A Personal Note About Dec. 25th

December 18, 2012

Some folks -- from humanist/atheist activists to folks in the media -- have made it a tradition to phone me at the office on December 25 whenever that date falls during the work week. Some call to wish me "Happy just another day," some just to make sure I'm there. Well, I won't be there this year, and I figured I'd better explain why. (Spoiler alert: It's not because I've succumbed to the lures of a certain holiday beloved for different reasons by many Christians and some neo-pagans.)

 Here's the background. My longtime lifepartner and more recent wife Sue has her birthday on December 27. (I sometimes think she loves me because I'm the only person she ever met who really pays attention to her birthday, being undistracted by adjacent events on the calendar.) Every year we do a little resort getaway centered on her birthday, taking advantage of the cutthroat discounts often available for stays at a destination venue between the holiday I shall not name and New Year's.

This year, as it happened, an obscenely good discount was available, but only for a stay including the 25th. (Did I mention that this resort is owned by non-Christians?) Obviously, when you're the Anti-Claus this poses a conundrum. I go to work on Xmas because to me, it's just another day. But if I'm serious about treating Xmas as just another day ... well, if a deal this good came along in June or July for someplace my wife and I go in the summer, I'd jump on it and put in for those days off. If Xmas is really "just another day," then I shouldn't be obdurate about sitting behind my desk. If it's a day I'd take as vacation under other circumstances, then I should take that day as vacation, without regard for whether it's also Jesus's birthday observed.

So that's the deal. Don't call me at work on the 25th, I won't be there. But fear not, I won't be celebrating Xmas. I'll be starting my birthday getaway with my wife a little early. Happy humbug to all and to all an ordinary day!


#1 Matt Dillahunty on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 12:35pm

“...a certain holiday beloved for different reasons by many Christians and some neo-pagans”

Curiously, I’m neither Christian nor neo-pagan and yet I love Christmas.

I’m an atheist (a rather ardent atheist) who celebrates an entirely secular Christmas. I’m an advocate of people celebrating, or not, whatever they want for whatever reasons they like.

That said, it seems a bit dishonest to imply that only Christians and neo-pagans love Christmas. Yes, I know, you’re opposed to Christmas, but it’d be more honest to say: “a certain holiday beloved for different reasons by many.”

#2 Darryl Pickett (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 1:15pm

That’s a very good reason to miss work! Have a wonderful time.

#3 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 2:57pm

Matt Dillahunty, it’s curious indeed that you are neither Christian nor a neo-pagan and yet you love Christmas. As curious as if I, though not a Hindu, suddenly developed a great fondness for Diwali.

Maybe I should have said that Xmas is a holiday beloved for different *but comprehensible* reasons by many Christians and some neopagans.

#4 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 3:01pm

Tom Flynn,

You really find it curious and incomprehensible that someone likes a holiday that is fun and associated with good memories? You’re utterly dishonest.

#5 Matt Dillahunty on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 3:01pm

With the implication being that my reasons are incomprehensible?

#6 Matt Dillahunty on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 3:30pm

“As curious as if I, though not a Hindu, suddenly developed a great fondness for Diwali.”

Well, I suppose you could be Sikh or Jain, as they also celebrate Diwali…but who said anything about a “sudden” fondness? And while I’m not aware of a secular Diwali tradition in the same sense that we have a strong secular Christmas tradition, there certainly might be one (now or in the future). But even if there weren’t, it might help to actually ask WHY you have a fondness for Diwali before declaring it ‘incomprehensible’.

I don’t find it incomprehensible that someone could like beets, while I don’t…or that they might be enthusiastic about arbor day, when I’m not…or that they might prefer a movie that I don’t lie…

But I certainly don’t find it incomprehensible that people might enjoy taking time off from the normal activities to spend time with loved ones, exchange gifts, eat meals, sing songs, reminisce, etc.

In fact, it’s not only easy to comprehend why people might enjoy it, but it’s also a sort of obvious and predictable result of being social creatures who enjoy family, story-telling, traditions, music and leisure time.

When you list the most prominent aspects of modern Christmas, explicitly religious items barely make the list. As we drove around the neighborhoods near our home, surveying hundreds of houses, only a small handful (less than 10) had any overt religious displays. Clearly most of those families were religious and most of those were Christian, yet their decorations were secular. Snowmen, Santa, presents, dear, lights, candy canes…none of these are religious symbols.

For many of us, we were raised with the understanding that there’s a religious “Christ Mass” and a secular “Christmas”. Some denominations forbid any sort of celebration because of the pollution from the secular Christmas. Christmas has been illegal, at times, when religious fundamentalists were able to do so.

While trees, holly and other aspects certainly have pagan origins - decorating a tree doesn’t make me any more pagan or neo-pagan than having a gargoyle on my porch means that I’m trying to keep away evil spirits. It’s tradition and a tradition that has transcended the origins while the origins have faded into obscurity.

Is it also incomprehensible that I might enjoy dressing up for Halloween?

#7 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 3:31pm

Beth, I really find it incomprehensible that anyone feels attached to a religious holiday (for that’s what Xmas is at core) that isn’t attached to their religion. Matt, yes that is my implication. I grew up Christian, I know why the holiday had all those positive associations that I now recognize as misleading lures. Maybe it’s me, but I’ve never been able to understand how people *not* fueled by either a mystical regard for the baby Jesus or a conviction that a spectral dragon really was eating the sun could find Xmas/Solstice anything to get so excited about.

If I’d never been a Christian—or a pagan—I can’t imagine regarding Xmas/Solstice any more warmly than I do Hanukkah or Eid al Adha or Diwali, holidays that don’t belong to any tradition I accepted and hence have no allure whatever for me.


#8 Matt Dillahunty on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 3:32pm

“dear” should be “deer” - and that might not be the only typo. Sorry.

#9 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 4:30pm

Tom Flynn,

I find it unbelievable that you can live in this culture, see how people actually celebrate Christmas, and still be confused as to why someone would be attached to it.

I don’t view it as religious, no matter what you think the “core” of it is. I can do everything I want, that makes me happy, without ever invoking religion.

Many Americans raised without religion still had wonderful, beautiful secular Christmases and regard them fondly.

There are many things that I don’t celebrate, but I don’t go around telling people that do celebrate that they’re doing it wrong.

#10 Marc David Barnhill on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 8:46pm

Tom, I must confess I’m also baffled as to how this could actually baffle you. I was raised Jewish, and though in my early years I vaguely accepted Old Testament teachings I certainly never believed any of the teachings of Christianity. Nonetheless, I adored, and still adore, Christmas, for all the secular reasons cited by Matt above; it is, in more ways than one, what my year leads up to. (My wife, an atheist who was not brought up in any faith tradition but who comes from Christian stock, enjoys the customs of Hanukkah much more than I ever did.) The lights are beautiful, the trees and decorations are pure happy-making, the emphasis on peace and celebration are wonderful, and the songs have a bittersweet poignancy for me that they arguably can’t have for a believer. What’s more, in the years since I first identified myself as an atheist, I’ve only come to have a greater appreciation for the Christian mythology surrounding the solstice, with its themes of hope and salvation. I’m also fond of Easter, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, and other celebrations that originated in cultures and beliefs that are not my own. I understand and respect those who don’t care to celebrate (or even recognize) a holiday associated with a religious tradition, or find they feel no affinity with such a holiday; it’s a pity some can’t extend the same effort of understanding toward secular celebrators.

#11 tracieh (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 8:55pm

I was raised fundamentalist Christian, so I was never allowed to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday—only as a secular one. As a Christian in the Church of Christ, labeling this holiday “Christian” was considered blasphemous. Additionally, we were warned most years around December of the “dangers” of associating with pagan rites and rituals that might be displeasing to god or that might give others the misconception we celebrated it as a Christian holiday—and oh my, wouldn’t want others to have the wrong impression, must worry what others think of us.

Once I started letting go of religion and studying anthropology, I learned a great deal about a great many multi-cultural customs—some horrible, some fun, most based on superstitious stories and beliefs (that often were just veneers for pragmatic socially useful behaviors). But I can honestly say that were I visiting India at the time of a religious festival, and I were invited to participate—and it involved gift giving and great food, dancing, and any other assorted revelry—I’d be the first on to sign up to participate.

These “pagan” (or Christian, for that matter) symbols have no more hold over my mind. I don’t have to celebrate them—but I also don’t have to empower them to the point of avoidance, as so many did in my church years. I’m free to celebrate them now without fear, shame, concern about the judgments of others, or doctrinal restrictions. I don’t plan to ever go back to chaining my mind to those ridiculous fears of what others might think, or letting others tell me what some fun event must mean, and how it’s evil sway must be avoided so that I don’t inadvertently wind up embroiled in sin. This particular holiday is such a convoluted hodge-podge of intercultural traditions over nations and centuries, that declaring it has to mean anything specific to anyone besides oneself, is fairly impossible. I’m not indoctrinated any more. I’m not an “adherent”—and I don’t plan to live my atheist life as if I just switched one dogmatic set of symbol-empowering restrictions (over something as silly as decorating a tree and drinking a cup of hot cider) for another.

And for the record—I have a love of Ganesha—the elephant headed god. I have several Ganesha figurines in my home and a Shiva doing the Cosmic Dance. I additionally have many Kokopelli motif items. And I don’t have an ounce of fear that god will strike me down for keeping these idols in my house. They’re beautiful, fun, and I know the superstitious traditions behind all of them (after having studied Anthropology of Religion). Free-thinker. Free-mind. No restrictions/shackles. Took those off when I walked out the church doors.

#12 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 10:43pm

I’m curious as to what the Tom-Flynn-approved list of holidays looks like. It’s SAINT Valentine’s day, so that’s out. St. Patrick too. Obviously Easter.

I suppose 4th of July is probably ok. Labor Day too.

Halloween is Christian/Pagan, so that’s gone. Thanksgiving too. And especially Christmas.

So wow, what a fucking depressing year if you based it on those criteria.

#13 Benjamin Radford on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 11:48pm

Tom, thank God you cleared that up!

#14 rajesh duggal (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 1:52am

I used to celebrate my birthday with cake and candles until I found out that some other people make a wish expecting it to come true! that’s superstitious nonsense! So I stopped doing cake and candles.  Now I treat it like any other day except I like to take a moment during my normal typical every day dinner to celebrate by myself by looking at a calendar for a couple minutes.

#15 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 9:32am

Rajesh, I assume you’re kidding but FWIW I really *did* back way off on birthday celebrations for that reason. Beth, what’s depressing about a calendar with only the secular holidays? After all, in ancient days people needed all the holidays they could get because ordinary life was so austere. Feasting at harvest time really meant something because most people went hungry at least some times during the year. Today, at least in the first world, most people live lives of agreeable consumption day in any day out. Thanksgiving and Christmas are simply days to eat way too much of a slightly different menu, as opposed to the everyday fare we eat too much of every other day.

Average moderns enjoy plenty at a level that kings of old could only dream of. To say nothing of how it changes the tone of daily life that we understand as much science as we do; for average Westerners, life is steeped mastery in a way that few could imagine in medieval times. That’s my roundabout way of saying that, at least for the “haves,” everyday life is so good that there’s scarcely a need for special days any more—hence there’s far less need for holidays than there used to be.

#16 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 9:46am

Tom Flynn,

Maybe YOU don’t need holidays, but other people do. Living like kings compared to ancient peoples is irrelevant when the daily grind of work and school wears you down. Variety and cyclicity are fun and interesting and bring joy to most people’s lives. YOU are the outlier.

I don’t know why you persist on this Christmas thing. You are asking people to give up something that brings them pleasure. The burden of proof for giving up a pleasure is VERY high. You have to show that significant harm is being caused by it and that the harm can’t be reduced by modifying the thing that gives pleasure. You’re losing.

#17 Matt Dillahunty on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 9:54am

“what’s depressing about a calendar with only the secular holidays”

Nothing. I celebrate a secular Christmas. You’re suggesting that what I’m celebrating something with religious origins and therefore it cannot be secular. That’s simply false.

Also, you do realize that “holiday” has its origins in “holy day” right? Using your line of reasoning, there couldn’t be a ‘secular holy day’.

#18 Marc David Barnhill on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 10:12am

I assume you still observe Wednesday—secularly, of course—despite its origins as Odin’s Day. Not to mention weekends.

#19 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 10:57am

Beth, you say I’m an outlier. Guilty as charged, and proudly so. Of course, most secularists are outliers. If they weren’t, I suppose many of us would still believe in God.

As to who’s losing, I think the real loser is the atheist/humanist/secularist community, when so many of us invite Christians to dismiss us as hypocrites when we insist on clinging on to their holiday. I base this on dozens and dozens of discussions and debates I’ve had with Christians over the years, in which my interlocutors took me and my position truly seriously for the first time only when they learned I didn’t keep the holiday. (I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had a Christian tell me it’s the first time they were absolutely certain they were speaking to a “real” atheist after I convince them I really go to work on 12/25.) Until you’ve seen that happen a bunch of times, it’s hard to visualize how much “cred” we cost ourselves by “going with the flow” this time of year.

To Matt D. and others, sorry, there’s really no such thing as “secular Christmas.” The holiday’s (or holy day’s) Christian nature is so pervasive that it shrouds every part of the observance, from the pagan parts to the strictly commercial parts, in a religious glow. Just look at the literature showing that young children from devout but non-Christian households view all trappings of the holiday, whether a creche or Frosty the Snowman, as equally emblematic of Christian dominance in the culture. Keep the Christian holiday in any form, and you’re lending comfort to the enemy.

When we observe Xmas, or a lookalike holiday like the Solstice or HumanLight, we not only make ourselves disappear, we look like hypocrites and provide support to the pernicious myth that the culture belongs to Christians for the last 6 weeks of each year.

As to Odin’s Day and such, I’ve always admired the French Revolutionary calendar with new secular names for the months and days. Madalyn O’Hair tried to revive it briefly at American Atheists and I was sad to see it go. Maybe folks would have an easier time thinking of the third of Nivose as “just another day.”

#20 Matt Dillahunty on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 11:01am

“Just look at the literature showing that young children from devout but non-Christian households view all trappings of the holiday, whether a creche or Frosty the Snowman, as equally emblematic of Christian dominance in the culture. Keep the Christian holiday in any form, and you’re lending comfort to the enemy.”

Sorry, but the truth matters to me. There is a secular Christmas and Christmas is primarily secular in modern America.

Your argument seems to be “Look, some people think this…so rather than educate them and rather than continuing to expand the secular Christmas, we should just thrown in the towel and let religious people have it.”

Sorry, but if kids think that Frosty is Christian, the solution is to educate them…exactly as we would when the wrongly claim the United States is a Christian nation.

Or do you suggest we just give up that issue too?

#21 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 11:05am

Tom Flynn,

I’m not willing to let Christian ignorance interfere with my life. EDUCATION is the answer to people who think Christmas has to be Christian.

The secular movement is not going to live or die based on Christmas and if it was so weak, then it would deserve to die. I’ve never run across a Christian who thought like that. Your position is the one that costs the movement, if any. If people think they have to give up Christmas to be atheists or secularists, Christmas will win.

#22 Matt Dillahunty on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 11:20am

“Until you’ve seen that happen a bunch of times, it’s hard to visualize how much “cred” we cost ourselves by “going with the flow” this time of year.”

Special pleading to your personal data pool…while implying that those who disagree are actually damaging the credibility of the movement, while ignoring the credibility risk of appearing to be a joyless, joy-squelching, fallacy machine.

I’m pretty sure that my “cred” isn’t in question and hasn’t been impacted by my take on Christmas. If you’d like to debate that, or compare cred inside and outside our community, I’m happy to do that.

If I were to appeal only to my personal interactions with theists (which probably rival anyone’s) the number of times I’ve been challenged on Christmas, by Christians, is vanishingly small and has almost always been easily resolved by merely explaining the facts.

Education is preferable to surrender.

#23 Matt Dillahunty on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 11:48am

“Hey, you’re not a real atheist, you’re celebrating Christmas, that makes you a hypocrite.”

“Really? So celebrating Christmas means that I’m secretly a Christian? I’m sorry, but you’re simply incorrect. I don’t believe in a god - which means I’m an atheist, irrespective of what I do or don’t celebrate.

You’re aware that people can celebrate things for different reasons, right? With regard to Christmas, you should look into the history of Christmas. Yes, there’s a Christian holiday, but there’s also a secular component to it - one that is actually more popular than the Christian one. So popular, in fact, that it has been shunned by Christians and even made illegal.

Here’s what I celebrate, please point to the things that you think are exclusively Christian….”

That’s the beginning of a conversation that offers the chance to educate people about all the facts.

What you seem to be suggesting is a response more akin to…

“Yes, I agree with you - or I’ll at least implicitly accept your false impression - that any atheist who celebrates Christmas is a hypocrite and not a true atheist. I’m not one of those, so we can continue our conversation.”

My proposed solution offers a chance to improve things for everyone, through education. Yours seems designed to make your personal interactions easier while fostering misinformation.

As noted in my previous response - what you’re proposing, when used consistently, has us *potentially* sacrificing all sorts of ground (Xian nation, God required for morality, etc.).

Shouldn’t we be standing in opposition to ignorance, irrationality and false beliefs?

#24 Melody Hensley on Monday December 24, 2012 at 9:06am

I never liked Christmas traditions and I was happy to give them up when I became an adult. I never looked back. I also don’t like people assuming that their traditions are the default this time of the year. People become very presumptuous.

#25 Stephen B. (Guest) on Friday January 04, 2013 at 6:03am

“Christmas” (just meaning a holiday/festival celebrated at or around the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice) is a holiday/festival with a long history; its most recent major incarnation is as a Christian holy day, but it has lots of previous names and traditions, that have over the years kind of blended together to form what we see today.  To Christians it is still a Christian holiday, even though they appropriated all or some of the previous winter solstice-related holidays to form Christmas.  I think, to Seculars who celebrate it, it is a secular holiday regardless of whether or not Christians see them as “surrendering” to the Christian holiday.  These Seculars do not feel like they should be “held hostage” by the views of these Christians.  The secular holiday to those Seculars is seen as a conglomeration of all previous holidays regardless of whether or not they were originally religious in nature.  Just like the USA is made of many people from many different origins and backgrounds, this holiday is the “E Pluribus Unum” holiday, “from many holidays of wide and differing origins, one”.  Whether or not this view grows, to me, is dependent upon just how Secularism itself grows.  The history of this holiday is still evolving, changing… it’s not over yet.  As Christians’ influence in modern culture wanes, so will, I think, the view that “Christmas” is a purely Christian holiday.

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