I always loved our local Carols by Candlelight. A rag-tag rabble of local school kids would straggle onto a rickety stage in a seaside park to sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Six White Boomers. I delighted in spotting the kid (there was always one) who looked like they’d just beamed in from a galaxy far, far away with no idea why they were dressed in flashing reindeer antlers in the middle of a line of all singing, all dancing 10-year-olds.
Comfortably ensconced in a BYO canvas deck chair, I’d sip brandy-spiked coffee from a thermos as I waited for a lolly-throwing Santa to arrive to hoots, whistles, cheers and thunderous applause. One year, I nearly wet myself laughing when Santa, turbo-charged with Christmas spirit, made a wobbly entrance then pitched head-first into the audience, precisely as if he’d just discovered a convenient chimney.
And then, one year, it all changed. I fronted up with my deck chair to find a huge stage, framed by scaffolding and a constellation of lights. Electrical cords ran everywhere while giant speakers towered monolithically over the expectant crowd. Was this Carols by Candlelight or had I happened upon an unannounced performance by Kiss in our sleepy seaside village?
Then things got worse, much worse. First, we were instructed to stand and bow our heads while we were led in prayer. Next, instead of the wobbly warbles of bewildered primary school kids we were serenaded by an adult choir, dressed in smocks, singing proper carols in pitch-perfect harmony. It was horrible. Our funny, discordant, ever so slightly drunken local Carols had been crucified, and the executioner’s name was boldly emblazoned on a huge banner stretched across the enormous stage: The Seaview Community Christian Church presents Carols by Candlelight. (Names have been changed to protect the guilty.) Apparently, in a cost-saving measure, the local council happily handed over our secular Carols by Candlelight to the first church prepared to sponsor it in return for proselytising privileges.
I was outraged. “Bloody Christians!” I hissed, “They stick their damned noses in everywhere. Now they’re taking over Christmas!”
It took about two beats before I realised what I’d said and burst out laughing. “OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but they have ruined our lovely Carols.”
So, what is an atheist to do at Christmas? How’s a girl to find a reason for a season that celebrates unreason? Is it hypocritical for an atheist to celebrate Christmas? Shouldn’t we all be grizzling, grinch-like as our Christian cousins merrily decorate their trees and stir their Christmas puddings? Maybe we should effect an atheist version of the three wise monkeys - see no Christmas, hear no Christmas, do no Christmas - and simply ignore the whole thing. Not me. I embrace the whole mad, ridiculous, over-commercialised, supernatural whirl, and I deck the halls without a skerrick of guilt.
Despite its name, Christians don’t own Christmas. The celebration of the winter solstice is a European cultural inheritance that’s been purloined by the Christian branch of our global family. I say it’s high time we non-theists contested the Will. Winter festivals were a feature of European pagan calendars long before Christ. Christianity cannot claim exclusive ownership of most of our seasonal rituals. Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas festivities pre-date Christ by hundreds or even thousands of years, reaching back to ancient Babylon. Gift-giving, feasting, adorning the house with greenery and lights, and singers chorusing door to door all date back to these ancient pagan rites.
Even assuming Jesus Christ was an actual person, December 25 was not his birthday. It was, however, the date prescribed to celebrate the births of pre-Christian saviours such as Horus, Attis and Mithra. Stories highlighting the similarities between pagan mythologies and the Jesus myth abound on the internet. I resist the temptation to roll them out here because, while there seems little doubt the Jesus legend was concocted, at least in part, from these older stories, there is still considerable controversy about the extent of the plagiarism.
Today, most Australians barely give a thought to Jesus at Christmas time. Just as the Romans’ Saturnalia morphed into a celebration of Jesus’ birth, the Christian festival has transformed into a largely secular celebration. This shouldn’t be cause for alarm. Historically, cultural traditions are routinely appropriated by new groups and vested interests. Christianity has a long and distinguished history of cultural appropriation. Atheists should no more be condemned for co-opting Christian rituals for their own purposes than Christians should be admonished for incorporating pagan practices into their celebrations.
And, what is the atheist’s purpose in celebrating Christmas?
I can’t speak for all atheists, of course, but, for me the reason for the season should be to rejoice in our good fortune and consider how we might share it with others. Christmas functions, both religiously and secularly, as a cultural marker, reminding us of the need to practice and disseminate love, generosity, laughter and charity. For Australians of all religions and of none, it’s a time to consider how lucky we are that there are no tanks rolling down the streets of our cities, that our children can play outside without fear of detonating a landmine, and that, no matter how mundane our jobs, we can make our livings in ways other than standing bare-foot on a rubbish dump picking over the oozing ordure of millions of our fellow citizens.
Whatever our petty Western woes, most of us enjoy the enormous and rare privilege of retiring each night to our safe, warm, comfortable beds, our bellies full and our minds, for the most part, at ease. We must never take that for granted.
In my view, regardless of one’s religion or lack thereof, there are responsibilities attached to a life of such privilege. Culturally, Christmas prompts us to consider what contribution we can make to improve the lives of others in the year ahead. Love, laughter, family, gratitude and social responsibility - these are things to be celebrated and none of them, not one, require a belief in a supernatural deity.
So, yes, I’m an atheist and, this year I’ll be celebrating Christmas with my family. We’ll be eating turkey and ham and Christmas pudding before adjourning to the pool where we’ll float, belly up, like bloated whales. But, in the midst of the gift-giving, child-hugging, relentless teasing and indecent gorging of rum balls and white Christmas, I will pause to give thanks, not to any deity, but simply to remember that as an Anglo-Celtic, middle-class Australian I’ve won life’s lottery. What better reason to celebrate the season?