Finding a Secular Meaning in Christmas

December 24, 2010

I am one of the many secularists who still celebrate Christmas. You might ask: why would an atheist celebrate a Christian holiday? Because I believe the holiday is largely what you make it, and it seems to me that most Americans, even the religious ones, treat Christmas as a secular holiday. That is, they care more for Earthly ongoings than for what goes on in the Heavens. Even as my religious friends and family might place focus on the Christian aspects of the holiday, I see no problem ignoring them and approaching the day in a secular manner. To me, Christmas means one of the few times during the year I can fully extract myself from the daily grind and be with loved ones, specifically to celebrate another year gone by. No prophets or Gods need apply. 

Because of this, Christmas tends to bring out my positively reflective side. I contemplate how grateful I am that I was able to spend one more year on this splendid planet, with such wonderful people. I think about my loved ones, and how they benefited my life over the past year. I think about how I might have added to their lives. I cherish memories of those I have lost to death. And I think about how I might make the next year even better than the last, never knowing what might come. 

In that spirit, I always try to read at my big family gathering something of my own or someone else's doing that best sums up how I feel. While reflecting on what to write or read this year, I ran across the prologue of Bertrand Russell’s autobiography. I think it is quite good, and so I will share it here. 

What I Have Lived For

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy -- ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness -- that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what -- at last -- I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

In short, what I take from this message is that we should seek and try to thoroughly enjoy love, knowledge, and life -- but that we ought also keep in mind that we can, and should, do more to help those around us who are suffering. That is what we should live for in the next year, and beyond.

What more could we want? 

Comments:

#1 Darrick on Saturday December 25, 2010 at 7:19pm

Thank you Michael for this wonderful post. It’s already Boxing Day here in Melbourne, but I spent my secular Christmas with fellow non-religious friends, and it wasn’t any less meaningful (or fun!) to us.

Many people think that when it comes to Christmas, you either celebrate it as a Christian, or reject it as humbug in a Scrooge-like manner. Your post shows that this is a false dichotomy, and that there is another way to joyfully embrace the festive season without subscribing to myths.

#2 asanta on Thursday January 13, 2011 at 12:22am

I celebrate Christmas every year. My atheist family looks forward to it eagerly. My family gathers to have a wonderful dinner and my developmentally delayed brother eagerly awaits Santa Claus.We have a wonderfully secular tree, it is after all, a pagan symbol, with secular trimmings. Santa and his magic reindeer and poinsettia make a prominent appearance around the house, and if I have time, we will have a gingerbread house. Our celebration is a totally secular celebration of the fact that the days are getting longer and longer, and summer will be here soon!

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