Celebrating Christmas as an Atheist

Guest post by Kathleen

Photo borrowed from Offbeat Home editor Megan’s post entitled “why this Atheist loves her some freaking Christmas.”
It’s a touchy subject. I’m a non-believer, but for me, Christmas has always been my favorite holiday for all the seasonal and festive reasons. I love the lights, the baking, the presents, the family togetherness time. Gingerbread coffee is the most intoxicating discovery for me this year, and I can’t get enough. Agnostic seasonal decor was a great post last year, but one of the unanswered questions, is what do you DO as a non-believer at Christmastime?

If you’re curious, these are my reflections, conclusions, and current practices as an Atheist as Christmas:

I put up a Christmas tree. My husband and I were married at my uncle’s Christmas tree farm, also a place I spent a lot of time at as a child. It has meaning to me, maybe not in the same way as some other people, but the tradition of decorating the tree was always greatly anticipated and still is. At least half of the ornaments we have up are small toys from my childhood. My dad used to take old happy meal figurines, drill a little eye into them, and attach hooks. As a result, I have a ton of great toys I get to play with revisit once a year. Plus I now have a whole shopping list of ornaments to collect, and a glittery dinosaur is right at the top of the list.

I use the Christmas tree skirt my grandmother made and as I kneel on it, stringing lights, I remember her and smile. I have my tree topped with a bow currently, but I have seen a lot of secular tree toppers; a snowflake, snowman, Santa, and even an owl. Or you could leave it bare, which I have done in the past.

When a lot of people I know are attending Christmas pageants at their churches, I can be found ice skating, sometimes outdoors, almost always falling on my behind. Not only is it a way to get active when it’s cold out, it’s a great secular, seasonal activity that doesn’t involve shopping. Unless you happen to see some really sick ice skate guards, cuz I’d really love a purple pair.

In the park near my local library, they have lights up all through the months of November and December, on all the trees and a big gazebo. And on quiet nights, when my husband and I actually have time, we grab a hot beverage, gingerbread coffee, perhaps, and stroll through the area, taking the opportunity to slow down and actually spend some quality time.

I bake. I almost never bake, all year. I don’t have the time, it messes up my kitchen way too much. But at Christmastime I break out my rolling pin. I make several highly requested Southern Comfort apple pies and tons of cookies. Other times of the year, I find it entirely too tedious to do this, but for some reason it becomes a comforting and zen-like task in December.

I play Christmas music almost all the time. I am a classically trained singer who received her training at a Jesuit university, so I am no stranger to music with sacred overtones, and have long learned to appreciate the music, even if I don’t necessarily jive with the message.

For me, Christmas will always mean family togetherness, love, and the delights of the season, such as gingerbread coffee, and it always has. I’m sure my stance will not be agreeable to some, both believers and non-believers alike, but I choose to celebrate the values of Christmas — like family and giving and joy — because I believe in them, even if I don’t believe in the Christmas story.

I love buying gifts for my younger cousins and nephews, and making them feel as special as I did as a kid. I love my new position as an adult, contributing to the family meal. And I love this quote from an article published in The Guardian’s “An Atheist at Christmas: Oh come all ye faithless,” which sums it all up: “I’m interested in the emotions underneath these rituals, not the specifics, and really what is at stake is a celebration of family and of love.”

Comments on Celebrating Christmas as an Atheist

  1. Yay for Christmas!!! I love it and we celebrate hard. We go the tree with so many decorations you can barely see the green and Santa sits up top. The house is decorated, presents abound.

    We have an activity advent calendar and go to the carols and concerts that are around. We shop for charity and donate presents for kids that don’t get many or any.

    We give out cards and candy canes and yes, we bake too! We make star cookies, because our eldest had a first Christmas wish when she was two, to ‘eat the stars’. We make gingerbread Mr Hanky cookies that look just awful, but taste really good. We have all our favourite stuff to eat (this year it’s bacon and spinach pie, prawns and crumbed chicken).

    We watch all the Christmas movies and have the music playing from the 1st of December. Santa has cookies and beer left out for him, and carrots for the reindeer (or our dog, whoever gets them first).

    We make Christmas ornament shaped pinatas, fill them with lollies and bash them open on Christmas morning.

    WE LOVE CHRISTMAS!!!!!!! And yep, non-believing family (except in Santa for a couple of us). Have a great one!!!

  2. Agnostic here, and after years with an abusive family Christmas is a day I’m finally coming to enjoy by spending it completely on my own at last! The uncharacteristic quiet outside my place in the city makes it feel still and meditative; like being in a school hours after the kids have gone home. Solitude can be a thrill. Also it means I can hear the birds singing; they stop at the start of winter but they seem to know when it’s the solstice somehow…

    I don’t have any ideas for spending it with others, aside from the standard feast-crackers-TV, but for those who are on their own and don’t want to be, I know it’s a cliche, but they could always go the soup kitchen route. Or there might be a secular scheme for matching them up to someone who would otherwise be alone at Christmas, like some older people.

      • Hi Kathleen, A freind of mine steered me to your article. I released a CD called Atheist Christmas this year, with Atheist Christmas being the title track (Naturally). I’ve got nothing but nice responses to it. I think perhaps it’s time for “non of the above” to have a larger voice in the holiday of lights. Best wishes in the new year, RC

  3. Oh man, we aren’t spiritual in the least. And for personal reasons, Santa doesn’t bring presents to our house. But we love on some christmas hard. I’m talking non-stop christmas music, decorations all over the house, and merry crafting all month long. We explained to our son that the meaning of christmas is very different to everyone, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it with the ones we love.

  4. Atheist as well! I get lots of people asking me if I celebrate Christmas, and some seem genuinely surprised that I do. Or other are surprised that I call it Christmas and not something else. I just ask if they believe in Thor. No? But you still have Thursdays, right? It’s the same thing. I don’t have to believe in Christ to find the baby Jesus story quaint. I don’t have to believe in Santa to enjoy the Santa mythology as well.

    I basically do all of the normal Christmas things (tree, gifts, nostalgic music, cookies, lights, etc) minus the religious aspects. Most people treat Christmas as a largely secular holiday anyway these days, I think. No one would notice anything different about my Christmas except that I just don’t go to Mass or have a nativity scene.

    • Haha, call it Saturnalia like on The Big Bang Theory. 🙂

      I know a lot of Atheists who have a hard time separating the two and feel hypocritical about celebrating. But it’s such a huge part of my life culturally, not religiously, that I couldn’t imagine not taking part.

      • This was my first Christmas I truly identified as an Atheist, and for me and my husband we stripped down the holiday completely and then thought about what felt missing from “this time of year”. We narrowed it down to white twinkle lights, which seemed utterly essential as the darkest part of the year, the twinkle lights provide a warmth we were just jonesing for, course we figured it out like December 27th and thus ran out and bought some twinkle lights. Gifts are still confusing at best, and we are still trying to figure out what to do, I feel like I will likely emphasize birthdays more this coming year. We also are really really into making food and feasting with friends and family and just hanging out together, that seemed like the real gold for us.
        As far as celebrating and a condoning of religious belief, consider that it is still factually the darkest part of the year, light does affect us. I didn’t really understand christmas lights at all til I moved to the east coast with all that grey and snow and darkness.

    • LOVE that concept of Thor & Thursdays! Putting that one in the vault, thanks 🙂

      Totally agree with what’s been said, I was raised Catholic & have long since declared my independence from religion… but I’ve always loved Christmas & that hasn’t changed. What I loved (and still love) about it was never the boring mass or the hard-to-swallow fairy tale of the baby Jesus–it was the secular celebrations with family & friends, the time spent together surrounded by all the season’s trimmings of tinsel, mistletoe, eggnog & twinkly lights. The whole charity & giving back to others thing also holds a special place in my heart (though I wish it wasn’t only a Christmastime activity for most of society). I have no problem continuing these traditions without any kind of religious linking.

      • “hard-to-swallow fairy tale” made me laugh, but there’s truth in that! It’s way easier to appreciate it if you aren’t trying to believe it.

        I’m an atheist, but I don’t think that means that the bible is worthless. It’s still an important historical text, even with all of its flaws and questions. And there are still lots of meaningful stories in it. Also, dragons!

  5. Another fellow atheist who celebrates Christmas! To me it means much of the same as it does to you. Family, togetherness, love, giving and a reason to get fat.

    To be honest, I think Christmas as lost a lot of it’s “christian” meaning anyways. I mean, in Japan, people eat cake and use it as a romantic holiday. Because it’s so wintery and beautiful. I think a good chunk of people who actually celebrate Christmas aren’t religious.

    Plus, Christmas is more of a Yule/Saturnalia/Germanic Winter festival than it is a traditional Christian holiday based on what is acutally involved with it. So no I don’t feel guilty for celebrating it at all.

    (And technically, if the christians are celebrating it…since it’s adopted from Pagan/Germanic/Roman origins…then why can’t I?)

  6. I’m agnostic, and my immediate family is all agnostics/athiests, along with my closest friends. All of us celebrate Christmas, just without church. But all of us have relatives who are Christian, so we grew up with Christmas, it just seems natural to celebrate it.

    It will be interesting when my husband and I start a family though, since he’s Methodist and his parents are pastors, so the actual meaning of Christmas will have to come up at some point, but I won’t keep my lack of faith a secret from my children (it feels like it is a secret from some of my relatives, but I just don’t bring it up unless someone straight up asks me what I believe in).
    But for me, Christmas will always be a time of family, giving, and love. That’s what it means to me.

  7. Atheist-ish/pagan here. And I LOVE Christmas. I even got used to calling it “Christmas” a few years ago. I used to get offended by the Christian overtones, but now I don’t care. My Christmas tree (always real, always hand-harvested by us – a ritual in and of itself) is blue and white and silver with a bit light-up Moravian star on top. I throw Christmas parties where I feed my friends way too much food. I love to buy presents.

    My only complaint is that I never seem to have the time to celebrate the solstice on its proper day, but I’ve decided to celebrate it in January this year. I know it’s not the same, but the feeling of cold, quiet, and darkness will still be there. Especially now since we finally have snow! Can’t wait to go tobogganing. Hopefully we’ll get enough snow to break out the snowshoes this year!

    • I feed everyone like whoa. I’m Irish, it’s in my blood.

      We haven’t had ANY real snow here, which is a bummer cuz I would be all over a little sledding.

      It’s interesting to consider procuring your Christmas tree a ritual, but it is isn’t it? We always go to my uncle’s farm and you cut the tree down yourself and it is a whole day affair. And it is harvesting, but I never thought of it that way. Lots of really interesting food for thought.

  8. I’m an Atheist, and have never thought it odd that I celebrate Christmas. It’s far more a cultural tradition than a religious one to me. Christmas to me is about family and food, and it’s always been that way. Growing up, my family wasn’t religious. I was certainly exposed to the Christmas story, songs etc. through school/TV/books, and always just took it as mythology, and part of the holiday which is meaningful to some people. I enjoy some of the religious aspects, but that doesn’t require that I believe in them. As a previous poster mentioned, I can enjoy Santa without believing in him, or the Easter Bunny for that matter.

  9. I’m a Jingle Jew.

    I do all the secular bits of Christmas, especially with my agnostic boyfriend. I like sparkle lights and trees in my house and all that. It’s happy presents and eat until you’re stuffed day.

    I light the Menorah and do my Jew business for Hannukkah, but I still like Xmas traditions.

  10. Can haz recipe for Southern Comfort apple pie? Or I could just google for one I suppose …

    Maybe it’s less of a thing to be atheist in New Zealand, but I don’t really feel like it’s a big divisive thing, most people get into the tree & all that. I’m probably the only one I know to go on (only when provoked) about how Christians stole all the festivals. I am pretty grinchy compared to most people I know, only a few of whom are religious. What I get most grinchy about apart from the commercialism is how most of the christmas stuff that goes on is based on winter when it’s mid-summer for us. That gets me more than the religion, strangely.
    As to what I do do, NZ tradition is really just to sit around preferably at a beach bach, with family or friends, and have a bbq – beers, potato salad, garlic bread etc., Maybe do something active in the afternoon but more likely nap before eating the leftovers from lunch. It’s great

    • As a Pagan, I would find it ludicrous to be celebrating Yule in December in the Southern Hemisphere…December 21(ish) is Litha (the summer solstice) – a whole different holiday! So I would have to have my Christmas (which I also celebrate) in June…which would feel really weird, since I would be the only one celebrating then.

      • I’m an Aussie… athiestish…. Most Aussies, when pushed, will say they’re Christian… but I think that pretty much means they celebrate christmas and easter… I can count on one hand the number of people I know who actually attend church regularly… where I’m going with this is: I would say I’m Pagan, in the same way that most Aussies are Christian…

        I *love* Yule… trees, logs, big roasted feast…. I’ve always dreamed of celebrating it in the winter…. but it’s not much of a celebration if I’m sitting under my tree all by myself eating roast pork….

    • Yes, I know exactly what you mean! I’m in Australia and I’ve always found it strange to be cutting out snowflakes and making fake snowmen in a state where it’s probably going to reach 40oC on the day! And I go on about the appropriation by Christians too 😛 That said, I don’t decorate much for Christmas because my family has always waited until December birthdays were over to put up the tree which means we don’t decorate until the 18th and that really doesn’t leave much time!

      Reading this thread has made me really keen to do a sociological study on different “Christmas” traditions one day though!!

  11. Traditions are what you make of them! Tons of what most Americans consider Christmas has little or nothing to do with Jesus, including the date, the tree, Santa, the presents, the candy canes, and definitely the cookies (so…pretty much the whole holiday, minus going to church and “the Christmas story.”) The way Christmas is celebrated has changed throughout the years, and everyone’s traditions are different. As a former Christian, I’ve been wrestling with how to handle the traditions, language, music, holidays, etc. that used to be so meaningful and are still so dear. The whole thing is meaningless unless you GIVE it meaning–so give it whatever meaning you want!

  12. Hubs and I are Atheist, but we’ve always had very different ideas about Christmas; I love it, and he hates it. I think because I work outside of the home, and he’s home all day, watching advertisements for it, he gets burnt out on the idea of diamonds and lexus’…

    Nerdily enough, last year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special started to change his mind. Halfway out of the dark.

    This year was our first year officially and publically married, so we elected to have our own little party with 100 tea lights and baby smores made of mini marshmallows and teddy grahams.

    • I can’t even begin to grasp how awesome the baby smores idea is. What do you use for chocolate? I imagine chocolate shavings…or…hold onto your seat…nutella.

  13. This was my first Christmas I truly identified as an Atheist, and for me and my husband we stripped down the holiday completely and then thought about what felt missing from “this time of year”. We narrowed it down to white twinkle lights, which seemed utterly essential as the darkest part of the year, the twinkle lights provide a warmth we were just jonesing for, course we figured it out like December 27th and thus ran out and bought some twinkle lights. Gifts are still confusing at best, and we are still trying to figure out what to do, I feel like I will likely emphasize birthdays more this coming year. We also are really really into making food and feasting with friends and family and just hanging out together, that seemed like the real gold for us.

  14. I just found your blog and love this! My husband and I have finally admitted we’re atheists (just to ourselves), and we’ve been trying to figure out what Christmas means to our family (we have two kids, who we are raising to be free-thinkers). I spent a lot of this Christmas thinking we were concentrating a little too much on gifts this year, but when you don’t believe in Jesus, what else is there? Or so I thought – I’ve loved all these comments, and now I realize I don’t have to have Jesus or nothing. We’re working on our own family traditions, and we’ll just keep nodding and smiling when we go to my in-laws’ super-religious house during the holidays 🙂 This is a great post!

  15. Beautiful article! Expresses my sentiments exactly.
    I’m agnostic & one of my favorite Christmas rituals is watching “It’s A Wonderful Life”. I don’t need to believe in God or angels to enjoy the heartwarming feeling it gives me every single time.

Join the Conversation