I’m an atheist and have been for a long time, so why do I celebrate Christmas?
Well, I don’t celebrate the Christian part, but then I also feel like that’s the least significant element of this time of year. People have had mid-winter festivals since there were people: having a party in the middle of winter to lighten the otherwise depressing mood and mark the turn of the year is important. Indeed, the history of Christmas is that that it was moved to the middle of the northern winter* to coincide with existing mid-winter festivals (an effective approach repeated with other pagan festivals).
There are many parts of this time of year that are admirable: the family togetherness, the spirit of giving (whether to loved ones or to charity), and the feeling of community – these are all secular values worth celebrating. I don’t need to be Christian to join that celebration, and in those terms I consider Christmas to be a handy marker for when that communal celebration is going to happen.
And this use of the season as a marker reaches to the heart of why I celebrate Christmas: I grew up in a culture which celebrates Christmas on 25th December, and I live in a place where the same date is used for the festival. If I had grown up in Russia or Greece I might follow the Orthodox calendar for the day itself, or give gifts on Christmas Eve.
In other words, I celebrate at the culturally consonant time. If I invented another festival that would be fine*** but festivals are best when celebrated en masse – as un-tribal as I am, there’s a lot to be said for communal jollity. Just as Christmas colonised the winter festivals of the pagans, I choose to appropriate the elements of Christmas which fit the celebration I want to have.
And so the Christmas lasagne**** is ready to be cooked, and the Chocolate Elf has made his last visit of the season, and we gear up to deal with our families in whatever way is appropriate.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
[*] I am sure that if the world’s most aggressive cultural exporters had been from the southern hemisphere, then Christmas would be in June**.
[**] or whatever calendrial artifact would contain the southern winter solstice.
[***] Festivus, anyone?
[****] which is so much less work on the day than turkey!