Christmastime may bring to mind flying reindeer that transport a rotund, bearded man as he delivers gifts to the homes of children around the world, but at its core, the holiday was initially intended to serve a different purpose. As far back as 354 A.D., December 25 was set aside to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, considered by Christians to be Lord and Savior.
Though the exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, Christmas has become the most holy day of the year for billions of people around the world who annually celebrate the first coming of their Messiah. But over the course of centuries, the holiday has also encompassed decidedly un-religious themes, including the aforementioned Santa Claus. So in that sense, Christmas has become a holiday of celebration for all, non-Christians included. Here, we explore how – and why – non-believers celebrate Christmas.
Christmas is the best excuse for a party
“Here is our philosophy about the holidays: If there is a party and there is food involved, we want in,” says Jen Hancock. Hancock and her family practice humanism, an integration of humanist ethical philosophy with religious rituals and beliefs that center on human needs, interests and abilities. While they have no specific religious affiliations, the Hancock’s love to celebrate Christmas during December, along with Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Solstice (the first day of winter) and Saturnalia (an ancient festival held in honor of the Roman god Saturn).
“My son loves the Hannukah tradition of lighting candles every year, and yes, we cheat and use our menorah for Kwaanza as well,” Hancock adds. “We have a Saturn figure that is about three feet tall. Every year we take him out and cut the bindings on his feet in a little ceremony and when the season is over, rebind his feet. So yes, our house is very festive with all sorts of decorations of different types.”
Celebrating Christmas fosters religious tolerance
Even though Alison Risso doesn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, she still explains the religious history of Christmas. “I tell my kids that Christians believe that a man named Jesus was god on earth, and that Christmas celebrates his birth,” she explains. “I do explain that he was a great man who taught that we should treat one another kindly, and that everyone was worthy of love.”
And living in an extremely diverse community means that Risso and her children have friends who are Christian (as well as Jewish, Muslim, etc.), so she is even willing to attend a church service if invited. “I believe that understanding other cultures and religions is the foundation of respect,” says Risso. “I may not believe in these things, but I deeply respect them and their importance in the lives of those around me.”
Hancock agrees. “By celebrating all the holidays, we help our son gain a better understanding of the variety of traditions and beliefs that people hold all over the world – Christmas and Christianity being just one of those traditions,” she says. “As a result, he’s way more aware of religious diversity than your average kid.”
Christmas celebrates all that’s good in the world
Baby Jesus in a manger aside, there’s something about Christmas that stirs up feelings of compassion, love and joy in all of us, and it’s no surprise that charitable organizations receive the bulk of their yearly donations during the holidays.
“Many people of all religions – and atheists – believe in the awe of human kindness and giving, says Sharon Hicks. “They buy presents, sing songs, plan dinners – all to celebrate our human compassion for each other. This is also our family tradition: to celebrate good will to all.”
Hicks, along with one son and a daughter, is an atheist, despite having another daughter who is Buddhist and a grandson whose family is Catholic. It’s a lot of potentially conflicting ideals and beliefs that could create enormous conflict, but that’s not the case. “We all have one thing in common: the Golden Rule,” says Hicks. “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. Be kind. Be compassionate. That is the rule to live by.
“And, by being compassionate, we become tolerant. Tolerant of the way others believe, because that is what religion is – a belief. You may believe one way and another person may believe another. Respect that.”