m certain that the tree, always an evergreen, did not mean that to the first humans who had one. And I don’t think it’s any accident that many non-Christian people have trees brought into the house at this time of year, in a festival of lights or just a string of them around the greenery.

I’m a tree person, myself. I spent most of my childhood up in whichever trees were nearby and climbable, which explains the sense of primate nostalgia I get while watching the young orangutan in the San Diego Zoo who, alas, does not have real trees to climb but swings on a sort of complicated metal arrangement. (But she does have prehensile feet, which I certainly did not have but would have enjoyed in my real trees.)

Anyway, when I was a child I didn’t know about Odin as a pagan precursor of Father Christmas or that my remote ancestors were tree-worshipping pagans when literate monotheism of one sort or another was spreading over the civilized world.

In my childhood we sang Christmas carols, hung up stockings, and even when we lived in small, dismal rented apartments, we had something of a Christmas tree, which got bigger when the Great Depression lifted somewhat.

To celebrate my remotely ancestral paganism, the other day I bought a Holiday tree in the American Folk Art Museum’s store. I was sorely tempted to buy a small potted live tree from L.L. Bean and plant it in January, but the tree I bought is fake, because trying to keep living plants alive in my old age has become a bit much.

This tree cost six dollars, is almost six inches high, and is completely unadorned except for a tiny bit of fake snow on the fake branches. There were miniature trees for sale with shiny red Christmas balls on them, but for me that spoils the pagan aspect.

I also keep telling myself that if I bought a BIG Holiday tree, I’d have less money to improve my sense of comfort in donating to charities that are striving to keep Earth from turning into an unshiny brown ball covered by zillions of dead Homo sapiens who did not get wise soon enough.

Living in the northeast, it is comforting to look at something green—and not just in winter. I am not talking about the green scum our pollution and global warming has brought to so many watery areas of our blue planet.

My tiny tree is a symbol of the way some plants stay green all winter and that chlorophyll is one of the most comforting marvels of evolution. Our lives depend on it, for heaven’s sake.

Which reminds me that one of the comforts of atheism is that we know we won’t fry in hell or cope with relatives in heaven. There’s also the unfortunately uncomfortable comfort in trying to be rational in spite of the cussedness of reality, and in spite of the all too human tendency to give into greed, narcissism, power madness, and exceptionally crazy delusions, usually augmented by guns.

Back to trees. Being able to see the live ones in Central Park is one of the comforts of my life, especially when I notice that there are fresh plantings of young trees. I am quite sure this sort of comfort from trees goes back to pre-human days when we spent all our lives up in them—hoping to avoid tree-dwelling snakes, of course. Surely it’s no accident that there’s a snake in the Garden of Eden. Up a tree.

If we all recognized the ancient comfort from trees, surely we would not let Earth turn totally brown?

Or am I just hankering hopelessly after the comfort of a better future? I won’t live to see it, but I do hope that Homo sap becomes sapiens.

“Comfort and Joy” sing the Xmas hymns, but are they not talking about feeling safe? Feeling certain one is going to get not only Xmas gifts under the green tree, but also life eternal?

I think there is comfort in the acceptance of uncertainty, of life now but not forever, of no ultimate safety.

Be in a group; know that one is part of the human tribe and a part of the universe that’s become aware of itself, with choices to make. But take some comfort in the chilly fact that in the most fundamental way, each of us is alone.

We don’t need to look to gods, even Santa Claus, to keep us feeling connected, though alone. We have to reach out to each other, be as helpful as possible, as rational as possible. In other words, as comforting as possible.

And there can be some comfort in the hard work of trying to cope with illness, disability, and grief, plus the even chillier comfort of giving up when that’s all you can do.

In the meantime, pay attention—the solstice is coming, and the year turns, along with hope. But don’t forget to enjoy the Yuletide green, even if it’s imaginary.