Can atheists celebrate Christmas?

December 23, 2022 12:03
Photo: Reuters

There is something rather arcanely ivory tower-esque about this question – that makes it almost endearing to ponder. And the answer, I’d submit, is a resounding yes: atheists can and indeed should celebrate Christmas, at their pleasure.

The standard objection to atheists celebrating Christmas, is that Christmas is dubbed to be the festival that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ – for those who do not subscribe to Christianity, then, it’d be erroneous to celebrate the festival (other Abrahamic religions do celebrate at around this time of the year, but they are NOT celerating Christmas – e.g. Judaism, for instance, wrt Hanukkah). To refuse to believe that Christ exists, yet concurrently celebrate Christmas, appears to be a self-contradictory enigma that can only be rationalised as a sign of hypocrisy.

The issues with this objection are multifold. The standard answer, of course, is that we can celebrate festivals without adhering to the beliefs that underpin them. Foreigners can celebrate Lunar New Year and partake in the festivities without subscribing to a) the calendar system or b) the mythology and fables concerning the Chinese calendar. In short, rituals and celebrations can be undertaken by those who enjoy them for communal sake, or for the sake of self-indulgence and pleasure alone; there need not be any deeper or more profound meaning to the process of celebrating. Indeed, for non-Christians – including atheists – Christmas could simply be the occasion on which they unite and reconcile with their loved ones and friends, and reminisce (or commiserate) over the profound memories and experiences they have shared throughout the year. No religious connotation is needed on that front!

Sceptics are unlikely to accept this explanation, however. For there exists much in the rituals, ceremonies, pomp and circumstance that is inherently religious – for one, Christmas favourites such as “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are clearly sung not just because of their mellifluous melodies and beautiful lyrics, but for they carry special, religious connotations that are deemed to be contextually appropriate and befitting of the times. We sing Christmas carols on Christmas – and not during Thanksgiving, October 1st, or Easter – because they uniquely carry weight and contextual significance in light of the cultural origins underpinning the festival. Indeed, it is the theological affect and aura projected by these songs that render them so popular amongst masses – religious or secular alike. These carols are moving – they transform through their spiritual gravitas and lush subtextual meanings.

So is it possible for someone to be an atheist, and yet respond emphatically – indeed, enthusiastically – to the religious imagery and undertones of many of the festivities held over Christmas? I would argue it is indeed possible: that one is an atheist does not preclude one from appreciating – like a work of art – the aesthetic value and worth of cultural structures (e.g. hymns, Christmas masses, candy canes, or “Jingle Bells” being sung in nurseries) that resonate throughout those who are highly devout. One may not believe in God – but one can still accept and acknowledge the beauty of verses written about God. Indeed, that is what we regularly do when perusing literature. We may believe, outside the context of our reads, that the literature does not describe the objective reality we live in (I’m speaking here of how atheists view theistic religions – I’m not making the case that religion is disjointed from objective reality); yet this does not preclude us from reacting robustly and empathetically to the vicissitudes that befall the protagonists in the story. Emotive, sentiment-driven reactions to Christmas ceremonials are more than warranted – especially when it’s a splendid rendition of “Ave Maria”, “O Holy Night”, or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”.

On a more personal note, Christmas has always been a spiritual and inspired moment for me to take stock of the year that has passed. It offers the rare respite from work – the hustle and bustle, the industrial and hedonistic treadmill that has come to capture our modern condition. Consumerism may yet prevail, yet such prevailing does not, I’d argue, come with the expectations to spend ostentatiously. For Christmas is a nourishing season – it is a season that leaves one, even if momentarily, sanguine about the year that is to come, and nostalgic for the good memories of a year that may well never have been.

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come,
This grace that brought me safe thus far.
And grace will lead me home.”

On that note, allow me to wish everyone a most wonderful, terrific, and merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad, mis amigos!

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Assistant Professor, HKU