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So, How Do We Celebrate?

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What is Christmas for Atheists: How Do We Celebrate?End-of-year celebrations throughout history have included light, decorations, gifts, feasting, frivolity, tradition, ritual, hope and celebration of prosperity, supernatural, sacrifice, scary characters and benevolent characters. Most of what is commonly celebrated during the winter is based on ancient traditions associated with the end of the year and not necessarily the Bible.

In my family, we always had the same meal on Christmas Eve at the same house (my maternal grandparents’), after the same mass, followed by the same Christmas curtain, in the same room, the same gift wrap (thanks to my economical grandmother who purchased a roll that I couldn’t get my arms around!) and many of the same ornaments. All of these memories together are what make Christmas. This year, when my brother and his girlfriend came for Christmas dinner, I served that exact meal to his delight!

So really, what is celebrated during the winter seasons, is traditions. In learning about the history of Christmas, one piece that really stuck with me was how quickly new activities and beliefs took hold and were considered age-old customs. The yearning for predictable comforts and ritual is the biggest part of modern end-of-year customs. This aligns with a lot of research about anticipation often being more satisfying than the event itself. When we consider how much of Christmas is anticipated, “they will *love* this gift,” “this special recipe *will* be so good!” Next year *will be* great!

Year after year of rituals that build a long-standing shared memory within families and communities is Christmas.

Alongside that, we know that memories often sweeten with time. That is, we may recall experiences more favorably than they actually were. Called rosy retrospection by researchers, this feeds into Christmas also and unlike other memories, is one a lot of folks share. You may also know it as nostalgia.

Ritual and anticipation, along with fond memories is excellent emotional priming that gives us a fantastic base for a cultural phenomenon.

Another common theme is revelry and hi-jinx. From changing roles to changing gender-oriented clothing, freedom of celebration and exploration abound. There is no pressure, just fun to be had. Add to it feasting, sweets, gifts and alcohol and you’ve got yourself a party!

Christmas has also become a holiday that is about celebrating childhood. A celebration of wonder through the eyes of children. Special gifts from a benevolent stranger, extra sweets, music, and special foods.

Another piece of Christmas is consumerism. The buying of things. The it toy, the must-have thing, the madness of Black Friday sales. When I was a child, there were fights over the last Cabbage Patch Doll and that seem to happen every year. It is here that we may find ourselves shaking our heads. I am right there with you. Certainly the folks who know how to play these chords the best are marketing firms.

Christmas is the time of year when advertisements are themed as nostalgic rather than innovative. Companies advertise how old they are to play the nostalgia chord in our hearts.

Old-fashioned candies, games, etc. are trotted out for black Friday sales. Even decorations feel nostalgic. Consider the charming, painted ceramic snow-covered villages that you can add to each year…

However, that consumerism has not been enough for me to say, “bah-humbug.” Instead, I look for the common themes and weave then together into something I can make my own. I start with the ancient celebration of hope and the return of light. From druid celebrations of the great mother giving birth to her son of light, to celebrations of fire as the hearth and center of family, light is a common theme that is easy to embrace and build on.

One of our family traditions is going out to look at holiday lights. My children will bundle up and take a cup of cocoa while we wander the neighborhood enjoying everyone’s decorations. We also like to visit neighboring towns and enjoy their community decorations.

Another common theme is greenery, if nothing else, as a symbol of the returning spring. In our family, we hang swags of garland over the fireplace mantle and stair rails. We have a Christmas tree that we decorate with ornaments that I buy when we travel. Each ornament recalls a family trip (that we most certainly remember with rosy retrospection!)

We enjoy music too, it is easy enough to create  playlist of songs that are about the season and not a specific religion if you like. And most holiday specials, like the Grinch, are not about a higher power.

We invite Santa to our holiday as well. I know there is a lot of controversy about Santa feeling dishonest and deceptive to some. I hear that. I value the wonderful surprise and the spirit of giving without expectation of reciprocity. We reinforce this throughout the year with random acts of kindness too.  In our family, Santa is benevolent, never watching, no elves reporting, and all children are on the list because we believe everyone is trying their best. I have explained to my children that many families talk about elves watching but I don’t know anyone who didn’t get gifts from Santa because of behavior.

Some families in our community do not invite Santa because they focus only on the birth of Jesus. That has been a talking point for us about how religion is the most important thing to some people and all of their choices are made around it, and not necessarily other facts or information.

We make special family recipes and host a gingerbread house decorating party too. While I did not touch on special foods, like gingerbread, this year, I will wrap back to that next year. Gingerbread however, is decidedly secular. And has a quirky background!

These articles are not intended as ways to start an argument. What I have found over the years is that gentle persuasion is more effective than the hammer over the head. When folks are confronted with facts so different than those they have embraced their whole lives, it takes some time to process them. So, dropping a historical reference here and there about other beliefs they may not align with is a gentler way to introduce folks to your atheist beliefs. This is my way, but certainly not the only way.

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How do you celebrate the holidays with your family? Drop me a line at

Want to dive in and learn more? Here are the resources I used to create this series:

Bowler, Gerry Christmas in the Crosshairs Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday
Oxford University Press 2017

Marling, Karak Ann Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday
Harvard University Press 2000

Brunner, Bernd Inventing the Christmas Tree Yale University Press 2012

Flanders, Judith Christmas: A Biography,
Thomas Dunne Books; 2017

Miles, Clement E. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan,

Elliott, Jock Inventing Christmas: How our Holiday Came to Be
Harry N. Abrams 2002

Steves, Rick; Griffith, Valerie Rick Steves’ European Christmas
Copyright 2005 Rick Steves

Full Winter Solstice Saturnalia Ritual Instructions

Mistletoe Toxicity

History of Mistletoe

HIstory of Mistletoe

History of Mistletoe

Pine Branches in Japanese Culture

British Museum: Journey to the East

Click to access Chinese_symbols_1109.pdf

List of Christmas and Winter Gift Bringers

Santa in Japan

Ho, ho, Hotei: The Japanese Santa Claus

“Don’t take Odin out of Yule,” Norweigan American

Santa Around the World

The True Story of Hanukkah

The TRUE Story of Hanukkah

Yule Log

Yule Log

Roberts, Martha The Joy of Anticipation

Saint Lucia song lyrics

A Glimpse of Light (Norwegian version of St. Lucia song)

Saint Lucia Celebration in Scandinavia

Saint Lucy Day

A Victory for Light in Winter’s Dark Gloom

Making a Yule Log

The Magical history of Yule

Rosy Retrospection

The Joy of Anticipation

How to Make the Most of Your Vacation

Stuff you Should Know, podcast

National Geographic, various articles

Chicago Tribune, various articles

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