Soapbox: ‘Tis the Season to Be Secular

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Christmas is about people, not God.

Many people say that tragedy can shake an atheist’s faith. As a young student, I don’t think I’ve experienced enough tragedy to test my firm belief in the non-existence of God. But I have felt my beliefs tested, not by sadness but by joy — the sublime joy I feel around the holidays.

My mother raised me to think that going to church and celebrating Christmas were more important than actually believing in God, which may have explained why my belief withered so soon. I never really enjoyed church, but Christmas is a part of most of my most treasured childhood memories. I am unnaturally comforted by anything I associate with the Christmas season: evergreen trees, hot chocolate, Santa hats, and even the colors red and green.

I find it troubling that Christmas is based on a myth I don’t subscribe to. I am not wary of Christmas merely because it is representative of Christian culture, no more than I disavow St. Patrick’s Day because I am not Irish. But Christmas celebration seems to inevitably involve some kinds of religious activity that I find irrational.

During the Advent season, for example, we traditionally light one candle each Sunday before Christmas. This strikes me as a kind of religious fetishism — lighting candles is, like prayer, only a gesture done in church that should not affect the real world. But for some reason it means something to me. Christmas carols, though I disavow the historical accuracy of their lyrics, touch me in a way that similarly beautiful secular songs cannot.

Other atheists often disregard this kind of sentimental attachment that people have to some religious rituals. That is why attempts to found a secular holiday always leave me empty. When late December comes around, I don’t want to celebrate Christmakwanzaka. I want Christmas. I have complete respect for people from different backgrounds who want to celebrate their own holidays, but I don’t think you can mix and match holiday traditions without destroying their valuable integrity. Neither do I think Christmas can be celebrated as a secular holiday. My personal experience with the holiday cannot be separated from the story of Christ’s birth, which is ironic, since that story is an artificial addition to pagan winter celebrations. Still, Christmas without Christ simply doesn’t have the right psychological effect on me.

I fear I may be hardwired to enjoy Christmas as it is, without secular alteration. But I think that if we are willing to stop fighting Christmas, Christian atheists can celebrate it in its current form. Christmas and the stories behind it are compelling because they have existed for hundreds of years and are a part of a culture shared with hundreds of millions of other people.

I sometimes compare Christmas celebrations to college Quidditch matches. Believe it or not, some colleges actually have official Quidditch teams who run around a field with brooms between their legs reenacting the fictional sport from the Harry Potter books. It makes absolutely no sense for this sport to be played on broomsticks, which are difficult to run with. But players do so anyway because they want to stay true to a book that they know is completely fictional.

Much like we can enjoy participating in bizarre rituals that celebrate Harry Potter without believing the stories are true, we can celebrate Christmas, sing religious Christmas carols, and engage in truly irrational rituals without betraying our secular beliefs. I enjoy Christmas because it is a point of commonality I share with a vast community. Secular holidays simply cannot compete with the enormous subculture developed around Christmas — including hundreds of movies, songs, and traditions. Ultimately, Christmas and almost all other religious holidays are about other people, not about God.

Daniel Robinson ‘10 ([email protected]) is the communications officer of the Harvard Secular Society.