I embrace the label “atheist” reluctantly because it smells of militant reaction to the monotheistic religions that long ago turned militaristic and, somewhat more recently, reactionary. The word sounds angry, when I’d much prefer that it sound simply bored and uninterested. So, usually, I use the word “irreligious” to describe myself.
Of course, there are matters I am angry about—homophobia, imperialism, wage slavery, subjugation of women’s bodies, destruction of the environment (on oh so many levels), child abuse (also on oh so many levels), war, torture, terror—matters on which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have, at their best, looked with blithe, big-hearted condescension and, at their (usual) worst, have sided with, inspired, inflamed, and offered comfort to the oppressors.
Christians complain that “Christ” has been taken out of “Christmas.” This is more or less the bottom of the barrel as far as martyrdoms go, and Christians have been scraping this wood for a long time (1). It almost hurts to have to tell them, as they nail their hands to their Christmas trees, that Christians stole the holiday from the pagans (2)—and that their puritanical and more fundamentalist brothers have banned celebrating Christmas altogether (3).
I like Christmas well enough. It’s some days off work—and God knows the greedy capitalists would have us at the grindstone 24/7/365 if they could. And, now that both my parents are dead—and I have no brothers or sisters, no husband or wife, no children, I am relatively unburdened by the family sniping and the burden of obligatory gift giving that others (with good reason) so often complain about.
For the past five years, I celebrate Christmas the first Saturday of every December. I invite some friends over and we eat crab cakes, drink wine (and sometimes absinthe), get high, and bake cookies—either following recipes (the orthodox wing) or freestyle mixing shit together (the heretics)—the heretics have more fun, but orthodox cookies are generally edible (4).
I also buy the guests some small tokens of the season—ornaments, hard candies and mints, holiday music, dreidls, DVDs of Bad Santa and It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a “small, good thing,” to cite Raymond Carver, to share like this with people I enjoy—no burden or obligation at all.
Generally I am in favor of gift giving, not to help or save the economy, but to express some measure of transcendent connection with the people I care about. (I am even a bigger fan of birthdays than Christmas.)
Gifts are—or should be—symbols for sharing oneself. Gifting should not be competitive, expected, obligatory, or too deeply read into. Gifts should be selected on the basis of one’s feelings or hopes for the gifted. They should be wrapped, if possible, because wrapping can suggest the mystery of our fellow feeling, and unwrapping can suggest the opening up of the self to others.
I like the word “Christmas.” It does not too heavily intone Christianity for me, as an atheist—no more than “Thursday” reminds me of the Norse god Thor or “Saturday,” of the Roman god Saturn. As I am not a Christian, I don’t object to “Xmas,” and as I am not an idiot, I recognize that “Xmas” is simply an abbreviation of “Christmas,” “X” long being an abbreviation for “Christ” among monks and scholars, either to save time or to show reverence (like the ancient Jews and the later Muslims who eschew naming or portraying their God).
Atheist Christmas seems so much richer and dreamily loving than Christian Christmas. Still, I enjoy nativity scenes and “Silent Night,” in pretty much the same way (and to pretty much the same extent) as I do The Nutcracker and Peter Pan, with a willing suspension of disbelief to provide only the finest, lightest crystals of magical thinking to dust and sweeten the long, dark nights of winter and the long, dark night of humanity’s intolerance, self-righteousness, cruelty, ignorance, and greed.
(1) Think of the outrage many Christians felt when Phyllis Burgess, 69 and Christian, protesting against gay marriage at a pro-gay marriage rally, had a Styrofoam cross yanked from her hands by fire-breathing homos and saw it broken and dashed to the ground. This was no spiritual release from the heavy burden of Styrofoam; this was, of course, anti-Christian persecution—which, as Mike Huckabee instructed the women on The View, is analogous to the pistol-whipping of Matthew Shepard (and the beatings and deaths of many, many others—unavoidably linked with Christendom) or the merely mischievous exclusion of thousands of queer Americans from the legal, civil privileges of marriage.
(2) Namely Pope Julius 1 in the fourth century—Isis worship, Saturnalia, and Yule all have earlier claims to December 25—and the Druidic custom of worshipping nature by decorating trees and logs was ripped off somewhat later in history. Julius also squashed the Arians, who opposed the worship of Jesus (as, apparently, did Jesus—John 14.28; John 17.20-26—and possibly the apostle Paul—1 Cor. 8.5-6).
(3) Reed, Kevin. “Christmas: An Historical Survey Regarding Its Origins and Opposition to It.” 1995. Still Waters Revival Books.
(4) I belong to the orthodox wing, but with liberal tendencies, permitting myself to substitute walnuts for pecans or dark for milk chocolate. My Bible is Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book (1963; Old Testament) and the 2005 Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies magazine (New).