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I’ll Be Home for Christmas (Even Though I’m an Atheist)

Chris Stedman is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Stedman is Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post's On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches. 

This post was the last of a blog-a-thon at the Harvard Humanist blog

In case you missed it, we are now in the month of December. That means that many of us have been enduring public displays of Christmas-affection for at least a month now, if not more. And while I admit that hearing a tinny rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful” blare from the overhead speakers in a shopping mall in October is almost enough to turn my heart two sizes too small, I can’t help but feel excited that Christmas is just around the corner.

But why? You might ask. You’re an atheist. You’re not supposed to do that.

I’ve heard that argument before, and I still don’t buy it.

Christmas is perhaps my favorite holiday, as it is the one time during the year that my entire family is able to come together. Growing up, Christmas was never really about Jesus (I mean, if anything, it was about Santa) — it was about family. I’m the only person in my family who no longer lives in Minnesota, so I cherish the time I get to spend with those who have loved me the longest and the most, and the binding traditions that we share. (Including poking fun at one another incessantly – hey, who doesn’t engage in this tradition on any given holiday?)

As one example of why I have very fond associations with Christmas: the year I started to come out as gay, after several painful years of self-loathing, my mom got me a book about gay people and enclosed a special, handwritten note about how much she loved me and how proud she was of me. She hugged me tight, and I could see the lights from our Christmas tree reflecting off of the glossy tears in her eyes. Could she have given this to me on any other day? Sure, of course. And she did — throughout that year, and at many other times during my life, she has given me resources and support. But I remember that Christmas as a special moment in a year full of them, where she took the time to do something extra. And she, along with my entire family, has continued to do so — the year I moved out of the house to begin an independent life, she created a quilt made from scraps of the fabric she had used to make handsewn pajamas throughout my childhood. On the bottom side, she stitched in a note: “Pieces of memories… stitched together to wrap you in the love of your family.” I continue to pull out this Christmas gift every year to combat the December chill. As I wrote in a post earlier today, we ritualize our lives in various ways. For me, Christmas has been among the most significant.

A couple of Christmases past, my dad’s girlfriend asked me something just as I was preparing to leave home. “I know you’re an atheist,” she said, “but is it okay for me to wish you a ‘Merry Christmas’?” At first I thought it a rather silly question, as we had just spend the last day eating cookies shaped like trees and exchanging shiny boxes filled with gifts. But she explained that she had once dated an atheist, and that he had refused to join her for her family’s Christmas celebration. “As he put it, he’d never celebrate a ‘hol-lie-day’ for a made-up god,” she said to me.

HCH stockings

The Humanist Community at Harvard offices, December 2012.

That same season, headlines roared over a new American Atheists billboard campaign, which exclaimed: “You KNOW It’s A Myth… This Season, Celebrate Reason!” In interviews, their president explained that the billboard campaign was not intended to turn Christians into atheists. Instead, he said that American Atheists wanted to encourage atheists to stop “going through the motions of celebrating Christmas.” And less than a week ago, Tom Flynn (who I met less than a week ago at the Center for Inquiry – Transnational) wrote a blog post advocating a similar sentiment — but he went a step further, suggesting that atheists should not celebrate secular seasonal holidays like HumanLight or the Winter Solstice, either. He has shared his perspective about why he doesn’t celebrate Christmas in the past, but reading his most recent post, I still found myself unpersuaded.

You see, for me, Christmas didn’t begin as a religious holiday. As I said, it was always about family — about coming together during the coldest and darkest time of the year to create a little more light and a little more warmth. That continues to be the case for me, and it is only bolstered by my increased awareness of the origins of religious narratives, and my expanding knowledge of the triumphs of human achievement — triumphs that have enabled me to live long enough to celebrate my twenty-fifth Christmas this year, achievements that ensure my ability to quickly travel through the air from Massachusetts to Minnesota in order to be reunited with my family, advances that allow me to communicate and coordinate my plans long before I am reunited with said family, and human efforts that will allow me to stay warm throughout the season. My appreciation for Christmas, and the family that I celebrate on that day, has grown in concert with my appreciation for the marvels of life and of human ability.

cereal driveThis year, I had to miss the Humanist Community at Harvard’s annual holiday party because I was on my book tour, and I admit that I was pretty disappointed that I couldn’t be there. Our office was transformed with twinkling lights, mistletoe, and stockings hung along the room divider with care (see the image earlier in this post). People came together as a community to celebrate one another and the year that has passed, but we also used this event as an opportunity to kick off our monthlong cereal drive to benefit the Pine Street Inn — and, so far, we’ve collected over $400 worth of cereal for those in need, with more donations set to come in later this week.

So, in short: I believe that you should celebrate Christmas, or HumanLight, or Hanukkah, or the Solstice, or Festivus, or whatever you’d like. Or, you know, nothing. But the increasing politicization of Christmas — a discourse often polarized by many believers, who use Christmas as an opportunity to exclude those who don’t share in their views, but also by some atheists — doesn’t account for those of us who see Christmas as a tradition that gives us an excuse to huddle together in the face of an all-too-often cold and dark world, relishing in good food, good music, and the company of good friends and family. And as an opportunity to help make a dark, cold world just a little warmer, a little brighter, and a little more inhabitable for others, through compassionate service or loving action.

There are many problems in the world that demand our concern and attention — I don’t think that some atheists celebrating Christmas should be near the top of that list. Our lives are short, and they are precious. If you have found a way to make your life and the lives of those around you that much richer, whether by celebrating Christmas or by ordering takeout that day, then I celebrate along with you.