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10 Best Christmas Songs for Atheists

What do you do if you're an atheist who likes Christmas carols?

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Songs have to be good songs. A subjective judgment, I realize. And for the purposes of this game, one that is to be made entirely by me. Deal with it. I don't care how secular it is: "Suzy Snowflake" is not making it onto my freaking Christmas song list.

Bonus points: A song gets bonus points for not mentioning the word "Christmas." It's okay if it does -- I don't think the word has to mean "Christ's Mass," any more than "goodbye" has to mean "God be with you" or "Thursday" has to mean "Thor's day." But songs that have become widely accepted Christmas carols without even mentioning the concept get bonus points: for chutzpah, if nothing else.

And songs get bonus points for being written more than 100 years ago. I'm not a reflexive hater of modern Christmas songs; in fact, some of them I quite like. But some of the best stuff about Christmas music is the old, old, tunes: the soaring, haunting melodies and harmonies that resonate back through the centuries. If a song can do that and still not mention the baby Jesus, I'm sold.

So with these rules in mind, here are my Top Ten Christmas Carols Even An Atheist Could Love.

10: White Christmas. This is a funny one. I don't even particularly like this song: it's kind of drippy, and it lends itself far too well to unctuous lounge singers. But come on, people. It was written by a freaking agnostic. A Jewish agnostic at that. And it's become one of the most classic, wildly popular entries in the Christmas music canon. How can you not love an entirely secular Christmas classic written by a Jewish agnostic?

9: Jingle Bells. A bit overplayed, I'll grant you. But it's cheery, and it's old, and it's fun to sing. The second through fourth verses (you know, the ones nobody sings or has even heard of) are all about courting girls, racing horses, and getting into accidents, so that's entertaining. And the thing doesn't mention the word "Christmas" once. Heck, it wasn't even written as a Christmas song; it was written as a Thanksgiving song. You can happily teach it to your kids without worrying that you're indoctrinating them into a death cult. Plus it's spawned a burgeoning cottage industry of children's song parodies, in the time-honored "Jingle bells, Batman smells" oeuvre. (Tangent: Do kids still sing that even though "Batman" isn't on TV anymore?)

8: Sleigh Ride. For those who like jingling bells, but are a bit sick of "Jingle Bells" after all these years. Relentlessly cheerful. Lots of fun to sing, except for the weirdly tuneless bridge about Farmer Gray's birthday party.... but then you get back into the sleigh bells jingling, ring- ting- tingling too, and you're back in business. And no God, or Jesus, or even Christmas. Just snow, and singing, and pumpkin pie, and friends calling "Yoo hoo!" A trifle saccharine, I'll grant you -- a bit too nostalgic for a Norman Rockwell America that never really existed -- but still good, clean, secular fun.

7: Silver Bells. I'm sure I'm going to get roundly hated on for this one. Lots of people truly loathe modern Christmas songs, especially the ones in the drippy lounge- singer category. (See "White Christmas" above.) But I have a genuine soft spot for this one, for a very specific reason: It's one of the few Christmas songs that celebrates the urban Christmas. Most Christmas songs sing the bucolic joys of sleigh rides and forests and holly and whatnot... joys that are entirely outside of my own experience of Christmas. My own experience of Christmas is shopping and crowded streets and lavish decorations and electric light displays that could power a goat farm for a year. The very joys that "Silver Bells" is celebrating. And the tune is really pretty. Also it's in 3/4 time, which means you can waltz to it. So thumbs-up from me. If you sing it in a peppy, up-tempo beat, you can avoid the whole lounge-singer vibe pretty easily.

 
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