What Does Christmas Mean For Atheists?
Presented at the regular services of The North Texas Church of Freethought on December 7th, 1997
Someone asked me this the other day. Someone who should even know better.
For thousands of years before the time that Jesus Christ is supposed to have lived, this time of year has been celebrated. Did people used to ask the ancient Jews what this holiday means for them? Hanukah, after all, commemorates events which did not take place until 165 B.C.E. (the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus Epiphanes and the rededication of the Temple at Jerusalem). Even for many hundreds of years after the New Testament Gospels were written, Christians knew nothing of Christmas. Were they asked what the Winter Solstice and the Saturnalia and New Year meant to them?
Christmas is no more — and no less — than an age-old marking of the passage of time. It just happens to be attached to the Winter Solstice, which this year occurs on December 21st at precisely 2:07 PM Central Standard Time. At one time (before the importation of fresh produce from Central and South America), this particular event was of major importance because it marked the return of the life-giving sun to the skies of the northern hemisphere. But a day and/or a time of year for marking the passing away of the year past and the commencing of the next could be attached to any day of the year, really. The point is that we have it.
Children wish that every day was Christmas. They can be forgiven because they don't mind getting older and, besides, they like to have fun and get toys and, best of all, attention. Adults know better. They know that every day can't be Christmas and it would be pure hell if it were. Maybe that's why "Santa" is just a transposition of the letters of "Satan." But if every day can't be Christmas, it's a very very good thing that we do have Christmas at least once a year.
Time goes by so quickly, it sometimes seems. It's so easy to lose track of people, even people who are very near and dear to us, or people we think of as being near and dear to us or people we wish were nearer and dearer to us than they really are. It's so easy to lose sight of the important things in life. All too easy. And then life is gone altogether. Having others who are near and dear to us is what it's all about, isn't it? It's a major part of what goes into human happiness.
That's what Christmas is all about. It's about stopping to make the time for what we sometimes think we don't have time for. Things like being jolly. Peace and goodwill towards all. Generosity. Caring. And, yes, crass commercialism: enjoying the material benefits that our imagination, our ambition, our ingenuity, and our hard work can bring us.
Only an idiot would say that it's better not to put much value on these things. Better to hate one's mother and father and sister and brother. Better to sell everything and be poor — just imagine what prices would be if everyone did this. Better to take no thought for the morrow. Better to suffer. Better to be meekly servile, and obediently passive. Better to have faith than to know something for a fact by virtue of the evidence of one's own senses. Yet it is an idiot who supposedly gave such advice that we are expected by certain people to suppose is "the reason for the season."
I say — and Freethinkers everywhere ought to join me in saying — that talking about "the reason for the season" has got the whole matter absolutely backwards! We recognize theseason — every season, for that matter — because of reason. Likewise, it is our human intelligence that should prompt us to stop and consider what's really important to us because another year's passed and if we don't do it now we'll never do it.
People who try to attach some superstitious religious importance to this time of year and call it "the reason for the season" are making a colossal mistake. For it is irrational, unkind, and very harmful to, in effect, claim an exclusive control over the meaning and significance of a universal human holiday. It is even worse — criminal, really — to try to use that control to exclude people and deny them what rightly belongs to everyone. It is, in fact, the antithesis of "The Christmas Spirit."
But it is almost as irrational, unkind, and certainly very harmful as well for Freethinkers to allow superstitionists to get away with it. And it is so easy not to let them get away with it, too.
Remember that Dr. Seuss story of How The Grinch Stole Christmas? Do you remember how that story ended, with the Grinch's victims, whom he had robbed of all that he thought amounted to their Christmas, going on with their Christmas anyway? Dr. Seuss had the Grinch put everything right in the end, and that's a nice thought. I don't know how reasonable it is to think that people who try to steal Christmas from others are going to be easily shamed into giving back their ill-gotten gains. But I do know this: that it really doesn't matter. Because the truth is that Freethinkers can celebrate Christmas. We can show those who think that they can deprive us of the real significance of the winter holiday season that it won't work. We can show them that they can no more have their way in this by insisting silly things than they can have anything else by insisting silly things.
I'm here to tell you that Atheists can have Christmas. We can have Christmas because Christmas is ours as much as it's anyone else's.
Thank you and Good Morning.