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Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas?

by David Dvorkin


A few months after I emigrated to the United States as a young, albeit already wavering, Jew, I encountered the American version of Hannukah.

Rend thou thy garments, O children of Abraham! I might have said, had I been given to saying that sort of thing.

I was prepared for Jews who pronounced Hannukah as though it started with an English h. I had already run into a lot of people in South Africa who couldn't for the life of them make the proper guttural sound. (They tended mostly to be the kind of English South African who thought it beneath him to learn to make a rude sound that occurs in Afrikaans. But that's another story.) So HHHannukah was just something to be shrugged off with a superior sigh - no worse, really, than the American insistence that one must acknowledge the presence of an h in words like white by pronouncing it before the w it actually comes after.

All together now: hhhwite. HHHannukah.

No, what really shocked me, even outraged the Jewboy part of me that remained, was the way a minor, non-canonical festival had been converted into a substitute for Christmas. Hannukah bushes! Tinsel and lights! Holy Moses! Someone played a record for me, ordered from a Jewish organization in New York (natch), that had a syrupy female voice reciting a poem: "'Twas the night before HHHannukah/And down from the shelf/I took my menorah/All by myself."


I don't remember what came next. Maybe it was, "The foreskins were hung by the chimney with care ... "

But of course that's not the point. The point is that American Jews (or "Jewish Americans" as Senator Joe "Putz" Lieberman prefers to say) are so lacking in a sense of identity, so weak of spine and heart and mind and soul, so envious of the Dickensified, Disneyfied, ThisWonderfulLifeified celebration of life and love and family harmony and saccharine traditions that Hollywood has convinced them their Christian neighbors enjoy from some time in the middle of November to some time in the middle of January, that they have to have a little, inferior, pitiful, tattered, Jewishy Christmas of their very own: HHHannukah.

Never mind that the semi-historical basis for Hannukah has absolutely nothing to do with the pseudo-historical and very silly story the Christians pasted onto a pagan festival to create Christmas. Never mind that the wacky Christmas story, combined with the creepy Easter one, forms the basis for Christianity, while the Hannukah story is a minor nationalistic one celebrating the killing of innocent elephants and a magical Middle Eastern oil lamp which was later coopted by cynical priests to help cement their authority and has as much to do with the fundamental principles of Judaism as the jokes of Jack Benny. Never mind any of that. All that matters is that American Jews, and especially little American Jewish kids, won't feel left out!


Poor little atheists. They feel left out, too. And not just because people make fun of them and kick sand in their faces and spell their name athiest. It's also because they don't have a Christmas of their very own.

Some time after I abandoned Judaism and began to call myself an atheist, I became aware of the weird annual discussion among atheists about how they should celebrate Christmas.

Oh, no, they don't call it Christmas. They talk about celebrating the solstice. Or perhaps the new year. Or simply the holiday season. It's all so generic that it really doesn't matter, does it? Besides, Christmas isn't a religious holiday in America any more, not really, it's been so terribly commercialized. And it's all pagan in origin, right? Co-opted by the Christians, so let's co-opt it back!

Now, in countries where most of the population is or pretends to be or has convinced itself it is or lacks the courage to say it's not or would feel guilty if it didn't call itself Christian, most atheists grew up considering themselves Christians. So their atheism isn't just an embrace of reason and common sense. It's also a rejection specifically of Christianity. Christianity thus tends to hold a powerful, even menacing, place in their minds and worldview. Bizarrely, therefore, they think that they can be perfectly good little atheists by celebrating a pagan festival because it's not Christian. Probably they even derive a little fillip of fear and pleasure from re-paganizing the festival that, in America, is the most important one on the Christian calendar.

And so they give solstice gifts and say approving things about pre-Christian, pagan festivals. Some of them speak fondly of Wicca (a new, fake-old religion that manages to be even sillier than Christianity and Judaism). Since all of these things are not Christianity, they are able to pretend that none of these things is religious.

What they seem unwilling to ask is not how they can celebrate Christmas without having it look as though they're celebrating Christmas but why they should even try - indeed, why they should even want to try.

What atheists need above all is moral courage. In a culture increasingly dominated by shrieking religionists lording it over a terrified populace, the atheist is one of the last hopes for reason and civilization. But only if he has the courage of his convictions. Not only must he stand up to the theocrats, he must also stand up to himself. He must be honest with himself. He must not make excuses to himself. During the so-called holiday season, he must be able to stand aside and look at it all objectively and say, "Why, this is silliness. Gussied up though it may be in tinsel and fantasy, it's all no more than ritual kow-towing to an imaginary being in the sky. I'm a grownup now, and I no longer need to believe in Santa Claus."

If you're not able to do this, then at least, for God's sake, stop pretending you're an atheist.


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