Thanks to Google’s auto-complete feature, I stumbled upon a question I hadn’t given much thought recently. That is, “should atheists celebrate Christmas“? There are a number of articles, most written by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins or Hemant Mehta in favor of celebrating it as a cultural holiday. I am of the same opinion but it made me wonder why. Is celebrating Christmas the same as endorsing Christianity?
I think the answer depends on what you do to celebrate. Since Christmas has co-opted many traditions from non-Christian sources (Decorated Trees, Yule Logs, Caroling, Mistletoe, Santa Claus, and even the date of December 25th), it’s completely possible to celebrate Christmas without ever mentioning or even considering Jesus. I suspect that’s what most atheists do and I would be surprised if it’s not what most Christians do as well. As a Christian child, I certainly felt like the church part of Christmas was something we had to endure to get to the part with presents and television specials. How many Christmas classics are about Jesus and not about Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, or the Grinch?
I would feel dishonest participating in a Christmas service at a church but having a meal with family, exchanging presents, and contemplating the past year are all wonderful ways to celebrate a holiday even if you don’t share beliefs with those friends and family. If one of those family members wants to pray before the meal, I’ll bow my head and let them. It’s more important to me to be with family than it is to question their epistemological foundations for faith. I would draw the line at them asking me to lead the prayer but I would probably sing a carol or two as well purely for the nostalgia or beauty of the song itself.
Ultimately it’s up to each individual to determine how much of Christmas they are comfortable with and communicate that to their family as best they can. As for whether you should say “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays,” I’m perfectly fine with either one. Unless you have specific knowledge of your audience (for example, if you’re speaking to a Hasidic Jew and it’s obvious they don’t celebrate Christmas), then Merry Christmas should mean nothing more than saying “have a good day” would imply. So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Good Solstice to all of you.