I'm an atheist author and an activist for secular governance in the U.S. and elsewhere, and I celebrate Christmas every year.
It's not all that unusual, actually. Contrary to what you might believe if you've been fed a steady diet of right wing propaganda over the last few decades, atheists don't spend the holiday season eagerly waiting for someone to wish them a "Merry Christmas!" so that they can pounce on them, insult their faith or file a lawsuit. In other words, there is no "war on Christmas." And if there is such a battle, atheists are not leading the charge.
As it turns out, I and many other atheists enjoy celebrating as much as anyone else does on December 25. We might visit family, exchange gifts, overeat and do all the other Christmas things. And while many of us will try to be inclusive when it comes to non-Christians during the holiday season, we might even wish a "Merry Christmas!" right back to you on the street.
In fact, a Pew Research Center study from 2013 showed that more than 80% of non-Christians in the U.S. also celebrated Christmas. When you look specifically at those non-Christians who are also religiously unaffiliated, such as atheists and agnostics, the numbers were even more astonishing, with 87% of "nones" saying that they do celebrate Christmas.
So, the question then arises: Why do atheists and other non-Christians want to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they don't believe is divine? The quick answer is that we don't. The fact is that the date of December 25 has about as much to do with Jesus as any other date on the calendar, and that date is most certainly not the actual birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth.
As I mentioned, I am indeed an atheist. I don't believe in deities. But I am also a graduate of one of the top religious studies programs in the country, with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean traditions. That means I've read the Bible more times than I can count. And I can confirm with absolute certainty that there isn't a single passage from the Bible that says — or even implies — that Jesus was born on December 25, or in December on any date.
We might even wish a "Merry Christmas!" right back to you on the street.
In fact, according to Luke 2:8, there were "shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" on the date of Jesus' birth, which would indicate a day more closely tied to springtime (due to weather conditions), according to the story. Other clues, including the biblical description of the alignment of the stars on the night that Jesus was born, back up that Jesus was likely born sometime in the spring, not winter.
So, if the source isn't biblical, how was December 25 first linked to Jesus' birth?
Prior to the existence of Christmas as a holiday, Romans already had multiple celebrations around that same time of the year, as did many others around the world, for agricultural and astronomical purposes. First, there was Saturnalia, which included feasting and gift exchange and preceded a December 25 celebration of Sol Invictus, a Roman sun god. December 25 also became associated with the god Mithra, a child of the Earth itself, who was said to have been born with a torch and a knife. Many of these winter celebrations involved gathering with family to eat lots of food, in part because certain livestock were slaughtered at that time. At that time, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated, yet it was common to celebrate the story of his resurrection at Easter.
In the Fourth Century, during emperor Constantine's reign, it was the Catholic Church that decided to make Jesus' birthday a formal holiday and set that date for December 25, centuries after Jesus was said to have lived, died, resurrected, and ascended to his throne in Heaven. Because the date of December 25 was explicitly not biblical in nature, some experts believe this decision was motivated by a desire to weaken the pagan celebrations that already flourished in the region during that time.
And, it turns out that the plan to institute a Christian holiday among the other celebrations worked. It took several centuries for the December 25 date to catch on as a major holiday, but it did indeed draw power away from the pagan celebrations and, ultimately, overtook them entirely in most areas. In modern times, Christmas is often treated as the sole December 25 holiday, with some Christians refusing to acknowledge those that came prior to their holy celebration — or that some Christian groups mark Christmas on a different date, such as January 6, 7 or 19.
As December 25 approaches, atheists and people of pretty much every belief system should feel free to enjoy their food and gatherings and gift-giving if they choose to, confident in the knowledge that it has nothing to do with an ancient Jewish carpenter. They should remember that these traditions are not exclusively Christian in nature and that there are many reasons people have celebrations surrounding the winter solstice. Today, Christmas for many of us is about family, feasting, fun — and good old-fashioned consumerism, of course.
For those who are Christians who celebrate Christmas in December, feel free to share this holiday with the rest of us instead of insisting that Jesus "is the reason for the season." In reality, we can contribute the importance of the holiday known as Christmas to axial tilt, agricultural practices and politics of ancient Rome. Merry Christmas to all, regardless of what you believe or do not believe.
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