Tuesday, December 7, 2021

An Atheist Christmas? (Yes!) Is Christmas Pagan? (No!)


Note: What follows is a transcript of the video.

It’s that time of year again! When overly zealous Christians like to troll atheists about celebrating a Christmas holiday, and atheist edge lords post memes about Christmas being pagan in origin. 

Is any of it true? Can atheists celebrate Christmas without being hypocrites? Is Christmas really a pagan holiday? 

I’ll tackle the easy question first. 

Yes, atheists can celebrate Christmas even though we believe there is no god, and that Jesus is not the son of god. I put up a tree and lights outside my house last weekend, stuff is hanging in my hallways, the kids are excited, we even have an advent calendar thing for each of my girls to open something each morning in December. Advent is nothing more than “countdown to Christmas” for us, both girls have no idea about anything religious.

Am I being hypocritical? No, because Christmas in its modern incarnation has become just like Halloween.

No one, not even the Christians believe one must make “soul cakes” to distribute out to the poor so as to improve their chances of getting into heaven or that people similarly must leave food for the dead. In the old practice that trick or treat likely evolved from, a close knit community would pretend to not know who the guests were requesting said charity food, and so “guiser masks” were used to hide peoples identity. This is all a very far cry from what we now think of as traditional Halloween costumes and trick or treating. 

These days it’s just a fun holiday that has no real spiritual dimension, but it is celebrated by Christians, Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindu’s, and basically anyone in America - because it’s fun. There is no “reason for the season” in October, even though like Christmas, Halloween has taken over its entire month. 

That’s exactly what Christmas is for atheist families like my own, it’s just a fun tradition that we take the parts we like and discard the religious bits we don’t believe in. You won’t find a manger or nativity, though I am always tempted to put up the stock all white nativity cutout that looks like two T-Rex’s fighting over a table saw. 

My kids get excited, we put up a tree and lights. We make gingerbread houses, we get presents and pictures taken, we have a big meal – but my kids don’t even know the Jesus story. Same thing for Easter really, except then it’s about hiding eggs around the house or yard and the Easter Bunny. 

This concept isn’t hard for Christians to understand, in fact they already do. Have you ever noticed those signs or bumper stickers that say “keep Christ in Christmas”? That’s referring to Christian backlash of exactly the scenario I’m describing. Non-religious traditions are overwhelming the religious aspects of the holiday in the wider culture, to an extreme degree that religious Christians are trying to build a movement to reassert the religious aspects. 

What I’m discussing is exactly what these Christians oppose: we’re taking the fun non-religious aspects dominating our culture and leaving behind the religious aspects. Christmas in a post Christian society will be much like Halloween already is. 

You’ll notice this is a defensive argument, providing an explanation of how non-Christians can enjoy a holiday like Christmas without being hypocritical. 

Unfortunately, I think this defensive posture is taken too far by some popular atheists where they go against the historical evidence and try to claim all these fun non-religious aspects of Christmas are pagan in origin. 

In fact I had shared the same sort of memes and ideas on Twitter and was corrected by Michael Jones of Inspiring Philosophy as well as Tim O’Neill who writes the History for Atheists blog (Tim is an atheist activist from Australia). I largely want to give both men credit for pointing me towards the resources linked below in the comments, and I wanted to put a video out to disseminate these ideas because I believe they’re true. The problem is that there just aren’t any good early sources for a lot of the “pagan appropriation” claims. 

An important aspect here is to draw a distinction between something being biblical or religious in nature, or a tradition that came up as part of a religious celebration that was then added to the holiday.

Certainly, early church fathers that mention Christmas, like Clement or Hippolytus would be baffled at the idea of a fat bearded man in a red suit, a decorated evergreen tree, or the exchange of presents being so closely associated with the birth of Christ.  There is nothing “holy” about our modern Christian traditions because we know what actual Christian holy practices derived from the bible are. Things like consuming bread and wine in communion or the baptism of a person with water are holy sacraments derived from specifically Christian practices recorded in the bible. 

As we will see the development of our modern cherished traditions are far removed from anything religious, but that does not mean they’re pagan in origin either. The real story is far more complicated and messier.

First let’s talk about the dating of Christmas on December 25th. Andrew Mark Henry has a PhD in ancient Christianity and he has written good information on this as well as produced a video on the topic I’ll link in the comments. Effectively there were motivations to get to December 25th because on the ancient Julian calendar that’s when they thought the Winter Solstice occurred (the ancient calendar systems had errors), so there was motivation to put the birth of Jesus on a day of cosmic significance.   Effectively the theory is that by the third century Christians believed that for people with perfect lives (saints, Jesus, etc) died on the same day they were conceived. That’s obviously false, but it’s supposedly what they believed. They calculated Jesus to have died on March 25th, which would have been assumed to be the day of his conception, and if you fast forward 9 months you get to December 25th. 

Was this motivated reasoning? Probably. Was it possibly there to coincide with the Roman festival of Saturnalia? Possibly, but there’s no direct evidence of that. 

In fact Saturnalia is supposedly where Christmas was supposed to have stolen the idea of presents from as well as using evergreen tree limbs as decorations for the feast. The problem with this is that our earliest sources describing Saturnalia celebrations doesn’t mention anything about evergreen decorations.  While they did exchange presents at Saturnalia, the practice died out along with the holiday. Gift exchanges were associated with Saint Nicholas, a 4th century bishop and gift giver, but the celebration of that wasn’t widespread in Christian countries, and when it was, it happened early in December on St. Nicholas Day on Dec 6th or around New Years eve. It was only in the 1800’s with stories and poems like “A Christmas Carol” or “The Night Before Christmas” that the practice got moved to Christmas Eve. 

In fact, if one wants to tie Christmas to Saturnalia one could point out that for most of the time after Jesus’s life Christmas was a raucous, often drunk affair with social norms being upended and slaves sitting at the main table being served by their masters – something that also happened in Saturnalia. The problem with this is that these sorts of festivals were common during the winter in socially stratified societies, so any link there would be tenuous at best. 

However, it is a fact that for well over a thousand years of its life Christmas was a Mardi Gras like affair that took place over a period in December. It was tamed and transformed to be the family friendly event we know and love today by elites in the 1800’s, which is where we get the Santa Clause, presents, and the Christmas tree.  The Christmas tree first became a thing in Germany and then became popularized in the west by the English Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert who was born in Germany.

There are legends that Martin Luther originated the German practice of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas, but this itself lacks evidence and is likely a legend of tying a popular custom to an important religious icon. Once Victoria and Albert popularized decorating a Christmas tree, it was picked up by the middle class and nobility in England and spread from there. 

My key point is that the Christmas tree didn’t really become something associated so tightly with Christmas until well over a fifteen hundred years of Christmas celebrations, far removed from anything of actual Christian religious significance. However, this doesn’t mean it came from pagan practices or customs either, it can literally just be a good idea someone had that became popular and spread across cultures.  People don’t need much reason to copy good ideas, even Jewish Americans have started having Hannukah bushes that resemble Christmas trees – because decorating an evergreen with lights and ornaments is fun.

Another thing to consider is time, we need more than vague links between similar sounding events. I’ve got news for you, in the ancient world if you wanted to decorate in the winter, using evergreens is likely to be a popular method because they’re the only tree’s that are still alive in winter. So lets say that there were evergreens decorated at Saturnalia in the Roman empire or in ancient Egypt for some festival in December, so what? Those practices had died out by the time we can literally trace back the Christmas tree to becoming a cultural phenomenon during Christmas. It simply doesn’t make sense to say that some Germans in the 1700’s had stolen the idea from a pagan ritual celebrated in the 3rd century in Egypt. 

Conversely, Christians shouldn’t prescribe religious significance to these ancillary non-religious traditions that became a part of what was originally a religious observance. Especially if those non-religious traditions have since outgrown the religious observance in popularity.  

If an atheist is putting up a tree, lights, taking their kids to see Santa at a mall, and exchanging presents on December 25th, it’s hard to say “Jesus is the reason” for the celebration just because these non-religious traditions were at one time done in concurrence with a religious celebration. I don’t think most Christians would want to follow that line of logic everywhere it leads.  Consider Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which is a feast of eating fatty or rich foods on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and the Lenten tradition of fasting begins – all of which are Catholic holy days and religious practices.  If you’re not aware even as far back in the 1800’s Mardi Gras was a drunken party in part of the city where there’s also a tradition of young women exposing their breasts for men who give them a beaded necklace or some other trinket. This is as much a non-religious tradition that is now attached to a celebration related to a Christian religious observance as the Christmas Tree and presents are attached to Christmas. Do Christians really want to say that Jesus is the reason for shaking them titties at Mardi Gras? I doubt it. 

This leads to my overall point – no one must feel bad about celebrating these different traditions. Not fundamentalist Christians who are afraid of doing something pagan in origin nor atheists who don’t believe Jesus was the son of god. At the end of the day there are all sorts of weird but fun traditions that we’ve inherited in our popular culture that we can keep or stop doing as we see fit, for the simple fact that we enjoy doing them. The significance of each tradition is unique to each individual and can take on either a secular or religious meaning depending on your point of view – which itself can change! 

I’m an apostate, I worked heavily in my small church for nearly a decade and Christmas was easily our busiest time of year, with me spending hours on end working A/V for all sorts of services and rehearsals. I sacrificed a lot of my time to make those things happen and I thought I was doing it in service of an all-important divine being. I still enjoyed presents, putting up the tree, exchanging gifts, and spending time with friends and family even then, but I tried to make Christmas Christ-focused. Now I obviously don’t work in a church, but I still enjoy all the non-religious aspects I just mentioned, and I cherish my memories of doing these things with my kids now that I’m a parent. 

At the end of the day can’t we all just calm down and enjoy the holidays, for whatever meaning we derive out of them? 

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