So, How Do We Celebrate?

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

Don’t take Odin out of Yule

Santa Around the World

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

A victory for light in winter’s dark gloom

Making a Yule Log

The Magical history of Yule

Rosy Retrospection

Rosy Retrospection: A Look at the Psychological Phenomenon

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

Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

what is Christmas? blog series part 3 Gifts from benevolent strangers
There are ethereal visitors in many end of the year customs. Some are unpleasant and even violent. Others are benevolent gift-bearers. Most early gift-bearers brought New Years gifts. All seem to have a theme of rewarding good and punishing bad. Here are a handful of some lesser-known characters: Woden/Wotan/Odin and his flying, white eight-legged horse led an army across the sky during Saturnalia. He had black birds that would act as lookouts during his journey. Children would leave hay, carrots and sugar for the horse. Public banquets that spanned days included masters serving their slaves and gifts exchanged including dolls, candles, caged birds. A king of the festivities was elected and would preside over the celebration. St. Martin an adult male dressed as a bishop, complete with staff.  He gives apples, nuts, and cakes to good children and rods to bad children. In some stories, he fills stockings. It has been suggested, St. Martin may have taken the place of Woden. Befana-Grandmother Prior to Nicholas of Myrna (St. Nick) tossing coins down the chimneys of spinsters, Befana or Grandmother, was part of Italian folklore. Befana would visit children the night before the Feast of the Epiphany¹. She would come while the children were sleeping and fill their stockings with candy and presents or coal. Families would leave a glass of wine and some snacks for her. She may also sweep the house. Befana traditions are believed to have originated in Rome and spread from there. The followers of Nicholas of Myrna were able to grow their fervor and remade shrines to Befana to Nicholas of Myrna. However, Befana is still celebrated in Italy with festivals and celebrations. Saint Nicholas of Myrna is best know for secretly gifting sacks of gold to three unmarried young women without dowries to save them from prostitution.  He is celebrated as a patron saint of sailors and giving gifts in secret. His rise in popularity came from a small but devoted group who spread their devotion throughout the world. Even today, children put out stockings full of hay for his horse and receive candy and gifts in exchange. Also known as Sinterclaus in the Netherlands and surrounding areas,during the 16th century in the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas would leave small gifts. These traditions grew and morphed in fits and starts. Also called Sinterclaus, some festivities geared toward helping the poor with anonymous gifts started during the middles ages. There was also a lot of partying. Knecht Ruprecht often accompanied Saint Nicholas. He rewards children who say their prayers perfectly with small edible treats and punishes those who do not. Christ Child, Christkind was a reaction by the church to turn Saint Nicholas traditions toward Jesus Christ. One bishop wrote: “[Saint Nicholas] is a bad custom, because it points children to the saint, while yet we know that not St. Nicholas but the holy Christ Child gives us all good things for body and soul, and He alone it is whom we ought to call upon.” Christkind was developed and made popular by Martin Luther. Sometimes portrayed as a woman but most often a male, they bring gifts to many children in eastern and central europe as well as Central America. They are  intended to symbolize Jesus Christ as a child. Kolyáda, a maiden dressed all in white who goes from home to home on Christmas Eve in a sled with runners. Kolyáda is the name for Christmas and appears to be derived from Kalendae, which probably entered the Slavonic languages by way of Byzantium. The maiden is one of those beings who, like the Italian Befana, have taken their names from the festival at which they appear. Koyada was most common in pre-communist Russia. Grandfather Frost (Ded Moraz) emerged in Russia and other slavic areas from a god of snow and ice called Morozko after Kolyada. Popularity varied until Stalin reinvigorated Grandfather Frost in the 1940s complete with a blue suit and new years gifts. His traditional Russian sled is pulled by three white horses, each horse symbolizing one month of winter. I hope you enjoy these characters and that some are new to you as they were to me. If there is  character I missed, please share in the comments. Next up, Celebrating with Light Have you read the rest of the series? You can start at the beginning with Why December 25? Why December 25? What About Greenery, Wreaths, and Trees? Gifts from Benevolent Strangers That Sounds Delicious! Celebrating with Light So, How Do We Celebrate? If you’d like, you can subscribe below. You’ll get an email when the next piece is posted. Or, you can share this with a friend. While you are waiting, check out the shop! ¹ The Feast of the Epiphany has been celebrated by Catholics and Protestants since before they celebrated the birth of Jesus. It commemorates the arrival of the three kings to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  It also celebrates the baptism of Jesus as an adult by John the Baptist.

What about Greenery, Wreaths and Trees?

What is Christmas for atheists, greenery, wreaths and trees

Greenery was often used to decorate for winter solstice and new year celebrations, pre-Christianity. For some, the greenery symbolized the coming spring and hope for prosperity and good fortune. Wreaths symbolized victory, hospitality, the circle of the year, as well as the circle of life. Druids were known to decorate with garland, holly and mistletoe.

A quick note about mistletoe: Mistletoe was revered as a cure-all by the ancient greeks. The celtic druids thought it was special because it was green in the middle of winter. Both groups thought it had special properties of healing and re-invigorating. (please note, don’t try this at home, while american mistletoe is only slightly toxic, european mistletoe is quite toxic. It is likely the “invigorating” experience was the early stages of poisoning)

Evergreen trees are known in many cultures as symbols of longevity, renewal, endurance, and even revered as the homes of gods or goddesses. In some cultures, trees act as a symbolic gate, for the re-entry of departed loved ones.

Trees were decorated outdoors at least as far back as Saturnalia. These trees were decorated with sun, stars, gingerbread shaped like animals and gods, and perhaps coins. At some point, trees came indoors.

Christmas Eve had also been adopted as the feast day of Adam and Eve during medieval times. Some trees were decorated with apples symbolizing the apple Eve ate in the garden of Eden. These trees were also called Paradise Trees.

While it is not entirely clear whether indoor trees were part of the Saturnalia or Kalends celebrations, we can feel certain trees came indoors by 1600 in Strasburg in Protestant homes. There are records of tree decorating being denounced by a Protestant¹  theologian around the middle of the 17th century, the criticisms aimed to redirect this practice toward more appropriate celebrations of Jesus. These indoor trees were hung by the trunk from the ceiling (upside down), in the home and decorated with homemade decorations that were often food-based. They included nuts, marzipan and animals.

Indoor decorated trees slowly made their way across Europe, until in 1840 or so, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert very publicly had a Christmas tree. Quickly, opportunistic doll makers introduced tree toppers as winged fairy dolls. Birds of paradise, glockenspiels (similar to a xylophone), and flowers were also used. Glass blowers also took advantage of the new trend and introduced blown glass ornaments.

Community trees were also introduced by businesses and communities as part of their advertising efforts.

Later, trees in homes were also decorated with unwrapped gifts hung in the branches. (Wrapping gifts was not widespread until the 19th century.)

So, if you choose to celebrate with a decorated indoor tree or greenery, you are in good, and not necessarily christian, company. Greenery creates a transformative connection to nature that can be embraced by anyone.

Next up, Gifts From Benevolent Strangers

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¹Protestant is a christian religion that started bubbling up as a plan to reform christianity around the 12th century and took root with Martin Luther and the Gutenberg press in the early 1500s. Protestant beliefs differ from other christian religions, such as Catholicism, in several ways, they do not revere saints, Mary as the mother of Jesus, and rebuked the purchasing of forgiveness. In addition, they do not believe in transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that the wine and bread included in the sacrament of eucharist actually change into the body and blood of Jesus.