Why Atheists Love Christmas
No one knows exactly when or which Christians stole Christmas, but steal it they did, and the reasons were about as subtle as North Korean diplomacy.
One can imagine Jesus's early followers gnashing their teeth as the Ancient Romans feasted and reveled during their winter festival to honor the god Saturn (Saturnalia, December 17-24) and then reprised their heathen ways on December 25 in the sun-worshipping celebration of the winter solstice (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birthday of the unconquered Sun").
To the Christians, these orgies were an abomination -- perhaps, to Jesus, a shonda -- but somewhere within all this Roman bacchanalia came an epiphany. Why not appropriate these winter festivals, synthesize them, and replace them with what Romans might consider the mother of all celebrations -- Jesus's birthday? In one grand act, the Romans could be enticed to convert to Christianity and still celebrate their winter holidays. Steal the solstice for Jesus!
But there was an inherent problem in usurping a pagan ritual and incorporating it into the Church -- namely, how to reconcile a life-affirming celebration of earth's renewal with the Christian ritual of the incarnation of the Creator of the universe. Indeed, even the early theologians condemned the idea. Jesus's birthday was not to be celebrated as if He were a pharaoh or a king -- celebrating birthdays was the work of sinners, not saints (Origen, 245 A.D.). This tug-of-war persisted for well over a millennium.
In 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law exacting a five-shilling fine for anyone "observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way," and outlawed the celebration outright until 1681. Puritan Cotton Mather, America's moral voice during the early 18th century, cried, "Can you in your consciences think that our Holy Savior is honored by mirth ... to do actions that have much more of hell than of heaven in them?" Ultimately, given its pagan beginnings, the evolution of its observance, and divided attitudes even among Christians, Christmas simply was a difficult holiday to wholly Christianize.
This alone might be reason enough for atheists to rejoice. However, the more meaningful cause for celebration is that Christmas has become a true economic juggernaut -- typically the single largest economic stimulus for many countries around the world. As such, we now enjoy a Christmas "shopping season" that officially begins the Friday after Thanksgiving, to say nothing of "Black Friday" continues with "Small Business Saturday" and "Cyber Monday," and it is commonplace for businesses to develop and sell Christmas items months earlier. To atheists, such an economic outpouring is a testament to the values and virtues that support such a phenomenon. What better way to express goodwill and peace on earth than to buy and exchange gifts and cards of joy for friends and loved ones and, by doing so, to honor our fellow man and his pursuit of reason, individual achievement, and a productive capitalist system that promotes and encourages such blessings in a non-religious, non-sacrificial way?
Understandably, the commercialization of Christmas has become the loudest complaint from Christians and some secularists alike, but this complaint is not by any means new. In 1850, twenty years before Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday, Harriet Beecher Stowe in "The First Christmas in New England" spoke of the holiday becoming lost in a frenzy of shopping. But isn't this what America stands for? Industrialization and free enterprise, when allowed to flourish without restraint, can transform a society into a beacon for hope, progress, justice, and goodwill. Isn't this what America needs most now -- to show our generosity and mutual joy willingly and openly in a festive atmosphere of lights and decorations and song? Just as the Romans would have wanted!
Atheists can take heart that the secularization of Christmas will continue to supersede the Christian model because it is born from pagan beginnings whose rituals and practices have found their greatest expression and refinement in secular culture -- business, commercialism, trade, entrepreneurship, productive work -- all of which underscore one of man's most cherished rights: the pursuit of happiness.
As all atheists know -- and most agnostics and others dare not admit -- who we are, what we do, and what makes us noble has less to do with deities and mysticism and more to do with our nature as giving, compassionate human beings who live our lives in a real, knowable, rational world where freedom -- in all its manifestations -- allows us to enjoy our good fortune and to become all we are capable of being.
It is in this spirit, for believers and non-believers alike, that atheists can proclaim joyously, "Merry Christmas!"