Should Humanists Celebrate Christmas? Readers Share their Thoughts

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Special thanks to readers who answered Senior Editor Maggie Ardiente’s question last week about humanists celebrating Christmas! We received a wide variety of opinions from across the spectrum, making for a cheerfully lively discussion! Due to the large volume of responses we received, we regret that we could not publish them all.

What do you think? Read responses below and sound off in our poll & the comments.

Before there was Christmas, there were all the versions of the Midwinter Festival. One of these, the Roman festival of Sol Invictus (‘the Unconquered Sun’ who at Midwinter begins his triumphal return), was celebrated on December 25, and purloined by Roman Christians in the 4th century as the date of Jesus’ birthday.

So what? Thanks to the Enlightenment, colonialism, Charles Dickens, Coke’s art department, various commercial imperatives around the world, and human nature, the Midwinter Festival is alive and well.

It’s the season – the only season – of universal goodwill to all our fellow humans, of cards and greetings, of hospitality, parties and excesses, of gifts, of rituals ranging from trees, stars, sleighs, and baubles to food, mixing the cake, and hanging the stockings. What on earth has humanism to gain by opposing, or carping at the forms of, the one great international festival celebrating all of us?

May the spirit of Yuletide be with us!
Duncan McIntyre

I have always personally objected to the modern day commercialism of Christmas. Now that my children are grown up,I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore. I celebrate winter solstice. I celebrate that the days are doing to get longer and spring is on the way. Up north it is a pleasant way for friends to get together and share time indoors when the weather is cold.

The Christian church co-opted many other religions that celebrated winter solstice. There is no documented proof that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. I think they just picked that day in the council of Nicaea 325 AD, when Easter was created and it was decided that Jesus the Son had been ‘begotten’ by the Father from his own being, with no beginning. So where did Christmas come from? It is all twisted logic, or rather no logic at all. I’ll stick to “winter solstice” and tell everyone “season’s greetings”.
—Bill Orr

I celebrate solstice. Humans have been celebrating solstice in all of our religions since we figured out that light and warmth don’t just keep going away. Who cares what our neighbors call it as long as we get together to laugh and share?

I loosely celebrate Christmas, but like most people–even self-identifying Christians or people with residual Christian faith–it is simply an excuse to enjoy myself, spend time with friends and family, and take a few days off from work. It doesn’t hurt to aspire to greater feelings of goodwill toward my fellow human beings or to be more generous of spirit and money. While it’s true that Christmas is a Christian/religious holiday, nobody can deny that the religious overtones and connection to Jesus has been weakened, and continue to grow weaker over time. I celebrate Christmas on my own terms, without any sense of guilt or obligation to spiritual authority.

It’s fun to celebrate Christmas as a humanist because it gives me an opportunity to experience tradition and mythos that my personal philosophy otherwise explains as absurd or silly–in much the same way that reading fiction and watching movies allows an enjoyable, vicarious experience of situations and mindsets that I would consider unethical, impossible, impractical, or harmful in real life. That is one reason I find alternative celebrations like HumanLight to be hokey. Why try to ascribe seriousness to something that should not have been taken seriously in the first place? In Ancient Rome, Saturnalia was a time of absurdity and carnival. It was a rollicking good time.

To me, it seems like good atheist policy to continue celebrating Christmas by focusing on the non-religious aspects, even if that includes strengthening its commercial and consumerism aspects, and pushing the celebration toward its Pagan and secular roots. Of course, it is perfectly fine not to celebrate Christmas at all, with plenty of good reasoning. Regardless, we should all try to have a little fun, so why not do it together at the same time?
Alex C.

I am totally, completely against Christmas. It is a terrible holiday that makes people into greedy consumers. It is even worse if an atheist or humanist celebrates it because we lose credibility. God-worshipers laugh at us because we become “December Christians.” How will anyone take us seriously if we can’t give up this silly holiday? How often are we accused of really believing in God?

The most damaging thing of all is that for most people, Christmas is the first experience they have with religion. If they cannot see people not buying into Christmas, why shouldn’t they? How can we get people to renounce religion if they see us celebrating the biggest holiday on the Christian calendar? They will see us as hypocrites.

I have been Christmas-free for almost thirty years now. I give and accept birthday gifts but not Christmas gifts. I work on Christmas if I can. I love it! No dragging myself to stores to fight crowds in the cold or attending parties I hate. Be true to your ethics and give up Christmas. It is a freeing experience.
Jim MacIver

As a humanist, I strongly support critical analysis. One of the dangers in faulty reasoning that is brought to light through critical analysis is the false presentation of an issue as binary (either/or). For many issues the “right answer” is somewhere on a spectrum. In this case, it should be a both/and scenario.

Christmas can and should have some very positive aspects to it.  It is a time of giving, of caring, of compassion, of providing pleasures to other people, of enjoying the humanities such as music. These are experiences of Christmas on the micro-level.  To damn Christmas at the macro level, because of some possibly wrong practices is wrong.

Deciding whether to celebrate Christmas should not be an either/or or a yes/no decision. The right question is: how can we celebrate Christmas in the best way to promote the well-being of ourselves and others?
David Kimball

I never celebrated Christmas as a fundamentalist Christian because of its Pagan origin. In my early forties, I enjoyed celebrating it as a religious holiday as a member of a mainline Protestant church. Since my de-conversion, I still enjoy the music (secular and traditional), decorations, sharing of food, giving of gifts, and especially making it fun for my grandchildren. If people want to reinvent Christmas and try to establish new traditions, they are welcome to do so. Its Pagan origin is partly what redeems Christmas as a holiday for me. Happy holidays!
Kathleen Kakacek

For a long time I was very “grinchy” about Christmas, especially because I identified as Wiccan/Pagan. I refused to celebrate it by opting for Yuletide (which was really just Christmas with extra chocolate cake and seasonal focus). Over the years as I became more skeptical of religions in general, I decided that Christmas was a time to focus on my loved ones and reflect on my actions, goals, and future. I don’t really care if it’s Christmas, Yule, or the generic “holidays.” I spend my time making memories with my family and giving meaningful gifts.

But really, we should give Thanksgiving its time to shine. Put the tree up the day after Turkey Day!
Rizzo Johnson

This is a conundrum for me. I celebrated Christmas for sixty-four years and then I became a humanist. Yet it is a lifetime tradition that includes ornaments I collected each year and carols I know by heart. I no longer participate in the commercialism of Christmas, but I always give invisibly by grabbing a tag with a child’s name from giving trees. I buy friends gifts from service organizations, like animals from Heifer International, service gifts from Seva, or donations to classrooms for teachers all over the world. It still remains a good season to focus on caring for others. I struggle with the Christmas tree, but will probably put it up again. Beautiful lights at this time of year remain a hopeful symbol.
Renee DesRosiers

I understand the desire to indulge in the merriment surrounding this time of year, but I think atheists, anti-religionists, and those who are not burdened with the curse of Christianity have a responsibility to dismiss, even disparage when appropriate, this silliness about the Christian reason for this celebration. To those whom I choose not to offend, I try to avoid discussion of the “meaning of Christmas.” I generally go skiing and share the slope with people whom I can openly laugh at the freedom we have from this charade.

I don’t find that many people behave any differently in this supposed “time of good cheer.” In fact, many are stressed out over the preparations. It’s nice to not have to endure the shopping mall and big box stores. Some have labeled me as a “Grinch” or “Scrooge,” which I gladly self-identify as during this period, though I have to point out that these characters supposedly changed their behavior just because of the holiday. On December 26, Christians return to their characteristic behaviors, rather than permanently change their behavior to be charitable all the time.

I’ve come to feel this way after having raised children with two different spouses, so I’m well aware of the pressure and social constructs employed by schools, stores, well-intentioned strangers, friends, and family that compel youngsters to demand the trappings of Christmas.

Everyone has a duty to try and substitute some other reason for holiday cheer than the insipid fairy tale foisted on us by Christians and the toy industry. Poking fun at the Christian myth is my joy. Enjoying lights and festivity for any reason is fine as long as it’s reflecting something other than Christmas!

Like everyone, I was born an atheist. Fortunately, I was raised in a home without religious teachings, but we always celebrated Christmas. Why not? It was a time of fun, family, friends, music, food, and presents. Christmas may have begun as a religious holiday, but it has transcended that. Over the years, it has become a cultural holiday in America.

Christian sects in early America didn’t always celebrate Christmas. It was viewed as an undignified celebration by early Puritan settlers and was later dismissed as a chiefly British holiday by those who had just fought for our country’s independence. It finally took hold in the latter part of the 19th century as immigrants brought their various holiday customs to America.

The U.S. declared Christmas a federal holiday in 1885. Since we have a separation of church and state, the holiday cannot be religious, right? There are no religious holidays among the list of federal holidays. It follows, logically, that Christmas must—in the legal eyes of the United States Code (5 U.S.C. 6103)—be a cultural holiday.

Most of the customs we associate with Christmas—carols, evergreen trees, yuletide, decorations, gift giving—all have their roots with secular celebrations, many predating Christianity.

Many Christmas carols are secular in nature, too.  “White Christmas” is still one of the most popular songs of the season.  Along with that, we enjoy “Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Song,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and many children’s favorites, like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty, the Snowman,” and more.

Given the nature of its pagan, winter solstice festival roots, why shouldn’t Christmas evolve into a cultural holiday for all? It’s coming full circle, and I am fine with that!
Bob Beecher