An atheist kid at Christmas

I’ve never been completely down with the God thing. But I’m completely down with Christmas.

In England, the Church co-funds some schools with the state, and they’re often the best option. So it was that this small, atheist child found himself in an institution that made room for daily prayer and explained to him, regularly, that the Bible was not just one book, but a whole library.

Mystifying shit to a six-year-old, I can tell you that.

Once, during the Harvest Festival, which is absolutely the Harvest Festival and definitely not at all Hallowe’en, our teacher handed out pumpkin-shaped notebooks and told us to write a story about the harvest. I wanted to please them, and I knew these people seemed to love Jesus more than anything, so my story was about Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, finding a machine gun in a pumpkin and going on the rampage. The bullets flew around their victim, giving them time to escape, because Jesus is merciful. (This story did not find its audience as receptive as I had hoped.)

I never quite developed the taste or the belief for religion, but I was surrounded by people who did. My schools went out of their way to explain every major religion with real reverence, and take us to Mosques, Churches, Synagogues and Temples. All the people around me — students and teachers alike — were from every religion, including some other atheists like me. There was never any question that any belief system was better than any other. They all just were, and the people who believed in things just did, and that was okay, and everything was fine.

At Christmas, we would be transported as a class to a nearby church, where we would sing carols and read Bible stories. Sometimes, I would be chosen to read the stories, which was exciting; I would also be roundly mocked for mispronouncing almost every single name, because these were the only times I ever set foot in a church, and none of these stories were about the A-Team or Knight Rider or Doctor Who. And it still didn’t matter. We moved on to the next thing, which was cutting out snowflakes or pouring glitter on handmade Christmas cards while someone sang Jingle Bells, Batman Smells. (Incidentally, let me ruin that song for you.)

Of course, as an adult I’m aware of the nuances of institutional discrimination that go hand in hand with having a state religion, and there’s no doubt that Christianity dominated the culture while I was growing up. It’s not something that I’d wish for my future children. Respect for everybody’s beliefs is an important value; prioritizing one cultural belief system over another is not.

None of which means that Christmas, exactly, is out. Nobody ever asked me why I celebrated the holiday while I was in the UK; here in the United States, I’ve lost count. Perhaps there’s less of a sense that every major Christian tradition was actually stolen from another religion, or that the importance of togetherness transcends belief in any particular deity or superstition.

Christmas trees are the most transparently Pagan symbols to have been co-opted by an invading tradition since the Easter Bunny, and I don’t think it’s something that Christians should get to own outright. Let alone the tradition of giving gifts during the cold, winter months, or of lighting fires, or being with your family. These are things that are not, and should not, be associated with any particular religious tradition.

To be clear, I don’t celebrate the virgin birth, and I’m not about to build a nativity (except, perhaps, out of dinosaurs, for funsies). But I don’t see any lyrics in Jingle Bells about that, or in Rocking Around the Christmas Tree. I’m not aware of the piety in Love Actually or The Snowman. Or even It’s a Wonderful Life, except for the involvement of angels, who might as well be aliens as far as it’s relevant to the plot.

What I do see are universal, human values that are worth celebrating. (And also capitalism, to be clear, which is not.) And that’s why you’ll find me by the Christmas tree on December 25th, the day that the Roman Emperor Constantine declared would be the Christmas celebration, with my family, wearing a jaunty red-and-white hat. I might partake of some eggnog — who doesn’t love drinking custard? — and we will eat a traditional meal together. We’ll even listen to the King’s College Choir, because you don’t have to believe in something to respect its beauty.

(Attending an actual Christmas service is a bridge too far: we almost did, once, but abandoned ship when my dad learned it would be bad form to leave halfway through. So it goes.)

Our culture — not mine, but all of ours — is a mix of elements from everywhere. We’re all third culture kids to some extent, abstracted from what came generations before. The least we could do is respect each other’s diversity and recognize that everyone comes from somewhere slightly different; everyone sees the world in a slightly different way. And more than anything else, to me, holidays are about celebrating our shared humanity, and building togetherness that crosses those divides and embraces each other for who we are. That’s what love is. And that’s what all of this is about.

I love this time of year. Happy holidays (all of them). May this time of year bring you want you want from it, and may the year ahead be joyful and prosperous, guided by one overarching principle that shines brighter than any star:

Love to all.

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Ben Werdmuller

Ben Werdmuller

Writer: of code, fiction, and strategy. Trying to work for social good.