7 Reasons for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays
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It's often assumed that the atheist position on what is politely termed "the holiday season" is one of disregard at best, contempt and annoyance at worst. After all, the reasons for most of the standard winter holidays are supposedly religious -- the birth of the Savior, eight days of miraculous light, yada yada yada. Why would atheists want anything to do with that?
But atheists' reactions to the holidays are wildly varied. Yes, some atheists despise them: the enforced jollity, the shameless twisting of genuine human emotion to sell useless consumer crap, the tyrannical forcing of mawkish piety down everyone's throats. (Some believers loathe the holidays for the exact same reasons.)
But some of us love the holidays. We love the parties, the decorations, the smell of evergreen trees in people's houses, the excuse to eat ourselves sick, the reminder that we do in fact love our families and friends. We're cognizant of the shameless twisting and mawkish piety and whatnot -- but we can deal with it. It's worth it for an excuse to drink eggnog with our loved ones and bellow out "Angels We Have Heard On High" in half-assed four-part harmony. (In fact, when it comes to the holidays, atheists are damned if we do, damned if we don't. If we scorn the holidays, we're called Scroogy killjoys. If we embrace them, we're called hypocrites. Oh, well. Whaddya gonna do.)
So today, I want to talk about some of the reasons some atheists love the holidays, in hopes that believers might better understand who we are and where we're coming from ... and in hopes that a few Scroogy killjoys, atheist and otherwise, might be tempted to join the party. (If not -- no big. I recognize and validate your entirely reasonable annoyance at the holidays. And besides, Scroogy killjoys are an important holiday tradition.)
Speaking of which:
Reason #7: Holiday traditions are comforting. The human need for tradition and ritual seems to be deeply ingrained. It's comforting to do things at the same time every day or every year: things we did as children, things our parents and grandparents did. It gives us a sense of continuity, of being part of a pattern that's larger than ourselves, of passing along ideas and customs that we hope will live on after we die. For those of us who don't believe in an afterlife, that last bit can be extra important. And when those customs and rituals are about joy and celebration and people we love and so on, that makes it extra nifty.
#6: The holidays connect us with our ancestors...and with the earth and the seasons. In modern civilized culture, we tend to treat the changing seasons largely as a fashion challenge and an excuse to complain. (Even in San Francisco, where the temperature rarely gets above 80 or below 40, we still gripe about the weather.)
But the changing seasons were a critically important part of our ancestors' lives; a matter of life and death, watched and marked with great and careful attention. The winter solstice holidays rose up as a way to mark those changes...and to celebrate the all-important imminent return of the sun, warmth and longer days. Celebrating the holidays reminds us of what life was like for the people who came before us -- the people who are responsible for us being here.
#5: Presents. 'Nuff said.
#4: The War on the War on Christmas. Watching Bill O'Reilly and the Christian Right work themselves into an annual lather over the fact that (a) not everyone in America celebrates Christmas; and (b) some well-mannered businesses choose to recognize this fact by using ecumenical or secular holiday greetings...is some of the best free entertainment we could ask for.