Jolly Folly: Why an Atheist Keeps Christmas

By Sonja Fitz
Tuesday December 23, 2008 - 10:41:00 AM

Local (San Jose) boy-turned-preacher Rick Warren recently made the rounds of morning talk shows to promote his latest book, The Purpose of Christmas (released in November, naturally—just in time for holiday shopping!). (Christmas too commercial, you moan? Please, that’s so last year. We’re in an economic crisis: it’s our duty to shop.) It set me thinking yet again about my giddy love for this holiday. Me, a devoted atheist and card-carrying secularist, one of the annoying holly-festooned carolers sending out handmade Christmas cards in an era of eCards and text greetings. 

The roots of the holiday are obviously Christian, although the trappings on the season are markedly less so. Officially declared a federal holiday in the U.S. in 1870 by President Grant, the holiday has devolved (in some opinions) since that time from a hallowed and somber observation of Jesus’ birth to a wintertime festival of twinkling lights and frenzied commercialism. But the slippery slope goes even farther back, as even Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols and decorated trees, given their possibly pre-Christian origins. 

The battle between religious and secular celebrants is as old as the holiday itself, with reason: there are many schools of thought that throw doubt on the veracity of the date as that of the savior’s birth. Isaac Newton postulated that Christmas was marked to coincide with winter solstice (in ancient times celebrated on Dec. 25), and Pagan Scandinavia did celebrate a winter festival called Yule. Various sources also credit December as the month of Christ’s conception rather than birth, and several cultures celebrate Immaculate Conception Day on Dec. 8. The New Testament does not give a date for the birth of Jesus, and some scholars place it in the spring. 

The controversy drives die-hard midnight mass-goers bonkers while fueling the grog-spiked festivities of those of us who choose to celebrate minus the nativity diorama. For us, the fun part of the holidays is the surrealistic winter giddiness that lies well outside church doors. Hello, Santa! First drawn as the familiar red-coated white-bearded jolly-maker in 1863 by German American cartoonist Thomas Nast, Santa has been claimed as a resident of the North Pole, Finland, and Lapland, while in Sweden, prior to the 20th century, Santa’s gift-distribution function was served by the Yule goat (given Santa’s possibly Finnish roots, a dig at the Swedes’ historical rivals?) 

In Latin America, Christmas is marked by fireworks. In Serbia, families bring home a young tree and burn it on an open fire, thumbing their noses at the hassle, expense, and pet-choking hazard of tinsel and tree trimmings. They also spread straw over the floor and spread walnuts on it. Huh? They sound a little wacky, those Serbs, but being a Croat by heritage perhaps I am wired to find them so. There are official Declarations of Christmas Peace in Finland, as well a hunting reprieve (Merry Christmas, reindeer! So helpful on Christmas eve and so delicious the rest of the year), and the refreshing Christmas sauna. 

In World War I, there was an unofficial Christmas truce, during which soldiers placed candles on trees and sang Christmas carols. The two sides shouted greetings to each other, and there were calls for visits across the “no-man’s land” for a small exchange while recently fallen soldiers were retrieved for burial parties. Christmas has even been commemorated from space, with a reading from Genesis aboard Apollo 8. It’s perhaps a function of how religious one’s upbringing was, the extent to which religious ceremonies and beliefs give you the heebie-jeebies. I was raised to freely choose my religious—or not—belief system and as a result I don’t gag at religious imagery and recitations the way my recovering catholic friends do. (Don’t try to convert me or do any harm with your beliefs and I’ll defend your traditions with my last breath.) 

Whenever there’s a controversy about public displays of Christmas trees vs. Hannukah menorahs vs. Eid crescent moons vs. Kwaanza candles, I say display ’em all: the more celebrating, the better! In fact, why stop at Christmas? A few international holiday gems I’d love to adopt include Meeting of Cultures Day in Costa Rica (Oct. 12), Anti-fascist struggle day in Croatia (June 22), Heroes Day in Namibia (Aug. 26), and a cool quartet in Japan: Greenery Day (May 4), Marine Day (third Monday in July), Respect for the Aged Day (third Monday in September), and Health and Sports Day (second Monday in October). Iran celebrates the Nationalization of the Oil Industry, while the eminently practical Taiwanese celebrate Tomb Sweeping Day. The Russians and Fins have holidays for different first names—I myself have been campaigning to make Sonja’s day, celebrated in May in Finland, a national day off here in the U.S. Any takers? 

So, those of you who want to forgo card-giving (e.g., Seventh Day Adventists) or trees and colored lights (e.g., the Amish) in order to focus squarely on the holiday’s spiritual elements, I say go for it and enjoy. But the way I look at it, ’tis always better to light a thousand-watt rooftop Santa’s sleigh than to curse the darkness. 


Sonja Fitz is an Oakland resident and still the proud owner of the translucently thin lint-attracting polyester Santa’s hat she wore during December while working at the downtown Berkeley McDonald’s her senior year in high school.