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?