The two Christmases

Arguably, there are two separate Christmases happening tomorrow — one secular (with gift exchanges, trees covered in lights, and family togetherness) and one religious (as in, Christ’s Mass). It seems to me that people’s Christmas customs fall all over the spectrum between these two, with some celebrating a very Jesus-centered Christmas, some celebrating a totally Jesus-free Christmas, and some with various degrees of secular and religious combined. From an atheist perspective, I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about this cultural phenomenon.

On the one hand, it seems pretty good. Most people’s opinions on religion aren’t formed by extensive logical and scientific analysis but rather on cultural identity. That means that, even if we imagine a world where everybody understands that there’s no good reason to believe in Christianity, many people will still want to participate in Christian cultural traditions. The secular Christmas allows people to continue to have that happy holiday they’ve enjoyed since childhood without actually endorsing Christianity.

On the other hand, the transition of beliefs doesn’t have to go in that direction alone. Perhaps the pervasiveness of a secular Christmas provides a fun and easy introduction to Christianity. Once you make a habit of celebrating Christmas and think of the custom as part of your identity, you become more vulnerable to arguments about what the “real Christmas” ought to look like. Of course you want to celebrate the “real” holiday — you love Christmas, it’d be bad to do it “wrong” — and thus a secular Christmas can turn into a religious one.

So, I don’t know where I come down on this. It’s hard to get any real data about the possible effects, because of the spectrum of different Christmases celebrated (and people’s not-necessarily-reliable assessment of where on the spectrum they fall), and the gradual change of such things over long periods of time. So, I don’t know which option has a larger effect. And maybe there’s something else I’ve completely failed to consider. What do you think?

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3 Comments

  1. Aristarchus

     /  December 24, 2010 at 9:55 am

    I agree that there are effects in both directions, but I think the stronger pro-Christianity effect is the creation of the social norm. We never celebrated Christmas in my house growing up, but my sister felt really left out. She’d do shopping around Christmas and sometimes go to friends’ houses on Christmas to join them, etc. Now, she was really interested mostly in the secular part of things, but the distinction was not clear to her. I think people see “everyone celebrates Christmas” and “Christmas is a Christian holiday” as true statements (which they are) and don’t really internalize the differences in what people are doing and instead feel like everyone is endorsing Christian dogma.

    That said, getting rid of cultural traditions is harder than getting rid of religious dogma. Christmas itself is partly a Christian coopting of earlier holidays and rituals, so maybe we should take some advice from the Catholic Church on this and not try to fight everything too hard. :)

  2. On the other hand, the transition of beliefs doesn’t have to go in that direction alone. Perhaps the pervasiveness of a secular Christmas provides a fun and easy introduction to Christianity.

    I’m not convinced. I have a hard time understanding how secular enjoyment of stuff like conifers with lights and ornaments, gift exchanges, Santa Claus, etc., makes one an easier mark for a silly story about (as P.Z. put it on Wednesday) a magic Jewish carpenter who was nailed to a stick and came back to life.

    I’m with Aristarchus:

    [G]etting rid of cultural traditions is harder than getting rid of religious dogma. Christmas itself is partly a Christian coopting of earlier holidays and rituals, so maybe we should take some advice from the Catholic Church on this and not try to fight everything too hard.

    I agree, except more so. The project of secularizing Christmas is loooong since begun, and it’s succeeding admirably. I’m not entirely a fan of consumerism (who is?), but there’s something encouraging about having billions of dollars of industry devoted to emphasizing the tree-and-presents side of the holiday. Jesus who?

    The Christians stole the December solstice holiday from the pagans; seculars are well on our way to stealing it in turn. I think that’s terrific—and the previous theft is an indication that such an exercise works. (And that Christians have no basis to complain that it’s unjust.)

  3. I’ve wrestled with this question for a last few years, because we never celebrated Christmas in anything but a secular way. In the last few years I got our immediate family (mom and brother) to not exchange gifts, except for my brother’s children.

    I have decided since last year that I enjoy the cultural and secular celebration with family. Last year sucked when we didn’t put any decorations or a tree up. I can’t help but think of the latter part of the month of December as the time for the Christmas feeling.

    I think that my wife and I will be going back to gifts, but in a smaller way. When I thought about the reasons I stopped, it was because of the pressure to buy nice stuff, rather than something with meaning. I might even make the gifts.

    Mike

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