Can Atheists Celebrate Christmas? 

bruce and polly gerencser christmas 2015

Santa and his favorite elf.

Growing up in an Evangelical home, I knew that Christmas was all about the birth of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Gifts were sparse, often just two or three packages, but never far from view was the most wondrous gift of all, salvation through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The churches I attended spent significant time each holiday season reminding congregants that Jesus was the reason for the season. Sermons against Santa Claus, consumerism, and idolatry were common, as were pleas for money to help the poor and disadvantaged.

Polly and I started dating in September 1976. On Christmas Eve of that year I drove from my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio to Newark to meet Polly’s parents and attend her family’s Christmas gathering. This was the first time I had the opportunity to be alone with Polly, and we took advantage of it, using trips to the apartment complex’s laundry room to get as much kissing in as possible before returning to Midwestern Baptist College and its thou-shalt-not-touch six-inch rule. The family gathering was held at the home of Polly’s aunt and uncle, Jim and Linda Dennis. Jim was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Prior to gathering at their house, we dutifully attended the Christmas Eve service at the Baptist Temple. During the service, Polly’s uncle decided to thoroughly embarrass both of us by pointing out that Polly had a special visitor with her. He then said, “Bruce and Polly have a shirt tail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirt tail is.” I can imagine Polly’s Mom saying to herself, not very long if I have anything to do with it.

After Christmas Eve service, we drove over to the Dennis’ home. As I walked in the door, I couldn’t help but notice the largest pile of Christmas gifts I had ever seen in my life. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but it was quite evident that receiving a lot of gifts came in a close second. Prior to the gift-giving orgy, someone — I can’t remember who — gave a quick devotional, reminding all of us, yet again, as if we haven’t heard before, that Christmas was all about Jesus — his virgin birth, death on the cross, resurrection from the dead. Once the Sermonette for Christianettes® was duly delivered, it was time for the gifts to be distributed. Polly and I had already traded gifts, so I didn’t expect anything for myself. I was surprised (and embarrassed), then, to receive a gift from Polly’s parents — a leather belt.

After Polly and I married, we settled into a holiday routine that had us celebrating Christmas Eve with her family and Christmas Day with mine. Things continue this way until the late 1980s. I had stumbled upon material that purported to reveal the pagan history and true meaning of Christmas. Wanting to be obedient to Christ and untainted by the world, I decided, as the head of the home, that we would no longer practice Christmas. I can only imagine how heartbroken Polly was when I gathered up all of her Christmas decorations and donated them to Goodwill. I did make an allowance for us attending family Christmas gatherings. We bought no gifts for our children, treating Christmas as if it were just another day. For several years, our family drove to the Charity Rescue Mission in Columbus to help serve food to the homeless. Several families from the church I was pastoring at the time — Somerset Baptist Church — went with us. While I deeply regret becoming the Grinch that stole Christmas, I do think feeding the homeless put Christmas into perspective.

Somewhere in the 1990s, I realized that you could make Christmas into whatever you wanted it to be. Much to the surprise and delight of our children, we bought a Christmas tree and decorations. We also allowed for limited gift-giving. As I look back on this, I realize that I did with Christmas exactly what the Catholics did when they took a pagan practice and repurposed it for Christian use. Yes, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday, as were many of the practices associated with it, but I believed that such things could be used to further the gospel of Christ and give witness to Jesus. From that point forward, in the churches I pastored I allowed Christmas decoration to be put in the church auditorium. For the next decade, our home and the churches I pastored celebrated Christmas as most other American families and churches did. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but gift-giving was a close second. To assuage the lingering guilt I had over consumer-driven gift-giving, I made sure our family and the churches I pastored gave liberally to missionaries and the poor.

Eight years ago, on the last Sunday in November, Polly and I attended church for the last time. For the longest time, we found it impossible to attend anything remotely associated with religion. We had just gone through a nasty divorce with God, and we didn’t want to go anywhere that would remind us of our ex. After a few years, the distance between deconversion and the present was sufficient that we were able to attend Christmas programs and concerts without wanting to commit homicide. If I remember right, our first foray back into the religious world was attending the production of Handel’s Messiah at a nearby church. That same year, we attended a Christmas concert put on by a Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover band — Siberian Solstice. One of the mainstays of the group is my counselor.

Evangelicals often deride me for practicing Christmas. How can an atheist practice a religious holiday? they ask. Christmas is all about Jesus, and are you being hypocritical if you celebrate a holiday set aside to worship a God you don’t believe in! I suppose that this would be a valid question if the evidence at hand showed me that, indeed, Christmas was all about Jesus and his virgin birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. However, the evidence clearly shows that Christmas is all about family, food, and gift-giving. While many Evangelical churches will attempt to put Christ back in Christmas, most church families will practice Christmas in the same manner as their non-Evangelical neighbors. While Polly’s family still practices Christmas just as they did 40 years ago, it is now evident that the obligatory attendance at the Christmas Eve service and the devotional before presents can be opened are mere formalities — things to be endured until the real reason for Christmas begins.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fall on a Saturday and Sunday this year. It will interesting to see what local churches will do since Christmas falls on Sunday. The last time this happened, many churches held a short Christmas Eve service (so the tithes and offerings could be collected) and canceled Christmas Day services so congregants could spend time with their families. Some Baptist churches who normally held two services on Sunday canceled their Sunday evening service. Of course, wanting to show that they are not like “liberal” churches, a few Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches maintained their regular schedule of services.

As atheists, we thoroughly enjoy the holiday season. In fact, Polly and I both say that Christmas is far more enjoyable now than it was when I was pastoring churches. Quite frankly, the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were so busy that we had little time to enjoy the holidays. Like many Christian churches, who once a year want to show the poor and disadvantaged that they really, really care, we put together several food baskets and delivered them to the poor. (Isn’t it amazing that the poor only need food and help during the holidays?) Not only did we have to do obligatory alms to the poor, we also had to prepare for special services such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. By the time the new year rolled in, Polly and I were quite glad the holidays were over.

These days, we are free to enjoy Christmas without worrying about whether we are giving Jesus his just dues. For Polly and me, Christmas is all about family. We eat lots of food with no worries about waistlines. Polly loves to bake and I love to eat what she bakes, as do our children and grandchildren. For the next month, Christmas songs will waft through the air of our home —  yes, even religious ones. You might be surprised if you stop by to hear us singing Joy to the World, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, or many of the other religious songs associated with Christmas. The lyrics of the songs are but reminders of our cultural heritage. This is why you will also find us singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. For us, family and not Jesus is the reason for the season. If Christians want to focus on Jesus during Christmas, that is certainly their right to do so. However, I refuse to let them ignorantly suggest that Christmas is a Christian-only holiday. When confronted with such historical ignorance, I remind them that Christmas means different things to different people. It is a holiday that should bind all of us together, reminding us of the blessings of family and our common heritage. Evangelicals who stupidly say that there is a war against Christmas deserve a double barrel gun salute. There is no war against Christmas, and no matter how many times Sean Hannity says that there is, the fact remains that Christmas is a religious and a secular holiday. Christians are free to worship the baby Jesus and sing praises to his name, the rest of us are free to practice Christmas without the religious garb.

How do you practice Christmas now that you no longer a Christian? Are the holidays stressful for you? Do you still attend Christmas services? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Other posts about Christmas:

Christmas, 1957-2014

Christmas: A Plea To Evangelicals Who Evangelize Non-Christian Family Members

How Fundamentalist Christians Ruin Christmas

1978: Our First Christmas

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12 Comments

  1. Ami

    I love Christmas music. Doesn’t matter to me if it’s religious or secular, either.

    Definitely NO on church services.
    Hell no!!

    My mom buys into the whole ‘war on Christ’ thing. She thinks that Christians are being persecuted here in the US. Won’t hear otherwise.
    ::sigh:::

    I have said for years that I understand that religion brings her comfort, but I realized this week that’s not entirely accurate.

    She uses religion as a drug. She takes it to help her cope with her existence… married to a man who is mentally ill (even though he loves her) and horrible to live with. 56 years now.
    I guess technically it does bring her comfort if you look at it that way.

    She hates that my kids were not taught the “real” reason for the season, too.

    I’m a terrible disappointment to my parents.

    Reply
  2. AJ

    I have some family that are evangelical and don’t celebrate Christmas for the reasons you quit for a while. It really is a fuddy duddy thing to do.

    I’ll admit I’m a grinch in many ways but I do still celebrate. I avoid malls, I dislike Christmas music playing everywhere in public. I don’t go overboard on spending, decorating, etc. I enjoy the day of, when we hang out and eat good food. I get sort of annoyed by how long it is drawn out. I think working in the restaurant industry ruined it for me. People are not generally happy and having a good time, they’re stressed and mean.

    Reply
  3. Karen the rock whisperer

    Christmas has gotten easier for me over the years, as the stress of gift-giving has gone away. Once I was no longer a small child, I grew to hate gift-giving, both ends of it. As a giver, there was a ton of stress about picking the right thing. As a receiver, especially in my own household, I had to act delighted with every gift, even if I didn’t like it. And the stress didn’t end after the gifts were opened and the wrapping paper tossed in the fire; there were months of “why don’t you ever wear that sweater I gave you?”-type questions to follow. It got to where I simply couldn’t enjoy ANYTHING about Christmas. The music became an irritant. The family gatherings made me tense and anxious.

    Growing up I hated going to church, because my mother considered it an obligation to be gotten over as quickly as possible (we were Catholic). The only year I actually appreciated a Christmas service was when my parents were inveigled into attending Midnight Mass. It was a beautiful service with wonderful music and a moving sermon about uplifting hope. There were special readings and inspiring hymns. My mother hated every minute of it, because it lasted over an hour, which was at least a half-hour wasted according to her calculation. As I moved away from Christianity, I was glad to be away from church, and that problem went away.

    Now my parents are dead, I have no siblings, and my husband’s family have decided not to exchange gifts. No more problem! Now I can like the holiday a little more. Some Christmas I might even give up being a grump about the whole thing, but that’s a pretty radical change for me.

    Reply
  4. Geoff

    I live next almost next door to a church. It is described as ‘high’ Church of England, meaning to me that some of its rituals are almost catholic in nature. My first wife was quite devout, but died nearly fourteen years ago. Because of her, and the proximity of the church, I have always had a fairly close bond, connection anyhow, with it, its various vicars (the last two have left for reasons of relationship misconduct, though not improper I should say), and many of the congregation. I even audit their accounts.

    One habit is one my former wife got me into and meant I came to dread Christmas. I’m not very musical, but I can knock out the odd tune to myself on my home electronic organ. In order to give the regular organist a day off for Christmas, I was asked if I would mind standing in for her at the Christmas morning service. I reluctantly agreed but, even though it was a fairly small congregation, I was terrified, never having played for anybody outside of the home. The church organ was completely different to the one I had at home and the way it amplified every missed note and mistake had me ready just to run out of the church. The relief I felt as the last hymn finished I can still feel to this day. I must have done this a good dozen times, even after my wife died, and looking back I have no idea how I managed to get out of it. Perhaps it was the look of dread on my face. That’s how I remember Christmas.

    Reply
    1. RW

      Oh, Geoff! I feel for you. I was a woodwind player (TMJ ended that) and I also had to know some piano. So I occasionally got roped into playing. When my husband was a pastor 30 years ago, I did a little playing the piano for the church. A little as in, once. I was better than I thought but oh, the agony.

      I haven’t played piano in a long time. And my husband is no longer religious at all. Religion and religious people killed it for us. Anyway, glad you don’t have to play anymore. Playing and being scared is pretty awful.

      Reply
    2. J.D. Matthews

      This is maybe the only reason to be glad to have been part of the Church of Christ. At least there we thought using instruments in worship was a mortal sin, so that’s one thing that my parents never pressured me into doing.

      Now, being forced to lead singing during the teenage voice change? That’s another story.

      Reply
  5. Charles

    Hi Bruce. I am still a Christian—but I celebrate Christmas about the same as everyone else in the United States—except I usually skip the Christmas Eve service. Someone has to stay home with the lit candles so the house doesn’t burn down.

    Reply
  6. Melody

    Of course! It’s my favorite holiday.

    I don’t go to church often anymore, but do at Christmas and I still love all the carols. Some of them are beautiful songs. There were a few years where we went to the night/evening service and the church would be dark for a while and slowly brought back to light, while singing silent night for example. It felt a little magical 🙂

    I enjoy the Christmas and Easter service despite being a non-believer. Whatever is toxic in the sermon I don’t have to pay any attention to (there often isn’t that much as it’s a pretty progressive church anyway) and I can enjoy the rest. They usually have a choir or marching band at those services which make them extra special. However, it does feel a little painful at times: a part of me is glad that I don’t believe it any more, very glad even, but another part is a little nostalgic and does think that it meant more as a believer: now it is just beauty and fun, back then it had this whole deep layer of meaning poured into it as well. However, it’s mostly nostalgia and a feeling of being left out, as the people around me, presumably, do genuinely believe it. (I know chances are that many of them don’t actually believe it all as much as I used to, my family, however does.)

    Reply
  7. Melody

    Great picture by the way!

    Reply
  8. killarney camper

    we check out of christmas. we go camping instead! yes …. in winter and in a tent!
    yes …. even if the temp is – 42.7 C. really! canadians are a hardy bunch!

    Reply
  9. Theo

    I like some Christmas music, both secular and religious. I like decorations but not soon after Thanksgiving. I like getting together with family, having dinner and of course, the gifts. I also like the message of goodwill and kindness, even though it may be temporary for the holidays.

    Reply
  10. Julia Childress

    One thing I have to give my fundy parents credit for – the way we celebrated Christmas when I was a child. My father was crazy about Christmas and would never have given it up, so they came up with a compromise. Christmas Eve was devoted to the birth of Jesus. We had potluck dinner at church, followed by a candlelight service that I remember as being truly magical – beautiful music, dim lights, and a short service. When we got home, one of my brothers would play religious Christmas songs on the piano and we would gather ’round and sing as a family. We would then read the Luke and Matthew Christmas stories and have a prayer of thanksgiving that God sent his only son, etc. We would hang our Christmas stockings and then off to bed. Christmas day was a bacchanalia of gifts and food and family visits, totally given over to pleasure. We were quite poor, but my parents were geniuses at making something out of nothing, so we never felt deprived. I am still a Christian, and this is the way we raised our children, although we have put more emphasis on serving the poor at Christmas and throughout the year.

    Reply

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