The Meaning of Christmas?
I used to feel somewhat guilty about Christmas. I stopped thinking of myself as a Christian probably in my junior year of high school. I don’t really know when, I just remember being a Christian as a sophomore and not being one as a senior. The feelings of guilt started maybe a couple years ago, I don’t remember exactly when for that either. Why am I taking part in this? I don’t believe Jesus was any kind of savior. I don’t really subscribe to Christianity philosophically and even if I did I don’t think he said anything particularly interesting, so why should I care when he was born? I felt guilty because I was participating out of greed, not wanting to be left out, and not wanting to upset anyone. So I’ve been thinking and reading about it more lately.
Christmas trees, gift giving, and Santa Claus
First off, we should look at the general history of the central traditions of Christmas in America. Gift giving has sort of an interesting history. Early Christmas rituals consisted of a bunch of lower class types breaking into the houses of the upper class and demanding food and drink. This became less popular, but Christmas was still an occasion of “misrule:” kids (and other members of the lower classes) going out and drinking and generally stirring up trouble. This wasn’t exactly sitting well with the more wealthy people of the city. They tried to turn Christmas into a day of worship, opening the churches, trying to get those people off the streets. It failed, so they needed something different. Washington Irving imagined a kinder, gentler Christmas, with all the classes feasting together at the upper class’s expense. This wasn’t particularly popular either, but it led into Clement Clarke Moore’s Santa Claus.
Santa Claus is based on a supposed Saint Nicholas, from the 4th century:
Most religious historians and experts in folklore believe that there is no valid evidence to indicate that St. Nicholas ever existed as a human. In fact, there are quite a few indicators that his life story was simply recycled from those of Pagan gods. Many other ancient Pagan gods and goddesses were similarly Christianized in the early centuries of the Church. His legends seems to have been mainly created out of myths attributed to the Greek God Poseidon, the Roman God Neptune, and the Teutonic God Hold Nickar. “In the popular imagination [of many Russians] he became the heir of Mikoula, the god of harvest, ‘who will replace God, when God becomes too old.’ ” 8
When the church created the persona of St. Nicholas, they adopted Poseidon’s title “the Sailor.” They seem to have picked up his last name from Nickar. Various temples of Poseidon became shrines of St. Nicholas. 1 “In medieval England… in tiny sea ports we find the typical little chapel built on an eminence and looking out to sea.” 8 St. Nicholas also adopted some of the qualities of “The Grandmother” or Befana from Italy. She was said to have filled children’s stockings with gifts. Her shrine at Bari was also converted into a shrine to St. Nicholas.
The Christian church created a fictional life history for St. Nicholas. He was given the name Hagios Nikolaos (a.k.a. St. Nicholas of Myra).
Saint Nicholas became a cult figure primarily in Holland. It’s generally thought that the Dutch brought the tradition to America in the 17th century, but there’s a lack of evidence supporting this. Instead, it seems that Clement Clarke Moore essentially started the tradition with his “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1822. Moore, along with Irving and the Knickerbockers (an upper class group in New York) felt they were sort of under seige:
In short, the Knickerbockers felt that they belonged to a patrician class whose authority was under seige. From that angle, their invention of Santa Claus was part of what we can now see as a larger, ultmately quite serious cultual enterprise: forging a pseudo-Dutch identity for New York, a placid “folk” identity that could provide a cultural counterweight to the commercial bustle and democratic “misrule” of early-nineteenth-century New York.
From Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, my source for most of this section. The idea of Santa Claus would serve to move Christmas into a quieter, more domestic realm, substituting family gift exchange for the food and drink of previous rituals. The gifts started out as money and moved to more commercial items, and business pounced on the idea, marketing gifts heavily during the Christmas season, starting with candies (including, oddly, sugar shaped as cockroaches), moving to gift books and Bibles. Christmas gifts became more lavish and expensive as time went on and eventually people started to wonder if they were spoiling the children by making them holiday so much about them. From that we get the Christmas tree.
Christmas trees are generally considered to have been originally a pagan tradition in which evergreen trees were decorated in celebration of the winter solstice. Christmas was an attempt to convert pagans by including that winter solstice celebration in their traditions, so it’s no surprise that the tradition survived. America picked up the tradition from Germany. Part of the way the American tradition started was with strange Unitarian child rearing ideas, but in general the tradition was associated with the element of surprise; it was a way to give parents more control over the gift-giving ritual therefore reducing concerns over spoiling.
As you can probably see, the evolution of the central Christmas traditions had a lot to do with secular cultural reasons. They aren’t particularly representative of any facet of Christian theology, save for the actual figure of Santa Claus, which I’ll deal with in the next section. It seems to me that those traditions, which make up essentially what Christmas is to me, are easily separable from Christianity, and can be judged on their own merit.
Symbolism and Santa Claus
The general story and procedure around Santa Claus is a good metaphor for atheism, or more specifically secular humanism, in my opinion. First off, Santa Claus is pretty close to a personal god. As Religious Tolerance.org notes:
He is virtually omnipresent. He can visit hundreds of millions of homes in one night.
He is omniscient. He monitors each child; he is all-seeing and all-knowing; he knows when they are bad and good.
Although not omnipotent, he does have great powers. He can manufacture gifts for hundreds of millions of children, and deliver them in one night — each to the correct child.
He is all-good and all-just. He judges which children have shown good behavior and rewards them appropriately. Bad children are bypassed or receive a lump of coal.
He is eternal.
He rewards good and punishes bad behavior.
I would add that his mythology is built upon very spurious grounds: he flies around the entire world in one night, visiting every home, entering through a chimney, on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Completely absurd, of course. Children believe that readily, as they haven’t developed much of a capacity for critical thinking or questioning authority and they have a pretty good incentive to do so (presents). Essentially, my parents say so, it must be true. Kids get older, they find others questioning the idea, they get punched in the stomach for believing such a thing (er, maybe that’s just me), and the mythology increasingly makes less sense. At this point some parents may suggest that if the child stops believing in Santa, he or she won’t get any presents. Eventually, the kid stops believing, the parents drop the charade, and the level of presents stays the same. Gift exchanging takes on a slightly different meaning – you come to enjoy the thought put into the gifts given to you by your family and friends and enjoy giving gifts yourself.
Isn’t this a great metaphor for the ideal process of rejecting religion in our current Christian culture? The person is born into a Christian household. He or she is a Christian because that’s what the figures of authority (parents, pastor, etc) in his or her life say is true. Eventually the person encounters opposing viewpoints about his or her religion. The person begins investigating and has sort of an epiphany: he or she decides to reject Christianity and become an atheist. Before that (or upon informing said authority figures of the news) though, the person is warned that life will have no meaning, he or she will feel empty, etc. What the person realizes, however, is that life is just as fulfilling with the meaning created by your loved ones and the freedom to make your own meaning. The meaning implied by the metaphor is a respect and love for your family, friends, and by extension, humanity (I realize I’m stepping into the “humanists worship human beings” canard a little, but nothing’s perfect).
Every day after the realization that Santa Claus is a myth that you celebrate the Christmas tradition of gift-giving is a celebration of secular humanism, a celebration of the removal of mystical blinders. Meaning in life for you is the meaning created by your family and friends and by working towards the improvement of humanity.
Of course, you can intepret it other ways. Mabye you like the childhood ideal of Christmas better than the adult one. I can definitely understand that. In that way, Christmas is a warning to all who entertain the idea of leaving a current religious belief. Your life will take a downturn, it won’t be as joyous or blissful as it was before. We’ll call that the fundamentalist fire and brimstone message. Maybe you’d like to reduce the tradition to its basic core: an awakening, a change from clouded thinking to complete clarity. It could be a religious awakening (“born again”) or any kind of general philosophical epiphany. Maybe you see little difference in gift-giving traditions before and after Santa, and you apply that to mean that personal religious beliefs are not practically important to life. Of course, you can also step back, note that this is pretty superficial, commercial tradition, and dismiss the idea that it has some kind of metaphorical meaning.
All in all, the Santa Claus tradition and mythology can be interpreted in many ways; I would guess that most people can apply it in some way to their life. It seems to boil down to change, an awakening, a life changing experience. Most people have had something like that happen to them. I like my humanist interpretation, but you can interpret it in a lot of different ways. It can adapt to any philosophy or religion.
Spirit of Christmas?
At least in the Christmas traditions of my family, Santa Claus/gift giving is the primary tradition. I think that’s generally true for the rest of our country. But what else does our Christmas season represent philsophically? Charity and goodwill towards men (why can I not remember where that phrase comes from?) come to mind. Both of those fit in quite nicely with secular humanist principles:
A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
So we’ve found that the main tradition of Christmas and the general spirit can be easily adapted to an atheistic humanist viewpoint. I think that’s sufficient to justify the celebration of Christmas by a secular humanist, as I am. Is there anything from typical Christmas celebrations that should be excluded in a atheistic celebration? Nativity scenes are obviously right out. Maybe some ornaments that depict angels and the like (I don’t recall ever seeing Jesus ornaments….maybe that’s something to think about if this computer science thing doesn’t work out). The name is obviously Christian, but I’m as concerned about changing that as I am with renaming the planets. Though, I like NODWISH. And of course, Festivus.
What is Christmas if not commercial? The lament that Christmas is becoming too commercialized (as a side note, dictionary.com uses Christmas in their sentence using “commercialized”) can be traced all the way back to Harriet Beecher Stowe in the early 19th century. Is this a cause for concern? I would think Christians aren’t especially fond of the materialism of the holiday, at least the ones that think about it. Should a secular humanist? I don’t think so. Surely materialism at the expense of humanity as a whole is not something to be approved of. It’s quite obvious, however, that material goods contribute to the happiness of people, which is something looked upon favorably by secular humanism. So I would suggest it’s fine in moderation. Of course, Christmas is not particularly a time of moderation and an indulgence of American hyper-commercialism during this period could be taken as approval of how some of our goods are made: in horrid third world factories. So, I think secular humanists should at least be cautious and moderate in their Christmas celebrations. Political beliefs may play a more important role. Certainly someone with anti-capitalist leanings shouldn’t indulge in the spectacle of consumerism that is Christmas. Of course, living in a society means you have to engage in its economic system to some degree. Celebration however, is not required. I’m not one of those people though, so this isn’t something I’m going to ponder.
I don’t mean to hijack Christmas and change to any one belief system. I think the fundamental tradition of Christmas in our culture is adaptable to many ways of thinking. To be sure, Christmas will be more meaningful to Christians. It can have meaning to other people, as well, I believe. As it was put in a recent TNR article (sub req’d):
Even so, I empathize completely with the urge to make this season about something more than shopping orgies and hellish travel. Truth be told, the holidays haven’t been the same for me since I abandoned the biblical literalism of my upbringing. (Technically, the slide began when my Sunday School teacher spilled the ugly truth about Santa, but that’s a trauma best left unprobed.) Sure, I can appreciate the season as a widely celebrated time of love and sharing and good will. But a more rational, multicultural spin on the holidays just doesn’t pack the same gut-level oomph as, say, God becoming flesh to save mankind.