Of a Holy Secular Christmas

The only times I go into churches any more are for weddings and funerals, and, on rare occasions, when there’s no service, for a quiet space. I am not attending mass or any other church service on Christmas. And I guess, it needs to be said, and I’ll say it here publicly for perhaps the first time, formerly speaking: I am an atheist. And I’m celebrating Christmas. I love Christmas. But mine is a secular one, meaning that I have participated in most of the trappings of the season (tree decorating, music listening, goody consuming, gift giving, light hanging) but not in those trappings that are particularly religious (church going, Bible reading, sermonizing, prayer sending, nativity scene building)—and even when I listen to or perform music that is blatantly religious, “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” (to name a few of my favorites), I will appreciate the beautiful melodies, the nuanced performances, the arrangements, and I’ll even admire the beauty of the feeling and the narrative behind that feeling, without a conviction that this music represents literal truth or historical truth.

I sometimes wonder if it is not somehow inauthentic to celebrate a religious holiday in a tradition one does not participate in or even remotely believe. Let me justify my position. I am not the kind of non-believer that suggests that Jesus never lived. Nope, I think he was an actual guy, as human as anyone—I mean, in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. was as human as anyone. But Jesus was not born on December 25th. We don’t know when the guy was born, exactly, although most historians put his birthday early fall or maybe late spring. So why the 25th? Early Christians, in an effort to appeal to the Pagans and win over more converts, chose the 25th, a Pagan holiday called Saturnalia celebrating the Winter Solstice (which I understand was one hell of a party). So I can, in good conscience, celebrate Christmas as a Winter Solstice holiday, or, whether it’s his actual date of birth or not, I can celebrate the day as a symbolic birthday party for the guy who, while not the son of God, or God in the flesh, had a few really good things to say about how to live a life and how to treat people.

And I can celebrate the holiday as a kind of nostalgia trip. As I child I was spellbound, intoxicated, totally enthused by the season and this particular holiday. I was a believer as a child—and I know that part of the appeal of Christmas for the childhood me, beyond all the commercial stuff that’s been bastardizing the holiday for at least the last one hundred years, was a kind of wonder, a reverence and awe for the spiritual or religious aspects of the season. I know that added to the magic; and illusory as that magic was—the feeling was real enough. And I think about how I want my son to experience the holiday. I don’t want him indoctrinated but I do want him to understand some things.  I can teach him about the historical Jesus. I can teach him what Christians believe about who he was. I can honestly tell him where I stand (to do otherwise would be dishonest), and I can emphasize to him the importance of making up his own mind when he has the maturity to do so. But I imagine that part of the holiday magic, that spiritual part, might be something that is always lacking for him—unless the holiday can remain somehow holy without being dependent upon religious dogma and superstition.

I appreciate two of the five definitions of the word“holy” I find on my favorite web dictionary. Something is holy when it has the quality of being spiritually pure. Or, something is holy when it is entitled to worship or veneration—as if sacred. I can get behind both of these ideas. First, one can be spiritual without being religious.  Second, there can be something sacred, worshipful, venerable about the holiday if we take time to think about those values Christmas can represent—all of which are inherently good and secular to boot. Good will toward men and women. Compassion, tolerance, and generosity. Peace on earth. Gratitude. Childlike innocence and wonder. Quiet time with family. A really good seasonal ale. An attempt to resist materialistic excess. These things, when they occur, are just as magical as any story about a virgin birth–maybe more so because they are within the realm of possibility.  These things represent Christmas for me and will continue to embody the holiday for as long as I’m around, I suspect.

Have a holy secular Christmas, y’all, unless you’re inclined to do otherwise.  Then do that.  And happy new year.

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