Are Atheists Really Wrecking Christmas?


It's the festive season once again, and for those of us in the West, the debate over the meaning and purpose of Christmas has begun. While American Republicans have expressed outrage at what they're calling the "atheist war on Christmas", many atheists have spoken out about what they love and loathe about the celebration marking the birth of the baby Jesus. What does our fascination with the celebration really mean? If we're non-believers, why do we bother? And why are the battle lines so often drawn between Jesus and Santa?

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Despite the predicted end of civilisation as we know it and the so-called "atheist war on Christmas" hailed by American Republicans and fundamentalist Christians the world over, Christmas appears to be scheduled for 25 December nonetheless.

Atheists on the whole seem quite taken with Christmas. Alain de Botton, author of the recent book Religion For Atheists, will be celebrating with his kids this year in front of a festive cactus, Wendy Squires would like to keep the good stuff from the holiday season, and even Richard Dawkins will indulge, turkey, carols and all . On the whole, if the atheist adverts in Times Square are anything to go by, atheists are worried about being labelled as scrooges and concerned that we're aware that they're happy to keep Santa but not so keen on Jesus.

In my father's home country of Czechoslovakia, Santa is a fairly recent phenomenon. Czech Christmases tended to be intimate affairs, with presents brought by Jezisek, the baby Jesus. In the centuries old fight over the meaning of Christmas, Santa often gets a bad rap. Criticised as a pagan goblin, or the symbol of commercialism, in the war on Christmas the fat man in the red suit has been placed in the opposite corner of the ring to the long-suffering Jesus.

While there have been many attempts to find a "god gene", our desire to believe in something divine largely without evidence remains a mystery. While many atheists cite anthropological and evolutionary explanations for our continuing need for faith in a power greater than ourselves, at least part of the truth is that the desire to celebrate Christmas as non-believers is personal.

The current arguments over Christmas aren't simply about ideology. The fact that every year we talk more and more about the right to publicly celebrate, dump or salvage Christmas, and the erosion of the Christian traditions marking the birth of Jesus, reveals an internal struggle that we have conveniently projected onto the vast blank canvas of the holiday season. In many ways that's what makes our discussions so compelling.

Christmas is not simply an expression of our collective need for mythology, community or spiritual experience; it's also a holiday about family. And in the war on Christmas as in many other areas, fundamentalist Christians have colonised the family. They've taken Jesus, Mary and Joseph and left the rest of the world with Santa Claus.

And for many atheists and agnostics, the ideal of the Christian family has become abhorrent. But there's no reason why non-believers need to settle for Santa. If we look at the story of Jesus as a myth, there's a lot there worth salvaging. It's an old lefty story really isn't it? Made homeless due to harsh and unfair taxation, turned into an asylum seeker by a punishing state, cast out and marginalised, the story of Jesus is a thoroughly modern parable.

It's also a story about what a loving family looks like and about what gifts children really need. Jesus had parents who not only loved him; they saw him as someone whose purpose in the world deserved their support and encouragement. They saw him as a gift. They cared for him, and they were gentle with him in a time when parenting was a harsh business and when violence towards children was expected and encouraged. And he didn't appear to be spoiled by all that attention either.

In our fixation with Christmas, we come back again and again to an ideal of childhood. This is not just about religion or philosophy, and not exclusively about culture either. We argue about Christmas because it's a focal point for our desire for family connection and care, and for our longing for the real gifts we needed as children; love, respect and tenderness.

Whether we choose Jesus or Santa says a lot about our view of the world as it was shaped when we were tiny and malleable. Giving up on the story of Jesus and going for Santa and the presents, is the response of someone whose hope for things to get better was dashed. A rigid fixation on the purity of Christmas, the sanctity of Jesus and the irrelevance of presents, is the attitude of someone who has not yet recognised the crucial gifts that they once lost.

So many of us fight a war about Christmas. We pretend we're neutral, we proselytise, complain, campaign or ignore. We lie to our children about Santa, or we tell a bald truth that hurts feelings. We just can't escape the power of the story, however hard we try.

This Christmas my plan was to just let it go by. I'll be kid free, away from family; my partner hates Christmas and is currently in a neck brace following a car accident. It's been a long year. I had planned not to bother.

But Christmas never just goes by. The songs, smells and conversations are relentless in the lead up to the imagined birth of a saviour. As we come closer to the day, I know I need to make some peace with the story. I don't believe in Jesus, but I can ask myself about the meaning of the holiday where we mark his birth. I can think about what gifts still need to be given. And if I do, then the story of Christmas can give me a few handy tips for harmonious living.

I can send the gifts of love, care and tenderness as widely as possible. I can send my ex-husband a nice bottle of wine and thank him for taking care of the dog. I can call my family, see my friends and help my partner wash.

None of these things are particularly Christmassy, but they have everything to do with the original spirit of Christmas. This year, instead of trying to work out what to do with a holiday that has become a battleground, let's give each other the gifts of love and care that we actually want and need. I think I can safely say that's what Jesus would do.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.  

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