Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Surely you don't celebrate Christmas?

I'm an atheist. Most people who know me know that fact if they know little else, and at about this time of year I am invariably asked the somewhat rhetorical and, I assume, half humorous question "surely you don't celebrate Christmas?"*
By Me haridas (Own work) [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Well... why not? I want to make two points:

1. It's not just yours, folks, and never was
Midwinter celebrations have been part of various cultures and traditions for hundreds of years. There is evidence to suggest that there were certain midwinter Christian celebrations and feasts as early as the first and second century ACE, however it wasn't until the 4th century that the Roman Catholic church chose December 25th as their 'official' Christ-Mass day. There is evidence to suggest that they did this to fall in line with one of the Pagan midwinter celebrations, the solstice feast of Mithras (the Roman god of light), in one of their greatest recruitment campaigns: the idea was that Pagans could convert to Catholicism without losing the biggest of their holidays and traditions.

So the Christmas that we celebrate today has more in common with the three main Pagan winter festivals than it does with the original Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus:
  • Saturnalia, celebrated on the 17th December was the feast in the name of the Roman god Saturn, god of agriculture and plenty, and is thought to be where the modern day tradition of having fun, exchanging gifts and eating and drinking far too much originated.
  • The feast of Mithras on December 25th originally marked the renewal of hope in the Pagan calendar, and is the closest of the three to the 'traditional' Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus.
  • New Year's Eve, traditionally dedicated to the two-faced Roman god Janus, gave us the modern day traditions of decorating our houses with greenery including holly, ivy, misteltoe and even Christmas trees.
For many hundreds of years the festival that we in the West usually refer to as 'Christmas' has been a largely Christian one, but things change. Christmas is not a one-size-fits-all celebration and it means many different things to many different people, with overlaps here, there and everywhere. Nowadays, it seems to me that Christmas is more of a secular celebration than a religious one, with having fun, exchanging gifts and spending time with the people that matter to you taking over from overt religious observance. Just as Christmas was changed with the absorption of Pagan traditions, so it is evolving once more.

2. Even if you could argue that it was 'your' festival, why take offence?
Some people see non-religious people, or those of other religions, taking the opportunities provided by Christmas to indulge in such activities as love, friendship, socialising, happiness and generally being nice to each other, and seem to be offended by it. There's something wrong somewhere in that thought process, in my opinion.

Now, I'm not in any way religious, and this may well affect my thoughts on the matter, but if I had a special day that I used for celebrating something or other and I saw other people who thought what I was celebrating was basically nonsense but nevertheless using that special day for making their own gestures of friendship in their own way, I'd be pretty happy about that.

I've known people of various faiths (and none at all) to swap presents, have a meal and a drink and spend time together on December 25th, regardless of their thoughts and opinions regarding the Christian faith.

And why the hell not?

* The person who prompted this post this year (he was not the first of my friends to make a similar comment) regularly tries to wind me up about things and has views on many subjects which are orthogonal to my own, but that, in my opinion, is part of what makes an acquaintanceship interesting and I'm sure he won't be offended by me responding in this way.