Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas: A Holiday for All Americans

Can non-Christians celebrate Christmas? Many do, and why not? I’m an atheist and I have no problem celebrating Christmas, even though it has no religious significance for me.

What’s great about Christmas is that it is both a religious holiday, being based upon the birth of the Christian icon Jesus, and a secular holiday as well.

How can I say that? I am indebted to philosopher Ayn Rand for identifying the resolution of that seemingly contradictory proposition. In answer to the question of whether it is appropriate for an atheist to celebrate Christmas, Rand answered:

Yes, of course. A national holiday, in this country, cannot have an exclusively religious meaning. The secular meaning of the Christmas holiday is wider than the tenets of any particular religion: it is good will toward men—a frame of mind which is not the exclusive property… of the Christian religion. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon)

This makes perfect sense. A national religious holiday in a secular nation founded on the principle of separation of church and state (religious freedom) is a logical impossibility. Since to have a secular government means to have one that is neutral with regards to the fundamental beliefs of all of its citizens, an American national holiday by definition cannot be religious.

In fact, what we today call Christmas originally didn't have any connection to Jesus at all, writes Onkar Ghate in U.S.News & World Report:

"Before Christians co-opted the holiday in the fourth century (there is no reason to believe Jesus was born in December), it was a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, of the days beginning to grow longer. The Northern European tradition of bringing evergreens indoors, for instance, was a reminder that life and production were soon to return to the now frozen earth."

The Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice with the holiday Saturnalia. In Northern Europe, the holiday was called Yule.

Indeed, as philosopher Leonard Peikoff notes over at Capitalism Magazine, the leading secular Christmas symbol - Santa Claus - actually contradicts some standard Christian tenets:

Santa Claus is a thoroughly American invention. ... In 1822, an American named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem about a visit from St. Nick. It was Moore (and a few other New Yorkers) who invented St. Nick's physical appearance and personality, came up with the idea that Santa travels on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, comes down the chimney, stuffs toys in the kids' stockings, then goes back to the North Pole.

...Santa implicitly rejected the whole Christian ethics. He did not denounce the rich and demand that they give everything to the poor; on the contrary, he gave gifts to rich and poor children alike. Nor is Santa a champion of Christian mercy or unconditional love. On the contrary, he is for justice -- Santa gives only to good children, not to bad ones.

So, regardless of your beliefs, go ahead and enjoy Christmas on your own terms.

On that note, let me extend to everyone a hearty wish for a joyous, safe, and thoroughly non-contradictory…


Related Reading:

How the Welfare State Stole Christmas, by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins

Was Jesus Really Born on Dec. 25?, by Andrew Santella.


Steve D said...

So, it is very interesting that they celebrated Dec 25, not Dec 21. This is the first day after the solstice for which the ancients could actually measure the increase in the length of day and so that might account for it.

Mike Kevitt said...

Secularists might rightly prefer to not call the holiday Christmas. That term is a form of the name, Christ, the name of one to whom religionists attribute a religious nature. It also refers to a religious observance, Mass. So, the holiday, for them, is Christmas, celebration of Christ in a most fundamental way, about his birth of a virgin.

This fundamentalism is equaled by Easter, celebration of Christ's death and reserection. Virgin birth and reserection from death, both notions considered, by faith, possible as per a religious nature.

Secularists might prefer to call Christmas by a secular name: Yule, perhaps.

Steve D said...

Nah, I'm an atheist and I have no problem calling it Christmas. If, not then the Saturnalia would be my second choice. Yule is fine as well I guess. Name it whatever you like.
People obsess too much about these things. Personally, I’d rather spend my time enjoying the season than worrying about what to call it.

Mike LaFerrara said...

I, personally, prefer to stick with the term Christmas. At least it’s named after a real guy; an actual leader, and an influential one at that. And it’s the legal name for the holiday.

Also, there is a hidden gem in Christ’s philosophy: He was in a major sense a strident individualist. He preached that each person is responsible for saving his own soul—voluntarily.

Many early Christians opposed tax-forced redistribution on the grounds that it contradicted Christ’s teachings (See Property and Freedom). If Christ were alive today, he’d probably be a conservative Christian, burdened by the same contradictions between his politics and his ethics.

If the subject comes up, I can use that positive aspect of Christ as a lead-in to promoting my values and how they differ from Christ’s. Makes for good conversation.