Why would a secular humanist celebrate Christmas?

The Sun and Daily Mail are apparently going mental over something this month – can you guess what? Yep: political correctness. It’s ruining the Christmas of millions across the UK. It’s a war. You see, Birmingham and Luton have renamed the holiday season, and hospitals are banning Christmas CDs, and people are being told to take down decorations, and and and…

All of which might be reasonable, were it not for a few awkward facts. Luton does not have a festival called Luminos. It does not use any alternative name for Christmas. When it did, once, five years ago, hold something called Luminos one weekend in late November, the event didn’t even replace the council’s own Christmas celebrations, let alone forbid anyone else from doing anything. Similarly, Christmas is not called Winterval in Birmingham. The Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children never banned a Christmas CD for mentioning Jesus. And Chester council’s “un-Christian” Christmas card says – as cards have done for decades – “Season’s Greetings” […] Perhaps the most notorious of the anti-Christmas rebrandings is Winterval, in Birmingham, and when you telephone the Birmingham city council press office to ask about it, you are met first of all with a silence that might seasonably be described as frosty. “We get this every year,” a press officer sighs, eventually. “It just depends how many rogue journalists you get in any given year. We tell them it’s bollocks, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference.”

It’s too funny. The Guardian article debunks the whole thing. Thanks to the Labour Humanist (get well soon!) for pointing this out. I’d have no problem with people choosing not to celebrate Christmas if that’s what they wanted, but doing it so as not to offend is pretty silly. But it’s not happening anyway, and I like that too. Me, I love this time of year.

What, people have asked, am I doing celebrating Christmas at all? Why would secular humanists have any interest in Christmas? I’d point out that you can’t really ask why secular humanists as a group do anything en masse – they don’t, that’s the point – but it’s nevertheless a reasonable question to ask any individual, given the obvious conflict between secular humanism and religion. There are two answers, I think.

Firstly, Christmas doesn’t actually have all that much to do with Christianity. It’s no coincidence that it coincides with the winter solstice, and the traditions of decorations, trees, robins, snowmen, receiving and giving gifts, holly and mistletoe all pre-date Christianity and are very much Pagan ideas. Christianity later added stars, carols and obviously the name, but the flaming plum pudding is still a clear symbol of the sun. Embracing Pagan ideas makes no more sense than embracing Christian ideas, of course, but the idea of celebrating the turning of the world towards spring makes sense. But this is only partly satisfactory. It neatly sidesteps the Christianity issue, but for me it doesn’t address the underlying question – what’s the point of celebrations of this kind?

The answer is they’re nice, and people enjoy them. I do. I like the lights, the music, the atmosphere. I like sending and receiving cards, thinking up and shopping for gifts and eating large amounts of chocolate. I like the tv specials, the many films, friends coming ‘home’ for the holidays and having a few days when Mum and Dad aren’t working (although with over 300 tax returns due in during January they don’t get much time off). Whether you think Christianity latched onto these things because they’re pleasant or it inspired them in the first place, the end result is that things happen that make people happy.

I see no conflict between my secular values and extracting and enjoying the best parts of Christmas tradition. As mentioned previously, most of Christmas isn’t inherently religious anyway. Many of the traditions make me happy, but enjoyment doesn’t imply any acceptance of the religious aspects, just as I can appreciate the beauty of religious music without thinking the words make any sense. I don’t think Christmas as celebrated in the UK has all that much to do with religion, and, despite the tabloid press, it’s not particularly evangelical either. Only the strongest of evangelicals would say that I must accept their doctrine in order to enjoy its results – the vast majority of Christians are perfectly happy to read a deeper meaning into Christmas without demanding everybody else does too. And I am too, just with other meanings.

People come together to relax and enjoy themselves for a few days – what could possibly be wrong with that, if it doesn’t harm anyone? I have far more worries over the endless pressures of work than I do over commercialism, and for all the complaining about the latter (whining which I think is pretty stupid, but that’s another post) there’s a kindness around the exchanging of gifts that you don’t find elsewhere. From a humanist perspective, that’s great – look what we as humans do, when we choose to. Of course it’s not good for everybody: if you’re lonely, or homeless, or simply don’t like the season, it’s undoubtedly not much fun. And we should (and often do) try to help out people. But, nevertheless, for many Christmas is something to look forward to, and I don’t think that can be easily dismissed. But what about the religious aspects? Should I have any qualms about those?

I think the Christian elements of Christmas are relatively benign, unlike creepy Easter. There’s the frankly weird nativity tale, but it doesn’t deal much with doctrine and I suspect most children simply like the story. Admittedly there’s virgin birth in there, which is a pretty stupid thing to tell a child is true (how do you do that without mentioning sex, btw?), and I guess there’s a magic star, but there’s nothing of any real-world substance behind either of those. It’s not like they’re anti-gay metaphors. There’s a touch of original sin in there, and maybe the idea of Jesus as superhero starts with the romantic tale of his birth, so I imagine it could be argued that it aids in the indoctrination of children, but I think it’s pretty far down the scale of things to worry about. I suspect the number of people who actually think the nativity tale is true is far lower than one might expect, too.

I see no reason why a secular humanist shouldn’t choose to celebrate for any reason he or she wants, if it makes them happy. And if everybody else is doing the same thing at the same time, even if it’s for different reasons, all the better. I know there are people who get annoyed by the festive season, and I don’t know what to say to them. I’m just lucky that I like it. The decorations are going up here over the next few days. I hope you like the festive blog theme – there’s always the rss feed otherwise 🙂