Monday, December 16, 2013

Can We Celebrate Christmas Without Christ?

My girls and I lighting candles at our local Humanist group's
annual HumanLight and Winter Solstice Party
This past week Lysi, my four-year-old, said to me, "For Christmas I want a car seat for my dolls." 

Foolishly focusing on the wrong part of her statement, I said, "Well we don't really celebrate Christmas because we're not Christian."

To which she responded, "I want to be Christian so I can get presents."

What went through my head: No, no, no, you do not want to be an adherent to a religion with a history which includes holy wars, crusades, witch burnings, and clinic bombings, based on a scripture that instructs on how to treat one's slaves, decrees that homosexuals be put to death, and that women submit to the dominance of men,  that threatens heretics with eternal damnation, and whose main symbol is a half naked guy being slowly tortured to death, all just because you want some more accessories for your dolls! 

What came out of my mouth: "Christians are Christians because they worship Jesus, not because they get presents. We're Humanists and we give and get presents, too." 

She responded,"Okay. Yay!" 

Yay indeed. 

I hate dealing with the flood of Christmas songs and imagery that are found everywhere in December (and November, really) and how to explain the meaning of it all to my kids. I'm just trying to stay honest while not being a total bummer around the holidays, is that too much to ask? 

In my frustration and fatigue over the holiday season, I found this year's Time Square billboard campaign from American Atheists rather comforting. 

The title of the press release declares, "Nobody Needs Christ at Christmas." A description of the billboard follows:  
Using motion graphics, the billboard proclaims, “Who needs Christ during Christmas?” A hand crosses out the word “Christ” and the word “NOBODY” appears. The display then says “Celebrate the true meaning of Xmas” and offers a series of cheery words: family, friends, charity, food, snow, and more. The commercial ends with a jovial “Happy Holidays!” from American Atheists and displays the organization’s website, atheists.org.
I thought, yes, damnit! Everybody celebrates this stinkin' time of year. Almost every atheist I know, certainly all the ones with kids, give gifts and put up trees. Hell, we put up a tree! And even though we top it with a finger puppet of Isaac Newton and I insist we call it a Cricky Tree, my kids still call it a Christmas tree. 

Last year I even received a card from an atheist couple I know wishing me a "Merry Christmas!" Wait a minute, the weirdness and hypocrisy of that kind of annoyed me. Where do we draw the line? Certainly we must draw it somewhere, right? 

Look closely at the above  image of the American Atheists' billboard. The true meaning of Christmas includes "Rockettes", "ice skating", and "Chinese food?"

The meaning of Independence Day is the birth of a nation. We happen to celebrate it with barbecue and fireworks. The meaning of Martin Luther King Day is the ongoing struggles of the civil rights movement. We happen to celebrate it by taking the day off work and school, and doing community service.

Christmas is celebrated with gifts, charitable giving, parties, films, Santa, cookies, light displays and other decorations. But what does Christmas mean? If the meaning of Christmas isn't the birth of Christ (and that's a big if), then what is it? 

The Sean Hannitys of this world would like to frame this ad campaign as an attack on Christians. It's not. Plenty of people (mostly merchants and marketers, but also some proselytizing Christians) have done their part to force the holiday season on all of us. American Atheists are just pointing out that a bunch of us who are putting up trees, exchanging gifts, singing carols, and sending cards don't believe Jesus is God or care about his birthday. Many of we atheists want to enjoy the holiday season, too, but we don't like being automatically grouped with Christians just because we put lights on our porches.

Some complain that the billboard is offensive to some Christians. Yes, it is. Of course it is. So what? I'm reminded of something Ricky Gervais said in an interview with New Humanist:

"I always expect some people to be offended. I know I ruffle feathers but some people’s feathers need a little ruffling. And remember: just because someone is offended doesn’t mean they’re in the right. Some people are offended by multiculturalism, homosexuality, abortion, atheism – what should we do? Ban all those things? You have the right to be offended, and I have the right to offend you. But no one has the right to never be offended.
I get a bit pissed off when I see shitty Christian billboards, or when I hear assholes say ignorant crap such as, "Jesus is the reason for the season." So I can't blame Christians for getting upset when an atheist billboard crosses out the term for their savior and then insists that the "true meaning of Christmas" is takeout and dance numbers.

But it's a small price to pay for free speech, so deal with it.

The question remains, are American Atheists pointing out the truth, that today's Christmas is a secular holiday for everyone? Or are they just being dicks?

Let us pause and seek clarity from Fraggles. Specifically, Fraggle Rock episode 301: The Bells of Fraggle Rock (1984.) 

The show opens with Doc explaining the variety of celebrations which take place worldwide during the winter solstice. (Okay, nevermind that the solstices are a consequence of axial tilt and thus people in the earth's southern hemisphere are having their summer solstice in December, and people close to the equator could probably give a shit.) So at least for Jim Henson and his crew, "Christmas" is regarded as one holiday among a whole December lineup. This would seem to suggest that Christmas retains its religious meaning and is exclusively a Christian holiday. 

Not being Christians, the Fraggles have their own December holiday: The Festival of the Bells. The point of their celebration is to keep the Great Bell moving. According to myth, the Great Bell is located at the heart of Fraggle Rock, though no one has ever seen it. 

Gobo Fraggle, being a skeptic, goes in search of the Great Bell, and on discovering its non-existence, reports back to the rest of the Fraggles that their bell-ringing ritual is pointless. However, without the ritual, all of Fraggle Rock begins to freeze over. Gobo realizes his error - that while the literal meaning of the myth was false, the celebration was still necessary. Bell ringing resumes and nobody freezes to death. 

How should we interpret this tale? I like to think that the Great Bell represents Christ. Regardless of whether the divinity of Jesus is truth or not, it's getting cold and all this Christmas crap is a nice way to face the darkest, coldest time of the year. 

So jingle bells and pass that figgy pudding! 













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