22 December 2011

An atheist Christmas

I am an atheist. Yesterday as I sang Christmas carols for the staff at work I thought this: singing Christmas carols is the most religious part of my Christmas, possibly my life. 

As I sang them, happy to be bringing joy to people, uplifted by the act of singing, I thought about how I don't believe in these lyrics - in heaven, the virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus Christ. I guess it is sort of like me singing along to a band that I don't believe in. Bruno Mars perhaps. Even though I love choir and carol time - it makes people so happy - I feel hypocritical.

I wondered why I celebrated Christmas when I am an atheist. And I realised I'm not alone. So many people I know don't have any religious attachment yet still celebrate Christmas.
My parents are't particularly religious - Mum went to church regularly before coming to Australia and Dad sang in a church choir. I was never baptised. When I was a child my parents encouraged me to attend Sunday school and learn about Christianity. I went to Sunday school and youth group - but I think this was more of an act to ensure I was included in the small minded small town I grew up in, and to help me meet friends. I attended Sunday school regularly until about 12 years old and even did a reading at church at Christmas time. 

However it had the opposite effect and I felt excluded by the church and other religious people in the town. As I learnt about religion, the act of sin and the way Jesus helped the less fortunate, I openly questioned my own misfortune - my ichthyosis. I asked the Sunday school group about the theological reasons of why I may have been born this way. 
There were a number of suggestions thrown at me, enough to make my parents remove me from Sunday school, marking the beginning of me feeling uncomfortable about going to church and having religion pushed at me (I regularly have faith healers take pity on me and offer to heal me by giving me a pamphlet or asking me to put my head on their shoulder). Some of the suggestions made by Sunday school about why I was born with ichthyosis were: I was not baptised, my parents are black and white and that's a sin and my parents drink alcohol. I was also told that if I lived in biblical times, I'd have been considered a leper.

Right. I knew something was amiss at a young age. I knew this condition is genetic and nothing could have been done to prevent it before birth. And I knew it was wrong for them to impose their misinformed beliefs on me. And so my parents pulled me out of Sunday school and youth group. It bordered on brainwashing. 

And from then I've had a problem with going to church. I have only been for weddings and funerals. When I go I never say prayers or close my eyes. I don't sing hymns. I always leave questioning whether religion should rise above being a good person. And my questions aren't only regarding Christianity - they're applicable to many religions. Why are so many wars caused by religion? Why does it deny people of 'opposing' religions the right to fall in love? Why is it wrong to be gay in many religions? Why is religion (or the leaders and believers) sometimes so judgmental, particularly to those who rely on faith the most? If Jesus was so open minded and accepting, why are his worshipers so closed minded?
So while singing about the Royal Child being born in a stable, providing hope to mankind, I wondered the reasons for me to celebrate Christmas given I don't believe in religion. And why do so many other atheists do the same?

For me, it comes down to this. I enjoy the time with family and friends. I love buying presents and writing meaningful messages of appreciation for those I love. I love the food and festivity. It's about appreciation and gratitude. It is about helping those in need. It is about taking time on one day of the year to celebrate and reflect, and have a good time.

It is about joy and magic and Love Actually. It's a roast on the barbie and a pretty dress. It's about laughter and wine and afternoon naps. It's about children believing in Santa Claus and being excited about his visit. It's about love. And joy. And singing Christmas carols gives me joy, and so despite not believing in Christianity, I will continue to sing. Christmas is what you make it.
I love Christmas. And I wish you a happy and safe one, however you celebrate.

Do you celebrate Christmas in the traditional way, or do you make it your own? Has the reason for celebrating Christmas changed for you?


  1. Carly,
    You always raise intelligent questions and I thank you for this.

    I'm responding as someone who considers herself religious but perhaps not the poster child for me religion (then again, who is?).

    From my perspective, one of the problems with religion is the people, the believers. Our own weaknesses often get magnified in the name of God as we try to spread His messages. It's a messenger problem often rather than the message itself.

    I have tried to use my faith to give me strength and hope for the future and to lead my life in a way where I do not harm others in the pursuit of my own goals. The operative word being try.

    I don't know why God allows bad things to happen to people, believers or not. It may be that He doesn't actually make these things happen but rather that he is there to give strength to endure the ordeals.

    Sorry if this sounds preachy. I will understand if you don't want to publish this one.

    SSG xxx

    Sydney Shop Girl blog

  2. Great post Carly. I'm sorry you were treated so badly by the church in your town. I'm a Christian and we celebrate in the traditional way :) I've often wondered what Christmas means to those who don't believe & I enjoyed your post :)

    I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

  3. Great blog! I love Christmas too, but like you, consider myself an aethiest. I also questioned myself in the same way you did when listening to Christmas Carols earlier in the month (Celine Dions's These Are Special Times, if you must know). I don't celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas Day, to be honest, He doesn't enter my mind. My focus is on my family and loved ones, and absorbing the laughs and joy of being surrounded by one another. Our Christmas' are steeped in family tradition, and that is what it is all about for me (oh, and Celine, it's about her too; it just ain't Christmas till I've heard her belt out O' Holy Night a few hundred times - I'm sure that's my gay gene working it's magic). Wishing you and your family a wonderful Christmas that brings you joyous memories for years to come! D xo

  4. Interesting post Carly :) I agree with you and anonymous above - for me, Christmas is a celebration of family and friends, it's about enjoying the company of and appreciating those around me. I am an athiest too, and the religious side of it doesn't really enter my head - except when my religious parents ask me to go to church with them, and that usually causes a little head-butting :) I usually go along to make them happy, but I dislike the idea that my choice to be athiest, and my associated beliefs about the world, are somehow secondary or not as deserving of respect. Merry Christmas to you and your family :) xxx

  5. I am similar to SSG, the problem with religion is often the people.

    I believe in the religious aspect of Christmas and love parts of my faith but there are so many parts that i don't agree with sometimes I wonder why I bother going along to mass. Then I think to myself, if all of the people like me left the church things will never change & they will think those fanatical people represent the whole religon.

    I don't want that to be the case so I continue to go and teach my kids about the true meaning of Christmas (for us) but make sure they believe with their eyes wide open (if that makes any sense).

  6. It's very sad to see how religion hurts people and fails to tell them the facts as given in the Bible. Sad to see that religion misrepresents the God they say they say the stand for.
    Please forgive my blunt way of speaking but here goes:

    The reason you have such a severe problem is the same reason that all the rest of mankind suffers, some definitely more than others. It's because of the original sin in the Garden of Eden. No. Not having sex but denying God's right to be their sovereign by eating the one, and only one, fruit that was denied them in that whole huge garden. The mandate not to eat the fruit had nothing to do with making a test to cause them to fail but as a way of reminding them that God has the right, as their creator, to know what is best for them.
    And why didn't God just wipe them out and start again? Because their was a whole host of heavenly watchers who would then have had the right to say that that was an unfair, unjust way of dealing with things and who then would start to rebel as well, causing more mayhem.
    What if Adam and Eve had not rebelled and eaten the forbidden fruit? Then mankind would all have descended from perfect parents and we would all have perfect bodies and be living in a paradise just as they originally were.
    Why does God continue to allow pain and sorrow?
    Because he has a timetable and a schedule for allowing enough proof to be garnered so that the issue of universal sovereignty will never need to be raised again. When that timetable comes to it's finish he will step in and restore mankind and earth to it's original style, thus causing all to revert back to perfection in body and the earth to a paradise.
    Is there any consolation for all the present suffering? God has promised to resurrect all the dead and to wipe out all our bad memories.
    To share in this future only requires that we do what the original couple failed to do: that is to accept our creator as the universal sovereign.
    I realise that this is outside the scope of an atheist but if religions false teachings are what have turned you away from belief in God please consider whether you would have been turned away if the above scenario had been explained to you when you were asking questions as a youngster. Cherrie

  7. Like an above commenter, I am religious but am not entirely devoted to my faith as I possibly should be.
    I think your last paragraph "It is about joy and magic and Love Actually. It's a roast on the barbie and a pretty dress. It's about laughter and wine and afternoon naps. It's about children believing in Santa Claus and being excited about his visit......" highlights how commercialised Christmas has become. Even the most religious of people can't deny that what Christmas tends to be about in the Western world now is how much money is made and who gets the best presents. However I still like to remember that the underlying meaning of Christmas is still about Christianity - we wouldn't have this holiday without it, no matter how warped it may be from it's original meaning thousands of years ago.

  8. I wish we were more aware about other faiths...hopefully this will come in time

    1. Me too! Our multicultural Australia needs to embrace and celebrate all faiths special times, or none. Cannot wait for true inclusion for all.

  9. This is an amazing and intelligent post, but that's no wonder coming from you!! I can relate to your feelings about xmas (I'm an atheist too, although I came to this conclusion through a rather different road than you) and I agree that the poing of this celebration, after all these centuries, is no longer about being Christian or Catholic, it's about taking the opportunity this season brings us to cherish what we have, to share our love with others and to give thanks for the great things that the year has brought us. Joy and Magic, of humans understanding one another and accepting each other as they are. HAPPY XMAS CARLY!!!

  10. Thanks for your comments everyone. Theyr are certainly some interesting perspectives.
    Willywagtail I am not convinced that God/my illness explained like that would have convinced me during the time I went to church. I trust and believe my doctors. The reason I Have ichthyosis is because it is a genetic condition, not determined by God, sin or the garden of Eden. The illness is not an imperfection either. I referred to it as a misfortune as that is what those who take pity on me have said.
    The reason I have been able to cope with it is due to good, not pitying upbringing, strong values and a belief that this will not stop me achieving my goals.

  11. I really enjoyed reading your post, as I've just recently made the transition from agnostic to atheist, and I'm struggling a bit this year with finding meaning in Christmas. For me, the holiday feels a bit empty without at least the potential that the songs I'm singing and the religious images I'm seeing have some meaning. But I agree that there are many things (family, friends, romantic movies, naps) that still make the holiday wonderful, even for an atheist.

    If you're interested, I wrote a post along a similar vein recently: http://solitarydiner.blogspot.com/2011/12/atheist-at-christmas.html. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  12. I am Christian, and am lucky (blessed) to not have had more bad Church experiences than I’ve had in any other organisation… like school or work. Any bad churchy experiences I’ve had can be pinned to a person rather than the faith in the same way that music theory was not to blame for the way I was treated by my evil music teacher – and I still love music today.

    Even though I am Christian – I love and respect other faiths. I love hearing stories about my Muslim great grandfather (who’d use his religion as an excuse to eat things he simply did not like [particularly funny when they weren’t religiously prohibited foods]), the Jewish Passover fascinates me and the Dali Lama has said some pretty good things. I even think midnight mass sounds kinda cool when my friends tell me about it (I go to Church regularly – so Church at Christmas is not a huge deal for me).

    I recognise the terrible things done in the name of religion but I also appreciate the wonderful things that have been done in the name of religion.

    Anyway – in answer to the questions you posed… I celebrate Christmas in a more or less traditional way with a South American/our family flavour: decorating my home (stars, angels, hearts, doves, nativities – santa/snowman/reindeer free) to the Mercedes Sosa recording of La Misa Criolla (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misa_Criolla#Misa_Criolla), gathering with the family late night of the 24th and EATING (every year there must be something with turkey, Argie style potato salad [ensalada rusa] and yummy frozen Christmas parfait instead of cake/pudding) then after midnight Santa (little cousin in a novelty inflatable Santa suit) divvies out the prezzies and then we pass out on the couch somewhere around 3am, gathering around again later on the 25th for leftovers.

    The reason for celebrating Christmas has never changed for me and I don’t want it to.

    Carly I hope this year’s pretty dress is the prettiest yet and your roast is the tastiest and your naps the most peaceful ever!

    Wishing you and all the TIRC readers the bestest festivities EVER whatever your rituals/beliefs/non-beliefs may be!

    Thanks all for a full year of interesting reads both in the blogs and the responses.

    ¡¡¡Feliz Navidad!!!

    <3 Rulitos

  13. I'm one of those fence-sitting people when it comes to religion: I'm not sure I entirely believe there's a god, but on the other hand, I can't prove there isn't one. My secondary school was Catholic, but it certainly didn't focus overly on religion - I came out of that school having been taught about the importance of community, rather than religion. When I really started to question religion, that was fine - although there were regular Masses, no-one was forced to take part. And I actually kind of loved them, because I got to play music for them.

    So I guess Christmas means similar things to me as it does to you. It's about family and friends and being grateful for the good things that have been part of the year. It's not as though you see that much evidence of the religious aspects of Christmas, anyway - it's all consumed by the "religion" of consumerism instead. I would love to take the gift-giving out of Christmas and just focus on relaxing, eating good food and spending time with family and friends. Now that is something worth celebrating.

  14. Im an athiest too my friend, but only an hour ago i was singing christmas carols nice and loud with the kids in the car!

    My husband (who is a little bit religious) cant quite work out why im into the whole Christmas thing... but like you, i like to have drinks with friends and catch up with the family, wear something pretty, make some yummy desserts and just chill.

    I haven't raised my kids to be religious, but i let my daughter attend scripture at school, the bible is a story she should know, along with other stories like Snow White and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie :) When they are older they can work out what they want. The reason most people are the religion they are, was due to what they were raised as!

    Go wear that pretty dress Carly and sing Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer as loud as you can xx

  15. Carly, I know lots of aetheists who celebrate Christmas as the coming together of family etc.

    I do not believe God "gave" you your condition. I believe your genetics did.

    For the record some of the cruelest nastiest people I know are very religious. Doesn't make sense does it.

    Keep up the good work, I love your strength and you are a true survivor xxxx

  16. Hi again - thank you to those who have left further replies - it is interesting reading about your experiences of Christmas. Sorry my reply before was a bit typo/caps ridden, I was typing on my phone, on the run at lunchtime.

  17. And I have given the sin/God/religion argument about why I have ichthyosis more thought.

    I guess I inherited the ichthyosis gene from Adam or Eve. Probably Adam. It's x-linked. ;)

  18. I feel very simular about religion and Jewish festivals
    - Ya'el

  19. Great post Carly. I agree with you that family is the most important reason for celebrating Christmas. If I was on my own, I probably wouldn't feel like celebrating it. At the end of the day, as long as you're not hurting anybody, celebrate in whatever way you want!

  20. I do not practice any religion, but I do believe in something beyond this life. What it is, I have no real idea, but I guess I'll find out in due course.

    I see value in most religions, but see religion itself as divisive. Christmas was preceded by a range of other pagan feasts, including Saturnalia, whilst Mithra was purportedly born on December 25. Mithra bears a striking similarity to Apollo. There's also parallels with other deities. To say Christmas celebrates Christ's birth is to ignore the pagan origins of the feast and to play ostrich about the symbols taken from more ancient traditions.

    Celebrate family, friends and life, Carly. I don't agree that getting together with family to eat, drink and be merry is a sign of consumerism at all. It's simply that an annual gathering such as Christmas is often celebrated over food - hence the word 'feast'! Saturnalia, afterall celebrated agriculture.

  21. I was honestly writing in my head an almost identical post to this on my way home from work today, though mine probably wasn't as well written! Having cystic fibrosis and seeing many friends pass away over the years, one who was even 5 at the time, I have always thought that there just can't be a God. I am sometimes almost sad to not have that kind of faith in some higher power, but then think I am strong because I made me strong, not because of another being, if that makes sense. I too find Christmas a fabulous time of year for all the reasons you pointed out. I use it like a thanksgiving I suppose, thinking of all the things I am grateful for and making the extra effort to spend time with the ones I love. Thanks for the great post Carly, and Merry Christmas!

  22. Carls, that sunday school was messed up for everyone. I went once and got told I probably shouldn't go back because my 'religious conversion' had come to late. I was about 10 and only went for the pizza.
    My faith has a celebration at christmas time anyway so I just sign 'merry christmas' to avoid tricky questions.

  23. "Some of the suggestions made by Sunday school about why I was born with ichthyosis were: I was not baptised, my parents are black and white and that's a sin and my parents drink alcohol. I was also told that if I lived in biblical times, I'd have been considered a leper."

    What the everloving fuck? That just makes me want to punch people. Not to mention it's unChristian - you are not punished for being good or bad (Jesus =/= Santa Claus), the Bible says we're all sinners, you make it to heaven based on whether or not you have faith, not because of what you do or don't do in life.

  24. This is so tough. I was raised in a very religious environment (many of my peers growing up in a third world country were missionary's kids) and that part of my life was great. In Australia, not so much. I had some very painful, hurtful experiences. Can I suggest that at least some of the things that happen within a church depend on that church's idiosyncratic culture? And to talk about religion versus non-religion is a bit like talking about plants and non-plants: there are so many varieties and sub-varieties in the "ecosystem", it's difficult to make any generalisations or judgments.

    I suffer from auto-immune disease. Although my illness is not outwardly noticeable (except for bad spells like now where I am stiff and slow and obviously limpy), I know what it is like to live in pain 100% of the time. I don't think God gave me this illness. I still believe in God, but I don't believe that God makes decisions for people. And we have thousands of years of human decisions: hate, violence, war, toxins, pollution, poor nutrition, workaholism, drought. I believe in evil just as much as I believe in good. And I also believe that everybody is touched by life's dark underbelly at some point.

    For every arthritis sufferer like me, there's an icthyosis sufferer like you or a cancer sufferer up the street. A friend of mine was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease at the same time I was diagnosed with AI. I have a long life ahead of me. She doesn't.

    You have to take what you get. Because there is no choice, unfortunately. :-/

    I love Christmas. Sometimes I forget about its true meanings and origins. I say that with a little regret. But I always cherish the excitement and the "specialness" of the time, all the opportunities it offers.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post, Carly. I don't know if anybody feels that they've got it all worked out, but it's healthy to weigh things up from time to time.

  25. Er, I meant "missionaries'". The children I was surrounded by came courtesy of more than one missionary! Punctuation fail.

  26. I think Christmas is as much a cultural festival these days as it is a religious day if significance. It is a celebration of the year that was, the importance of family and friends and a coming together of people to be there for others.

    Merry Chrisrmas to you! x

  27. I am not religious (though as a child I was baptised in two different religions) but for me, it sounds similar to you - it's a nice time to catch up with people.

    I do have my own issues with religion though, and some religious family. Thankfully they never ask us to go to church or anything, but one or two do have that excessive superiority complex that they are religious and I am not.

    Either way, luckily for me it doesn't come up too often.

  28. Replying just a year late :P I am another no n-religious person, so this quite an interesting piece. My mum had a semi religious upbringing, and my Dad is as athiest as they come. Both have instilled exactly the type of values in me that I think are important in people. I have to be completely honest though and say I have begun to question the place for religious faith in society and people's homes in the last couple of years after having a difficult time in my life and then completing my final teaching pracs in catholic and christian education. I really think that most people with who live by their faith are some of the most encouraging, positive and patient people I have met. I don't believe the bible is quite what it seems but I think many of the messages within it are actually very positive and enlightening. It is all about being grateful and kind to others. The part of christianity I struggle most with, is it's views about things like abortion and homosexuality. I believe all people should be accepted for who they are and the choices they make.

    I have come to discover though, that I quite like the idea that there is a higher power out there, a divine power that might be helping to guide me in some way. I think I am in a place where I am exploring my spirituality - I do think it is there - and working out what helps me to strip back all the BS and live the most peaceful and enlightened life I can. I figure if people need to believe something to help them change their thoughts from negative to positive, and to realise the power of gratitude then that can't be a bad thing. I just don't like the extremist stuff, I hate war and hatred and I am too broad minded to put all my eggs into one basket when it comes to faith.

    As for Christmas - I make it about family and giving, and I like to reflect on my year and ponder the year ahead. I try to think about what I am grateful for. I have always loved Christmas and like to think of it as a time to believe in magic and miracles. I do think Christmas has become too commercialised though. I sometimes wish I lived in the time of Little Women, a time when things were simple and gifts were small and thoughtful.


  29. Why can't you enjoy any of those pleasures outside Christmas? I find it hypocrytical to partake when it's not meaningful to you.

    Do you particpate in Ramadam? Hannukah?

    Are you absolutely convinced Christmas if for you when you really don'y believe?

  30. The point I made was that I've found my own meaning of Christmas. Spending time with loved ones. I think that's how a lot of people I know celebrate and believe in Christmas too.

  31. Jesus was open-minded?? Wow... you need a theology course Carly :)

    Blessings :)

  32. I've just come across this article via your September 2013 Guardian UK article. This sums up exactly how I feel about Christianity and Christmas, thank you for your eloquence.

  33. When I became a xn, I questioned why I do what I do at Christmas and if it was still meaningful to me. Having been baptised catholic I had been having the traditional christmas. Once xn, I wanted to dump the lot, but for the sake of my family I just toned it down. I now only have the tradtional elements that are important for my family, which are few. People are what make us run from religion. Christ brings us to faith in him. I have an enquirying mind and spent years searching faith through diverse cultures. Christ was my answer. My questions haven't ceased. In fact they have multiplied, but I have forever to learn more.

  34. I'm Catholic but a firmly progressive one. There are many things I don't believe in or am sceptical of - I prefer to think of things as "known knowns" and "known unknowns". Things I do believe in: religion/faith is about authenticity and there are fundamentalists in every belief system (even those who believe "too much" in the absoluteness of science...); the important thing as people is to be less judgy and more compassionate (Golden Rule!!), to meet people where they're at; and I also believe that "God does not make junk" - ergo, God accepts all, differently-abled, LGBTI+, black 7 white, etc. (it's humans who have issues with it). I have a disability, for context.

  35. Oh, bother, got caught up in faith stuff and forgot to say: Christmas for me is about family and friends, catching up and experiencing, good food and good times. I love carols and other music because I love singing.

  36. I celebrate Christmas in a completely non-religious way and always have. I have a tree. I buy gifts. I get gifts. I have a family dinner. It is about family. And there will never be any religious connotations involved in it. I was agnostic as a child. Very philosophical about certain concepts. But I didn't like religion as an institution because it seemed irrational and restrictive. I became more of an atheist the older I got. My parents are not particularly religious either. Although my father went through a nostalgic catholic phase, in which I did see the inside of a church a few times. It was a bizarre experience for me.


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