It’s the most wonderful time of the year! That magical season when the weather gets cold, the days grow darker, merriment is palpable in the air, and—most importantly—we get time out of school! For millions in the United States and around the world, the month of December and Christmas itself bring joy and a temporary relief from the problems of their everyday lives. But because people just can’t seem to live a day without drama, it also means that we have to deal with all sorts of contrived Christmas-related controversies, including one, the increasing secularization of Christmas, which seems to come up more and more frequently every year.
Now I may not be a veteran of the War on Christmas like those brave anchors over at Fox News, but I think I’m qualified to speak on this issue given the fact that I am a passionate secularist and public atheist who—big surprise—loves Christmas! That’s right, it’s by far my favorite holiday and I’m not even a Christian. Shocker, right? If this somehow does come as a surprise, it shouldn’t: Christmas has long ago transcended the designation of being a simple religious celebration and to deny that is simply to live in ignorance.
To be clear, I am not claiming that Christmas as we know it is not religious in its inception, or even that it’s no longer primarily spiritual to millions of devoted Christians. Since the days of the Roman Empire, men and women have gathered on December 25 to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It remains a Church holiday with its own liturgical season and the Christmas vigil is still a vital part of many people’s Christmas celebrations. All I am trying to say is that it is possible to celebrate and enjoy the holiday without any of the religious components. After all, an unbiased look at it reveals a holiday that isn’t that religious at all.
First of all, I would like to examine the claim that Christmas is becoming “more secular.” It’s been a holiday rooted outside of Christianity since the very beginning, the feasts of those aforementioned Romans. Look at the date itself, December 25. Most Biblical scholars agree that the historical Jesus was probably born sometime in the spring and it definitely wasn’t at any point during the winter.
So how did we settle on the end of December? It’s a simple answer that has nothing to do with “God’s will” or religion: the Romans had two holidays, Saturnalia and Sol Invictus (the latter of which was specifically on the 25th) which honored gods in their pantheon, and elements of these celebrations, including the dates, were adopted by Christians as they superseded the Roman pagan religion as the dominant faith in the empire.
All that Christmas imagery that we’re used to, the decorated trees, elves, and Santa Claus? You guessed it, not Christian at all. Christmas trees were adopted from the Yule celebrations of the Germanic peoples, which were in honor of the winter solstice. As this was around the same time as the chosen date for Christmas, it became an integral part of the holiday as Christianity spread throughout Europe. Elves were a creation of author Louis May Alcott in 1850. Even Santa, who is (loosely) based on the historical figure St. Nicholas, was fashioned into his toy-making, North Pole-living self by a variety of 18th and 19th century storytellers that had nothing to do with the Church, and the most popular image of him as a rosy cheeked fat man in a red and white coat and hat was given to us by none other than the marketing department of Coca-Cola in the 1930s.
Speaking of Santa, it becomes pretty obvious once we grow up and stop believing in him that the entire modern idea behind “Jolly Old St. Nick” is a commercial one, designed to promote a consumer culture and sell as many toys over the holiday season as possible. He’s not about the giving nature of the holiday; he’s about making sure little Timmy’s parents feel obligated to get him a new LEGO set. There’s not much religious about that.
With all that being fact, what is there to argue against Christmas being largely secular? Nearly everything that the holiday is associated with in popular culture comes from a non-religious source. And guess what, that is just fine!
I personally love Christmas because my entire family gets together, we eat a nice meal, exchange presents, and have a generally good time in each other’s company. It’s a season of fond memories from my childhood and great new ones that I make with my loved ones every year. There’s nothing Christ-related to my celebration besides the name of the holiday and it doesn’t diminish the experience in the slightest.
But that’s just how I celebrate Christmas. My experience is irrelevant to any who choose to celebrate the religious aspect of the holiday, just as theirs is irrelevant to mine. Can’t we all just settle on the fact that Christmas is for everybody and people can make of it whatever they want? Take Christ out of it or not, I don’t care and neither should you. Just let me relax and sip my eggnog in peace.