What Christmas Means To An Atheist

I celebrate Christmas in a pretty normal way. The day after Thanksgiving, before the last bit of turkey has been reheated and scarfed down shamefully, I put on some Christmas music, pick a place in the living room, assemble a plastic tree, making sure each branch is arranged in a natural way, string it up with lights and ornaments, and hang the stockings. I put out the decorations, and if I feel there’s something missing, it’s off to the store for more. (This year I scored a legit nutcracker and a snow globe that plays “Jingle Bell Rock.”) Then I drink eggnog and stare at it all like Clark W. Griswold himself.

What’s weird about my Christmas tradition is that I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in a god. I don’t believe the story about the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus in the manger. Not the star and the Magi. And I certainly don’t believe in Santa Claus, elves and the flying reindeer.

But none of that keeps me from going H.A.M. every December, because I focus, like most nonbelievers who celebrate the holiday, on the universal message of the season: “Peace on earth, and goodwill toward men.” Sure, the words are taken from Luke, but you don’t have to be a Christian, Jew or Muslim to know it’s good to be good. You just have to believe in mankind.

Believers view nonbelievers as a bunch of nihilistic pessimists who see the universe as half empty and think all bets are off because there’s no afterlife. But they couldn’t be more wrong — well, more wrong than they are already, that is.

Atheists aren’t looking to a father in heaven to make things right. Instead we look to one another to do what the Bible and the Vedas and Mill and Rousseau and Locke and Plato and nearly every philosopher has suggested we do since the beginning of time: to be good to your neighbors and treat others kindly.

Children need Santa and some adults need Jesus to remind them to be good, at least one month out of the year. Secular humanists, on the other hand, try to be good year-round merely for the sake of contributing a bit of peace and goodness to the world. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of Christians who take Jesus’ message to heart and try to embody Christ through acts of charity and by loving, actually showing love, toward perfect strangers. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t need Jesus or the Bible to convince you that peace and brotherhood is the road that leads to universal happiness. In fact, I’m here as an example.

And yet, even if you don’t believe that an atheist can be filled with the spirit of Christmas 365 days a year, you only have to look to yourself for evidence. Besides the commercialism, doesn’t Christmas seem like a nicer time of year? Doesn’t it feel good to donate to charity or surprise someone with a gift, however large or small? Don’t you like watching the mean ol’ Grinch’s heart grow three sizes, or see George Bailey scramble through the snow with a new-found appreciation for life? And who doesn’t feel a warm glow in their hearts when they witness the transformation of Ebeneezer Scrooge from greedy penny-pincher to the charitable keeper of his fellow man?

What makes Dickens’ story the Christmas classic that it is has little to do with God or Jesus.When Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning and is suddenly a changed man, we don’t cheer his second shot at entering the pearly gates. We’re not happy to see that his soul has been saved — at least I’m not. Instead, it’s the transform from bad to good, from miserable to joyful, that fills our hearts. When Scrooge tells a passing boy to buy the big goose hanging in the shop window and deliver it to Bob Cratchit’s house, we’re delighted to see that Scrooge has finally understood the true meaning of Christmas: that we should be good to each other, not only on the 25th of December, but every day of the year. (Incidentally, Dickens himself was something of a secular Christian, not a religious one.)

I think atheists and believers alike enjoy the holiday season because it offers a glance at what civilization could be, if only we were all filled with the Christmas spirit all the time. We look around and see people singing and giving, caring for family, friends and neighbors, but also caring for the poor, the sick, the homeless and the less fortunate.

That’s why I celebrate Christmas, because it brings out the best in those who observe it. It softens us and fills us with hope. As long as that’s the true meaning Christmas, I hope it always lasts.

So I say, Merry Christmas. Let their be Christmas trees and songs about Santa, but let there first be peace on earth, and goodwill toward men.

[Photo: Joe Buckingham via Flickr]