This week is Thanksgiving in the United States. This means that over the coming weekend many Americans will be putting up Christmas decorations in and outside their houses. Many children will be putting finishing touches on their letters to Santa. The shopping malls will start to fill and while economists examine and measure the retail sales bump for signs that the world will not end, we, as a nation, will come together to incrementally crank up the material contents stored in our homes and the corresponding mass of our public landfills.
But what do Atheists do on Christmas?
OH, and some of us put up Christmas and/or Hanukkah and/or Kwanza decorations, we go to the malls or on line and get presents for family and loved ones, engage in Secret Santa negotiations and some of us (and by “us” I mean “them” in this case) sing Christmas Carols.
And there is another pleasure we atheists get from Christmas. From our perspective of understanding that Christmas is a cultural event as much as, if not more than, a religious holiday, we enjoy, and even get giddy about, the reaction of people who are nervous about their own religion and who disdain us atheists to our very existence. The ten commandments displayed at the courthouse is an abomination. The city funded Christmas creche in the town square is inappropriate and obnoxious. The Christmas tree in front of the state house? Meh…
But what about Richard Dawkins singing christmas carols????
I wrote the following a couple of years ago, but most of you have not seen it. It applies nicely this time of year …
The Bible-Thumping Grinch who Pissed on Christmas
I am amazed at the giddiness amongst Christian Fundamentalists that has fomented from the mere utterance of a holiday greeting by Richard Dawkins. The counter-insurgents in the War on Christmas … the Red White and Blue, squeaky-faced smirking shits that call themselves commentators or preachers are creaming in their jeans. But they are also stepping over the line, and I’m calling them on it.
I do not really know or care what Richard Dawkins thinks, or said, about Christmas. I do know what I think and how my multi-canonical family celebrates the holidays, and I certainly know a sanctimonious bastard when I see one. And I’m seeing them everywhere on the Internet.
Here’s how it is with me. My closest associate in life is probably my daughter, because she and I have known each other longer and more continuously and spent more time with each other over a number of years than anyone else. She and I have almost the same attitude about Christmas. It’s cool because you get presents. Giving presents is fun too. Which is more fun depends. On the presents.
There are additional things beyond this that we each appreciate. We both like the family gatherings and the food. I don’t care about the tree and the ornaments and the decorations. If it was traditional to put up model train sets I might care more because I have a Y-chromosome, and there’s a train gene on there. But I don’t care about the other stuff. My daughter likes that stuff more than I do.
I like the smell of air that is chilled by two day old snow, served up to my nose at a temperature between 21 and 34 F. This reproduces an olfactory experience that must match some earlier experiences that were pleasant. I don’t think my daughter has those visceral reactions at her age.
Many things about Christmas I find utterly annoying.
So, Julia and I have recently married into a new family, Amanda’s. Her family is part Christian and part Jewish, and of course Amanda and I (and Julia) share our particular “belief system.” Amanda’s extended (and I do mean extended) family is organized among a set of matriarchs. The celebrations of major holidays rotates among the homes of the matriarchs. Since only one of the matriarchs is Jewish, and that’s Amanda’s step mom, Jewish holidays are celebrated there, but the Christian holidays rotate through all the families, with the Jewish matriarch fully carrying out her Christian holiday duties.
There are certain traditions.
The Arrival of Santa. As long as there are proto-sentient offspring, some lucky designee dresses up as Santa and we all conspire to fool the little ones into believing that Santa is real. It’s a lot better than just lying to them. The transition they will experience will not just be “oh, mom and dad made up this Santa thing” but rather, it will be more complex … they will have vague, often olfactory and tactile, memories of each Christmas Santa event, each with a different relative wearing the Santa Suit. Moments after they realize Santa does not exist, it will also dawn on them that each of those Santa’s must have been Somebody … Grandma? Uncle Nate? Duane? That was YOU??? Holy crap! And so on. Trauma is good for the little ones.
The Bronx Swap. My new family does not call it a Bronx Swap (that’s me, I’m from New York). Rather, they call it “The Gift Exchange” or something genteel like that. Everybody brings one gift, then you draw numbers out of a hat, and so on and so forth. You know the drill.
The food. Say no more.
As long as there is an elder who believes that a prayer should be uttered before every meal, there will be a prayer uttered before every meal. The atheists stand quietly and politely. The agnostics bow their heads half way … it is probably less hypocritical for them to bow their heads than it would be for the atheists, which is probably, in the long run, why they call themselves agnostics. But I digress. The Jews who are atheists (yes, you can be both) bow their heads too. The fundies (there are a couple) squinch their eyes up when they bow their heads.
I imagine it was different back in the 60s and 70s, when the present matriarchs were either too young to be in charge or just coming to their own, but earlier matriarchs ruled. The Jews had not married into the family yet. There were, however, both Protestants and Catholics. Indeed, there were mixed marriages between Protestants and Catholics. Even more importantly, perhaps, there were Norwegians and Swedes mixing it up, interbreeding, getting along, and so on. The limit of tolerance is not known to this family! The whole thing would have had its own pattern different from, yet similar to, today.
Here is my point: There is a spectrum across which all these people, at these events, range. We have people who go to churches where their preacher tells them that gays are sinners, and we have gay people. We have people who worship Jesus and people who may think of Jesus as a somewhat misguided Jewish boy. We have people who are rabid atheists, people who are agnostics (an agnostic is an atheist caught in the headlamps of family matters, really) and Lutherans and Catholics and Promise Seekers. What holds everybody together is that they are related by blood or marriage (but never both!). Any one of these Christmas celebrations (and the same happens for Easter but on a slightly smaller scale) could be a wedding or a funeral, in terms of who shows up. They are just family gatherings, and other than the crazy guy in the red suit and the gift exchange, there is nothing ceremonial that marks the day.
But this is not OK with the right wing Red White and Blue God-boy Preachers and Talk Radio Yahoos. Oh no, not at all. An atheist, like Richard Dawkins or me or anyone else cannot participate in this ancient holiday tradition in a casual manner without Great Meaning being attributed!
When I look at guys like this:
staring at me from the Internet, and I read words like this …
The thought of Richard Dawkins singing any carols with explicit Christian content is difficult to hold — unless the Oxford professor intends to sing of a faith he does not profess.
We can only wonder which Christmas carols are Richard Dawkins’ favorites. The sight of an avowed atheist joining in the Christmas chorus is a bit hard to imagine.
I get a little angry and a little annoyed.
The cultural celebrations in which my family engages are not really subject to review, criticism, or comment by sanctimonious bastards like this. We have the right to assemble, and we have the right to mix creeds and cultures and approaches in a way that this family has managed to work out over the years very nicely. We do not need to be judged or told that we must stay away from Christmas or do Christmas in a certain way. The right wing fundamentalists do not own this holiday.
There is a lot more wrong with Christmas than there is right with Christmas. A week ago, my wife stopped at a major bookstore to buy a book for a Jewish relative for Hanukkah. She needed it gift wrapped, but they only had Christmas paper. This was during Hanukkah. That was annoying and, frankly inappropriate. That was Borders Books. The carols are annoying. I find all public music annoying, but the Christian carols are an imposition in the public square. I don’t care about Christian Christmas decorations going up in public space as long as the solstice rock (or whatever) and the Giant Inflated Dreidel can go up as well. I object to the spending of public money on any of this, but loaning a bit of public space for others to use is reasonable. It is public space.
The utterance of “Merry Christmas” and the widespread corporate and institutional exploitation of Christmas has never bothered me any more than any commercialism … from fast food to “without life itself chemicals would be impossible” … and not just because I’m used to it. Rather, I grew up in a liberal part of the country where no one really cared too much if you were an atheist or a Hasidim, and it was common to see diverse religious iconography displayed around at various holiday seasons. But this sort of thing has became an issue exactly because the right wing has attacked — attacked the tolerant and the unconcerned, the cultural celebrators and the casual Christmas-doers — from TV and talk radio, the pulpit, and even from state and national legislative bodies!
We are now expected to fall into line and behave as they do, or get out. I am supposed to become like Bill O’Reilly. I would cut my wrists first.
No, Mr. and Mrs Red White and Blue Pastie-Face Right Wing Yahoo, this holiday, or any others, is not yours. Christmas is just as much Richard Dawkins’ .. and mine … as it is anyone else’s. This is what is meant by the term “cultural.” The Cultural emerges from the actions and attitudes of the participants. What you are trying to do is dictate a narrow theocratically defined and litmus tested range of behaviors. Now, you are telling me what my attitude needs to be about a holiday in order to escape your disdain and ridicule. What will you be telling me to do next?
In fact, this holiday is more ours than yours, because ours is everyone’s and yours is close minded, selfish, parsimonious and pompous. You are mean. Santa is jolly. We’re with Santa, you cold hearted bastards!
I leave you with this:
Check out this series of posts about missionaries ….
- On a Mission from God
- Forget the Maginot Line, What About the Beer Line?
- Our Research Camp as a Mission Station
- The Great White Missionary
- Attack of the Hound of Malembi. Or, “Whose are these people, anyway?”
- Dirty poor people living in slime: Missionaries and American Idol
- Don’t be a Jew
- The good book
- Questions about Missionaries