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Profiles

Colin Chillag, Christmas, 1971, 2012. From the Berin and Nicola McKenzie collection. Via Artsy.

Um for the Holidays

It’s the most wonderful time of year, but for atheists and agnostics, it means something altogether different. We asked a group of non-believers to tell us how they’re spending their secular holiday seasons.

Rick Paulas, 33
Oakland, Calif.


When you were growing up, how did (or didn’t) your family celebrate holidays? What holidays were important? Are there unique holiday traditions—food, rituals, activities—that have been passed down in your family?

The biggest holiday for us, for years and years, was Thanksgiving. My grandparents would have us over with all of my mom’s siblings, and their wives and kids, and it would be a huge get-together lasting well into the night. When they died, that tradition kind of went with them, and Thanksgiving has been less of a Huge Family Thing.

As far as Christmas goes, it followed generally the same routine: Spend hours and hours opening presents (each present getting its own unwrapping, presentation to the crowd, and thanking of the giver), going to the relatives on my dad’s side to hang with the cousins, and, at some point, going to church.

How would you describe your attitude toward religion? Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals?

You can love Halloween without believing that ghosts are real.

I was brought up Catholic, in the south suburbs of Chicago, but I never really bought into the concept. It was just a family thing. You get together, you do the Mass, you see classmates at Mass, and that was about the extent that God or Jesus fit into our lives. It was more like a book club than anything else. When I went away to college and had no one pushing me to go to church every Sunday, I stopped going. I suppose I was always agnostic, and just let my Catholic subscription ultimately expire.

I don’t think that one needs to be religious, no. I still absolutely love going to church during Christmas. There’s comfort and intrigue in the pageantry of it all. Even something like seeing Christ on the cross—that’s a visceral thing to see, no matter if you believe in any of it. I think that emotional connection without belief translates to religious rituals.

Do you think there’s value in atheists promoting alternative holidays or creating new rituals and traditions?

Oh, sure. There’s value in rituals and community and traditions. And if there is a sense of opposition that keeps someone from being able to find joy in Christian-themed rituals for whatever reason, then why not find something you like? I just don’t think that it’s necessary to believe in order to enjoy the traditions on an aesthetic or emotional level. You can love Halloween without believing that ghosts are real. But if that’s a hang-up that is keeping someone from, say, singing “Little Drummer Boy”—which is, frankly, a kick-ass song—then go right ahead and make up your own little ditty.

 

Raymond Arnold, 28
New York City, NY


When you were growing up, how did your family celebrate holidays?

My family was half-atheist, half-Catholic, but Christmas Eve was a big deal for us. Extended family, friends, and neighbors came from all over for a big feast, and then 20 to 30 people all crammed into Grandma’s living room to sing Christmas carols for two hours. We had some unique family traditions like reading through the caroling book backwards. At the back of the book were fun songs like “Rudolph.” In the front of the book were quieter songs like “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” ending with “Silent Night.”

Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals? Do you think there’s value in atheists creating new ones?

I can appreciate the beauty of religious stories the same way I’d appreciate a good play or any work of fiction. Religious ritual may be helpful to some atheists, although I think the best ritual is something you have a personal stake in—either by assigning your own meaning to it or creating it yourself.

Creating new rituals and holidays is a worthwhile endeavor. But it’s not enough to create a new holiday “for the sake of it.” You have to have something really meaningful to celebrate, and doing it well requires a lot of artistic effort. Christmas is a successful holiday because people have spent hundreds of years writing good songs, experimenting with traditions, and writing beautiful stories.

Ultimately I don’t think we need “atheist holidays.” What we need are holidays about particular important human universals that are grounded in a naturalist worldview.

What are your plans for the holidays this year?

Each year I run a Secular Solstice festival, celebrating human civilization and how we overcame the trials of winter. This started out as a small project for my friends and has grown into a large event, crowdfunded through Kickstarter. This year I’m expecting 100+ attendees in NYC and similar attendance at events hosted in San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle.

Each year I run a Secular Solstice festival, celebrating human civilization and how we overcame the trials of winter.

We sing songs and tell stories about the first humans who struggled to survive the coldest nights of the year. At first they told stories about fickle sun gods abandoning us, but eventually we invented astronomy to answer questions about when the light would return. We developed agriculture to better harvest food. We developed societies with rules and coordination, to work together to survive and thrive.

We follow that story to the present day—the world we’ve built together over thousands of years. And then we look to the future, knowing that the story of humanity isn’t finished yet, and we have the power to shape it.

The celebration follows the arc of the solstice itself. It begins bright, festive, and with high-energy songs. It gradually turns dark, somber, and contemplative. Eventually we extinguish all lights but a single candle, and someone tells a story about personal hardship and struggle. They blow out that last candle, and the community sits together in the darkness, knowing that the world is unfair and harsh sometimes, but that we are not alone—we have each other.

Then we reignite our lights, sing joyously about a tomorrow that will be brighter than today, and the future we can create together.

 

Nancy Mandel
Brooklyn, NY


Growing up, how did your family celebrate holidays? Are there unique traditions—food, rituals, activities—that have been passed down in your family?

My family are secular Jews, and we didn’t celebrate Christmas. I know there are plenty of cultural or minimally observant Jews who do have Christmas trees, for example, but we wouldn’t do that. We’d happily join in other people’s Christmas festivities. I remember that we’d go to our downstairs neighbor’s tree-trimming party. As far as I can recall, we didn’t do the supposed Jewish ritual of a movie and Chinese food.

We did celebrate Hanukkah, lighting candles and giving presents. Well, giving me presents—I’m an only child—one per day for the eight days, or two per day the year I had German measles. And we made latkes. My mom uses the Streit’s mix with onion flakes added.

I also participate in a couple of caroling situations each year and go to a friend’s annual Christmas Eve party.

Nowadays I still light candles, and I still make latkes. Until recently, I’d just make them for myself one night—grating one lone potato, my limit. No Streit’s mix for me. Now I’ve developed a new tradition of hosting a latke party for my friends who sing Sacred Harp music. Since Sacred Harp is a Protestant religious tradition—“singing loudly about death and Jesus,” as I like to say—there’s a certain sweet and multicultural irony in this. I also participate in a couple of caroling situations each year and go to a friend’s annual Christmas Eve party. And since I don’t have any travel or family obligations, I like to fill in for those who do: feeding friends’ cats, taking on shifts at work, stuff like that.

On Christmas Day itself, for four or five years I volunteered to usher at the Early Music New York concerts at St. John the Divine, meaning that I spent the day in a cathedral and heard beautiful music. A couple of years I’ve gone skating with a friend who prefers to visit her family when it’s not “the holidays.” Otherwise, I don’t know what I do. It’s the one day a year when a New York Jew can really feel that she’s a member of a minority, but the quiet and solitude can be luxurious and profound.

How would you describe your attitude toward religion?

I’m tempted to ask what gives me the right to have an “attitude” toward religion, any more than to, say, football, an activity that doesn’t mean much to me but to which many other people are devoted. However, if football fans were to insist I admit that football explained geology, or worse, that my lack of interest in football revealed me as immoral or even subhuman, I might discover a decidedly negative attitude toward the game. Happily, this tends not to happen in my personal life. On the contrary, I frequently engage in nominally religious, or at least religion-based, activities alongside people of all kinds of faith and lack thereof, without dissension.

Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals?

As for lighting Hanukkah candles, atheist or not I am definitely a Jew, and this is an easy, pleasurable, and personally meaningful way of making a statement about, and embodying, my membership in the group. It strikes me now that the post-biblical, minor-holiday status of Hanukkah makes it less conflictual than another, more profound celebration might be.

Religion and belief (they’re not the same) have been extraordinarily powerful forces in the creation of art. So I guess I am grateful, because no, one need not be religious to find meaning in religious rituals, a term I’m extending to include the cultural objects created for religious purposes. I can be moved by Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 or Caravaggio’s “Madonna of the Pilgrims” without for a minute believing that a virgin gave birth to a god. For me, the “spiritual” value of ritual activity is created by and among the human beings participating in that ritual. It can be perfectly real without invoking any transcendent, superhuman entity.

Do you think there’s value in atheists promoting alternative holidays or creating new rituals and traditions?

I don’t think I favor anything that makes atheism look like low-budget religion. I hate it when people say that atheism is “really” belief, and don’t want to feed them. I can participate in existing traditional activities and make them work for me, at least to a point, and that many things can serve as personal traditions. Unless these develop organically though, it’s hard to imagine them providing much sustenance. Surely no one can celebrate Festivus other than ironically. That said, a group of friends assembled for a Festivus party could certainly experience strong feelings of connection and love.

What are your plans for the holidays this year?

That Christmas Eve party I mentioned is off for this year, so I’m trying to think of another event at which the cake I’ve baked for it the last half decade—look, a tradition!—would be welcome. I might see if that skating friend is free on the 25th, and if any of my singing friends are in town over the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s for a house singing. I’ll take a couple of extra shifts and feed some cats.

 

Mike Schultz, 58
Maggey Valley, NC


When you were growing up, how did your family celebrate holidays?

We “celebrated” all holidays with family gatherings. Thanksgiving was a gathering of extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Christmas was much more of an immediate family event. We opened gifts from each other on Christmas Eve and from “Santa” on Christmas morning. I have heard this was a compromise as my father’s childhood was filled with Christmas Eve gifts, and my mother’s with Christmas Day ones.

During the service Dad would essentially sober up, and after church we would pretend nothing from before church existed.

My Christmas Eve memories are burdened by recollections of my alcoholic father coming home to dinner after spending the afternoon with his friends at the local tavern. Dad was an angry and often violent drunk. There would be fighting and sometimes violence before we all trooped off to the Christmas Eve service at the Methodist church. During the service Dad would essentially sober up, and after church we would pretend nothing from before church existed. We would drive around looking at Christmas lights before going home to family gift opening and communing.

How would you describe your attitude toward religion? Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals?

It was about five years ago that I finally granted myself permission to stop trying to believe. With each passing year, religion and religious expression became a greater issue for me. I am still shy about expressing my atheism in public, but I resent internally the constant barrage of religion. I resent the ever-present Christmas presence.

I don’t think you need to be “religious” to find meaning in religious rituals. However, if you have become comfortable with your humanistic tendencies and maybe atheism, these rituals cease to have meaning and can easily become a point of agitation.

Do you think there’s value in atheists promoting alternative holidays or creating new rituals and traditions?

Heavens no! Celebrations timed to coincide with religious celebrations merely serve to reinforce the sense that it is an appropriate time to celebrate and that all people should be celebrating something.

What are your plans for the holidays this year?

My wife and I will spend the days on “vacation” by staying in a hotel somewhere away from home. My successful holiday is measured by the absence of a tree and other decoration, something my wife hasn’t quite bought into. We do go to a nice restaurant for Christmas dinner, but hey—we have to eat somewhere. Other than that I do my absolute best to avoid the trappings of the holiday, though in truth my wife and I still exchange gifts.

 

Marilyn Wilkerson, 55
Evansville, Ind.


When you were growing up, how did (or didn’t) your family celebrate holidays? Are there unique holiday traditions that have been passed down in your family?

One important aspect, of course, was decorating the house and putting up the tree. We didn’t do that immediately after Thanksgiving; my mom hated to rush into Christmas. The decorations were simple. I remember using some very old tinsel, year after year. Tree trimming was something of a ritual, always fun. My mother made our wreaths from evergreens on the property (this was in small-town Wisconsin), and also my folks used fresh-cut evergreen boughs to decorate outside.

I’ve lost all patience for religious ritual, and try to avoid it as much as possible.

As for Christmas itself, we were members of a Lutheran church, so we generally opened gifts on Christmas Eve, then went to church. On Christmas morning we had stockings under the tree with small gifts. As part of our Norwegian heritage, we did have some traditional Christmas cookies and other treats. We always had oyster stew on Christmas Eve. Also, a Scandinavian “sweet soup” (tapioca, raisins, prunes) and Swedish meatballs, although the meatballs might have been on Christmas Day. And lefse, but that was probably from as early as Thanksgiving on. When my brothers moved out (I was the youngest of four), we almost ritualistically played board games like Scrabble when they were home for Christmas.

How would you describe your attitude toward religion? Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals?

I’m totally non-religious. Probably “agnostic” is the most accurate word. There are probably some non-religious people who do find meaning in religious rituals, if they’re able to extract some other essence from them—the spirit of giving, for instance. Or maybe they value group activities like going caroling.

Myself, I’ve lost all patience for religious ritual, and try to avoid it as much as possible. Ritual itself doesn’t bother me, but the underpinnings of Christianity and theism in general seem medieval and irrelevant to me.

Do you think there’s value in atheists promoting alternative holidays or creating new rituals and traditions?

Sure. I like the idea of observing the solstice, for instance, not just because it’s astronomy, but because it’s a connection to our ancestors who celebrated the lengthening of days. I’m not sure why humans are drawn to rituals. But as long as we are, I think people do well to think about what’s important to them, how to celebrate those things, and how to pass on that kind of thoughtful living to their kids.

What are your plans for the holidays this year?

I spend my weekends and holidays at my boyfriend’s house, but I think my mother will be visiting me for Christmas. It’ll be a very low-key holiday. Probably visit a friend or two before the end of the month. My boyfriend doesn’t put up a tree, but I’ll get out my little artificial tree before my mother arrives, so the house is seasonally cheery for her. We’ll play some Christmas music on the stereo and play lots of Scrabble, I’m sure. Maybe drink some eggnog. And check to see if It’s a Wonderful Life is on TV.

 

Mathew Kasparian, 36
Brooklyn, NY


As a multi-denominational family—Jewish mother, Eastern Orthodox father, raised in the Unitarian Church—we celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah during the holiday season, but the rituals and traditions trended more toward the Christian than the Jewish. We had a tree (artificial), classic Rudolph, Santa, and Frosty dolls, and a menorah that was lit unceremoniously but in proper pace with the holiday. I remember staying up all night, not for Santa, but until it was late enough in the morning to open the presents my parents had left there. In my family, food was a focal point of many of our rituals, so little snacks and treats were always around, and our meals were more like a dinner party than a somber formality.

We attended Christmas Mass at the Unitarian church a few times, but not because it felt like a requirement of being part of that community. After we left the Church in my teens, I realized it was the ritual itself my parents enjoyed, as for several years afterward they would pile us into the car and bring us to Masses at other churches in the area. They never did explain that, and all I remember about those Masses is being bored.

In adulthood, few of those rituals remain. The meal is still the focal point of our holiday get-togethers, but since my father passed, the tree remains in its cardboard box in the basement. We no longer attend any Masses or light the menorah, but my mother still plays classical Christmas music from the radio all day and night and puts out random ornaments to maintain a festive atmosphere. According to her, all she wants for the holidays is “to see her family happy and healthy and spending time with her for a little while.”

I’m always open to exploring the ways people choose to honor their experiences through movement, thought, and other forms—food, especially food.

How would you describe your attitude toward religion?

It’s easy for me to appreciate the benefits of religion simply based on their human effects: creating communities from potentially diverse populations, doing good for their fellow humans, providing an individual with a sense of significance and unconditional love, plus a structured set of rules to guide one’s life by. While I’ve tried my best to stay open-minded in my perspective, I find it disheartening that we as a species have not found consistent ways to celebrate and encourage humane values without the need for a ubiquitous, omniscient figure watching and judging us along the way.

Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals?

I don’t believe that an underlying belief system is necessary to appreciate the benefits of the rituals that normally accompany them. We forge human connections when we share rituals, and understand more about the depth of our individual experience when we partake in rituals alone. So I’m always open to exploring the ways people choose to honor their experiences through movement, thought, discussion, sense stimulations, and other forms—food, especially food—they’ve adopted or created for themselves.

Do you think there’s value in atheists promoting alternative holidays or creating new rituals and traditions?

It’s unnecessary for atheists or secular communities to promote alternative holidays. That gives the impression that a belief system requires widespread agreement before it can be considered legitimate, and in my opinion, atheism would be as bad as religious fundamentalism if it turned into an “our holiday versus yours” kind of situation. At the same time, there’s a lot of value in creating traditions among your family and friends, so I certainly wouldn’t discourage finding rituals that work for each of us and bind us in the ways that make us celebrate whatever ideals we associate with the season.

Plans this year?

This year my I will celebrate as has been typical these last five or six years or so: My firefighter brother usually works on the holidays, so my family will meet for Christmas dinner and sharing presents the following weekend. With my girlfriend visiting her own family on the West Coast, I’ll likely give myself the best gift of all: a day of nothing to do but eat junk food, drink eggnog, and play video games with my friends.

 

Matthew Cook, 31
San Francisco, Calif.


When you were growing up, how did your family celebrate holidays? What holidays were important? Are there unique holiday traditions—food, rituals, activities—that have been passed down in your family?

Christmas was the most important holiday, but as a family we also celebrated Thanksgiving and Easter together every year. Multiple church visits (not just on Sunday but the Christmas Eve and candlelight service), extended family get-togethers, Christmas trees and lights, and gift exchanges were the hallmarks of the annual Christmas season. Christmas morning was dedicated time for my immediate family to open gifts at home. Then extended family would gather at my paternal grandmother’s house for an evening event every year.

These gatherings involved members who were implicitly religious, but the invocation of God only came during the blessing of the food before eating. We always had a Christmas ham, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, and gravy. After cleaning up the meal we would exchange gifts. But before leaving, my grandmother always acknowledged the day as Jesus’s birthday by having us all sing “Happy Birthday to Jesus.” Although I consider myself an anti-theist today, it makes me smile to think about the whole family singing happy birthday to Jesus. I look back fondly on that time.

I am a religious agnostic because of science, an atheist because of probability, and an anti-theist because of religion.

How would you describe your attitude toward religion? Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals?

I am deeply skeptical that religion provides any benefit that a secular alternative cannot. Combined with the many negative pitfalls of uncritical thinking that most religions promote, I classify myself as an anti-theist. I’ve always said that I am a religious agnostic because of science, an atheist because of probability, and an anti-theist because of religion. However, I do not think you have to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals. For example, as a budding atheist I sang in the Duke Chapel Choir for four years in graduate school. The pomp and circumstance of much sacred music is beautiful in its own right—an art-for-art’s-sake sort of thing, regardless of whether you believe the lyrics. Watching a nativity play could be just as meaningful as a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—OK, well, not exactly equivalent, but you know what I mean—if it is used as a time of introspection and literary criticism.

Do you think there’s value in atheists promoting alternative holidays or creating new rituals and traditions?

I moved across the country five years ago, but every year I still get a Christmas tree and decorate just like my family did my whole life. I don’t go to church anymore, and I don’t sing happy birthday to Jesus, but I’ve started new traditions with friends such as an annual tree-trimming party, Christmas movie marathon, and holiday stroll throughout San Francisco to enjoy the decorated sights. This year’s movies include Home Alone, Die Hard 2, Rare Exports, and A Smoky Mountain Christmas. I have loved creating these new, secular traditions with friends; more and more people attend these events every year.

As non-believers, I think having our own non-religious events and fellowship is incredibly important. It’s easy for me, because Christmas has always been just as much about friends and family as it was about Jesus. It’s not a major transformation just to cut out a part of the celebration that stopped having meaning for me.

 

Cliff Johnson, 37
Seattle, Wash.


How would you describe your attitude toward religion?

I’m a pretty chill atheist; it’s not something that I bring up a lot. Until about eight months ago I lived in Utah, and being an out atheist there can be pretty detrimental both socially and professionally. I live just outside of Seattle now, and it’s nice to be able to be more open about things and not have to worry about it as much.

My attitudes about religion were shaped by living in an environment where it’s omnipresent. It’s something that comes up everywhere: at work, with your friends, with my kids’ friends, at his school, and mine when I was younger. Mormons aren’t really known for their inclusiveness of people that don’t share their religion, which makes it really hard to grow up in a place like Utah. That made me really, really angry when I was younger. I was a good kid, got good grades, and never did anything really that I shouldn’t have. But because my family wasn’t religious, there were a lot of kids that couldn’t hang out with me, a lot of girls that wouldn’t date me when I got older. When I hit my late 20s I had gotten over a lot of that. I came to realize that individual religious people can be great, but that religions as a whole are what I have a problem with. As much as I believe religion could be a vehicle for good—and is some of the time—it also causes a huge amount of issues worldwide.

Trying to make a new holiday just seems silly. First off, it's never going to gain any real traction as long as Christmas exists.

Growing up, how did your family celebrate holidays, if at all? Are there unique traditions that have been passed down?

I don’t want to say that my family wasn’t really into holidays because we always had a lot of fun, but we aren’t huge into tradition. Every year was a bit different. Sometimes my paternal grandparents would be in from out of town, sometimes not. Sometimes we would do a Christmas party with my mom’s family, sometimes not. Regardless of what we did or who was there, it was always special.

About the only thing that was ever a constant was eating Swedish pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream. My dad would make them every year after Christmas presents were unwrapped. It was fun because you can only make one at a time, so it gave us a lot of time in the kitchen and dining room to talk about what we’d given and received and how the holiday was shaping up so far. When my son was born, we started having Christmas at my house and inviting both my immediate family and my wife’s, and we do the same thing, except that now instead of pancakes for four it’s pancakes for nine or 10. For better or for worse, sometimes it seems like breakfast lasts for hours.

Growing up in the Salt Lake suburbs, we also went to Temple Square almost every year to see the lights. It’s amazingly beautiful, but even as a non-religious (but not atheist) kid it felt a bit like crashing someone else’s birthday party. My family still goes almost every year, and the vague out-of-place feeling is still there, maybe even a bit worse.

Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals?

I know a lot of people say things like “I’m not religious, but I’m really spiritual.” For those people, they might not have to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals. The same might be true for people that grew up religious but moved away from it later in life. I know that is true for my mom, who grew up LDS and then left the church in her early 20s.

For me though, I’ve never had a religion. I’ve never participated in any “traditional” religious rituals. Holidays for me are 100-percent secular and always have been. That means that a lot of religious beliefs seem very foreign and, to be honest, odd. It strikes me as a bit odd that friends of mine that are amazing and seemingly very rational people actually believe their religions are literal fact. It’s just hard to reconcile in my own head sometimes.

Do you think there’s value in atheists creating alternative holidays?

Trying to make a new holiday just seems silly. First off, it’s never going to gain any real traction as long as Christmas exists. And second, it’s only going to give Christians and Fox News another target in the yearly “War Against Christmas.” It’s way more fun to wish everyone a Happy Holidays and then just celebrate the holiday your own way. Create your own traditions and think about how much more fun you and your kids are having playing with their toys instead of opening them and then having to go to Christmas service at church.

I’ve celebrated Christmas for 37 years and will probably celebrate for the rest of my life. For me it has nothing at all to do with the birth of Christ and everything to do with spending time with my family, eating great food, and giving and receiving presents. Easter is the same way, it’s all about bunnies and eggs.

What are your Christmas plans this year?

My family moved to Washington after living in Utah for effectively my entire life. So this year is going to be a little strange, I think. We are driving back to Utah and staying with my in-laws for the entire week of Christmas, which will be fun but hard. I think that when we get back we’ll have a more traditional Christmas with just my wife and son, opening our presents and spending the day together.

 

Benjamin Makansi, 21
Steeleville, Pa., and New York City


When you were growing up, how did your family celebrate holidays? What holidays were important?

During the winter holiday season, we celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, but never as religious traditions. My mom’s ancestors were Jews, and my dad’s were Greek Orthodox Christians and Muslims. An eclectic mix, indeed, though little to none of it was practiced by the time my parents were born. We used Hanukkah and Christmas as a way to have fun as a family and show appreciation for each other. Last year, for example, we decided to get a bonsai tree instead of the usual fir tree, as togetherness is much more important to us than tradition. While my parents did teach us about the religious underpinnings of these holidays, the focus was on family and fun, neither of which requires religion.

In that vein, our rituals are small family traditions, not religious ones. The Makansi family baklava recipe is undoubtedly the world’s best, and my mom makes a big pan (or four) every year. For Hanukkah, we took turns lighting the candles in a rotation. There are four of us children, so each would choose an assortment of candles and light the menorah twice. We usually collaborated to make dinner while listening and singing to my grandpa’s old tape of Hanukkah songs. Between mouthfuls of latkes and applesauce, table conversation always entailed bets on which candle would go out first. After dinner, we’d hide gifts for each other around the house.

We also had a few family traditions during Christmas. We always spent Christmas Eve decorating the tree together and listening to holiday music—usually secular music. On Christmas morning, only after we had made and eaten breakfast as a family did we open presents. We took turns opening one present at a time. Instead of tearing open all our gifts at once, we preferred to prolong the ordeal and appreciate each other more fully. Lastly, in recent years we’ve treated stockings as a “Secret Santa” game. We all pick names from a hat, and each of us has to fill that person’s stockings with goodies and small gifts.

How would you describe your attitude toward religion?

“Atheism” is defined by the question of whether religion’s claims about the world are true. I’m an atheist, not because I think religion is bad, but because I don’t think God exists. I don’t think religions are accurate models of the universe. Most religions teach us to make faith-based assumptions about the universe—namely, about moral truths and the existence of God—without requiring evidence. However, evaluating a claim with evidence and reason is the only way to ascertain whether it is true. To me, science is not only a much more beautiful and elegant way of explaining the world, but—more importantly—it’s true.

There is nothing uniquely religious about trees, giving gifts, being thankful, sharing good food, and spending quality time with family and friends.

There are many atheists who don’t believe in God but think that religion can be a force for good in the world. There are also many atheists who think religions are benign; people can believe whatever they want without repercussions for the rest of us. Likewise, there are many atheists who think that religion is harmful. I fall into this camp. At minimum, though, most religions entail false stories about the universe and rigid ways of thinking that oppose scientific progress. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are religions that contain extremely problematic beliefs about women, homosexuals, morality, education, science, the role of government, and people of other belief systems.

Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals?

There are some rituals that people would call “religious” that really aren’t uniquely religious. Many aspects of the holidays are like this. There is nothing uniquely religious about trees, giving gifts, being thankful, sharing good food, and spending quality time with family and friends. As I understand, this is most of what the holiday season means to people. It is for the very reason that you don’t need religion to celebrate or be a good person that most non-religious people choose to participate, too.

Do you think there’s value in atheists creating alternative holidays?

What’s most important is that everyone have a space to celebrate whatever they choose. There’s no problem with religious and non-religious people celebrating on the same holidays. What’s wrong, however, is when a group tries to argue that a holiday is exclusively their own. Some Christians in my Pennsylvania hometown, for instance, expressed annoyance that I celebrated on Dec. 25th even though I don’t believe in God. Because of sentiments like this, many atheists feel unwelcome during the holiday season. Ironically, Christmas was originally a pagan celebration of the winter solstice and is almost certainly not the birthdate of Jesus. Regardless, Christians have every right to celebrate on that day! Since the “value” of a holiday is completely subjective, the focus should be on stopping censorship of holidays, not adding more censored holidays.

And how will you celebrate this year?

Like most atheists, I’ll be worshiping Satan and gorging on babies. Kidding. I’ll be spending time with family and friends, exchanging gifts, and stuffing myself with delicious home-cooked food. It’s party time!

 

Jennifer Rich, 42
San Francisco, Calif.


Growing up, there weren’t any religious overtones to my holidays. Christmas was Santa Claus, and Easter was the Easter Bunny. My parents divorced when I was very young, so I don’t have any memories of us a family unit during the holidays. I would visit my paternal family on Christmas Eve and then drive to be with my maternal family on Christmas morning. Holiday visits with my paternal family were always more of a religious experience. Prayers were said before meals, and there was a focus on the birth of Jesus. Visits with my maternal family were more about being with family and having a celebration together. My maternal grandmother was a fantastic cook, and every year she hosted a Christmas Eve party that would run late into the evening. The house would be packed with extended family, friends, and neighbors. My childhood memories of those parties are some of the most vivid.

My mother, grandmother, and I would also have a few cookie-making and decorating weekends in December. My grandmother would make hundreds of cookies, in all shapes and sizes—snowman, snowflakes, reindeer, etc.—and my mother and I would spend hours icing them all with elaborate designs. My mother was known for her “Name Horses”—horse-shaped cookies that she decorated for everyone with their initial on the intricate saddle. I loved the feeling of closeness we had while laboring together to make those hundreds of cookies.

I loved the feeling of closeness we had while laboring together to make those hundreds of cookies.

How would you describe your attitude toward religion?

I am intrigued by the idea that so many people can believe in something I find so patently unbelievable. I feel about religion the way I feel about Santa Claus. Everyone believed in Santa Claus as a child. Why? Because our parents and society told us he existed. Then at about age 10—after that mean kid in school scorned you for believing in Santa—your parents admitted that he was a fictional character. A strange magical man hasn’t been watching you all year to make sure you’ve been good. He didn’t come down the chimney and bring toys to the good little boys and girls—your parents paid for all that stuff. After some initial denial, you could look at Santa objectively, see all the different versions that have existed, read about the history of the character and how he came about, and appreciate or even love Santa in a completely new and fictional way. I understand that some people find it helpful to follow a religion. That’s fine. Just let me make my own decisions about what I believe in.

I can appreciate the feeling of togetherness and familiarity that religious rituals can evoke. I always enjoyed singing hymns in church, but I don’t find any particular meaning in them. For me, most religious rituals are a peek into history, a chance to understand and learn about times past and that I do enjoy.

Do you think there’s value in atheists promoting alternative holidays or creating new rituals and traditions?

I celebrate the holidays—religious-based or otherwise—in ways that make me happy. My husband is a non-practicing Jew, but we still put up a menorah for Hanukkah and a Christmas tree at Christmas. I love celebrating Christmas by making, buying, or baking gifts for my family and friends. I want to let them know I appreciate them and love them and this is a festive time of year to do it.

I can’t see any value in adding a new secular holiday. I just think you need to take current holidays and celebrate them in ways that work for you—kind of like how the ancient Christians took the winter solstice festival and turned it into Christmas.

 

Nora Ghorafi, 19
Clermont-Ferrand, France


When you were growing up, how did your family celebrate the winter holidays?

I’m half-Moroccan, which means that my father’s family is not concerned because they are Muslims. Only my mother’s family is atheist, and my two parents are as well.

For Christmas, we didn’t do all the “traditional” stuff. It’s very simple: We make a good dinner and give gifts. That’s what I do with my father and his new wife, and what I do with my mother and sisters separately. Then, we go to my mother’s family with my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s a bigger party. We give gifts and play music—not Christmas music, things like George Brassens, Bourvil, Édith Piaf, and rock-folk stuff. We often did it after Dec. 25th. Most of the time, the fir isn’t real. My aunt and my uncle, who host, make it with material dumps. It’s kind of a do-it-yourself Christmas. Plus, we drink a lot of champagne and wine.

I’m 100-percent atheist, but I'm also pro-religion if it can help people to feel better in their own skin.

How would you describe your attitude toward religion?

I’m skeptical. I’m 100-percent atheist, but I’m also pro-religion if it can help people to feel better in their own skin, and if they don’t bother anyone who is not religious. I don’t blame religious people, but I hate those who oppress atheists or other religions because they think their beliefs are the only truth. Religion is not a truth. Björk once said that nobody has the same religion because it’s something very personal.

Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals?

I really, really enjoy being in cathedrals. I can sit on a bench and stay for hours. Does that count? I never discuss that with anybody, atheist or religious.

Do you think there’s value in atheists promoting alternative holidays?

Absolutely not. In France I think we celebrate Christmas because it’s a habit that gathers almost everybody, and it brings joy in families (most of the time). There is no “spiritual” or “philosophical” meaning behind it. The new rituals and traditions aren’t created on purpose; we just take from old stuff and arrange it the way we want.

Your plans this year?

I’m going to modestly celebrate Christmas with my father and my mother, and then with my mother’s family in a big house with a huge plastic fir and lots of alcohol.

 

Jeff Gruber, 25.978
Temecula, Calif.


When I was a kid, I distinctly remember celebrating Christmas on Christmas morning, waking up as early as possible so we could open up our presents. Another reason to wake up early had to do with the full schedule we would have before us for the rest of the day, where we would go to church for a special Christmas Day meeting. The church we frequented at the time was Quaker, so instead of services, we had “meetings,” which sounds much more congenial. The meeting was followed by a short tootle down to my Quaker grandparents’ place, where we opened our Christmas gifts and had Christmas supper.

One thing that’s noticeably absent from my experience is the tired tale of an uncle having too much eggnog and embarrassing himself by putting a lampshade on his head. Not that my uncles aren’t capable of such silly behavior, but at this time, my aunts and uncles were transforming from alcoholics and substance misusers to recovering alcoholics and substance misusers. So the holidays didn’t become even the slightest bit wet until me and my cousins were of drinking age. Until then, we would bide our time sipping fizzy apple juice, which I will always have a fondness for during the holidays.

During my teenage years and college, with the growing congestion of Californian freeways, my family’s waning religiosity, my relatives’ increasing sobriety, and my grandparents’ aging, Christmas became much more of a distinctive family gathering and feast, albeit one that was utterly teetotal. Family became the focal point. We still did church, but it was much closer to our home and was pushed back to Christmas Eve, as was our gift exchange, because who has the time to wait for salvation and for a new sweater?

Since I graduated from college, our family tree dropped a couple of branches but continues to grow new limbs. Moreover, the existing boughs keep growing further and further apart. All my grandparents have passed away, and there have been some inner rifts in the family that have killed much motivation for celebrating Christmas in the ways we did in the past. Instead, my immediate family is keen on making their own traditions these days, which typically involve a trip up to my parent’s soon-to-be-retirement home in the panhandle of Idaho to enjoy a truly white Christmas, which is a rarity in Southern California.

Christmas took the wind out of the sails for pagan Yule, but what was replaced and what remains are pretty similar.

Does one need to be religious to find meaning in religious rituals?

Emphatically, no. My view on the value of ritual is to bring people together and to connect humans in a way that is not commonly done, but which is easy under the guise of ritual.

Perhaps there’s a different meaning acquired by religious people in rituals than by people not affiliated with the religion sponsoring the ritual. A Christian is likely to find a Hindu ritual as meaningful as an atheist finds it. But at that baseline value—the value that the Christian and atheist garner from a ritual that is not of the religious persuasion—is where people can find the meaning and rationale.

Do you think there’s value in atheists promoting alternative holidays?

Very much so. The baseline value of rituals is that it promotes a gathering of people that aren’t immediately in your family. They might be part of your tribe still, but there’s no particular allegiance you hold to them. If the ritual, at its very core, involves gathering people from different backgrounds, then that’s great. I don’t think it undermines any meaning that Christians have for Christmas. After all, Christmas is just a fabrication for pagan conversion by Constantine. Yes, Christmas took the wind out of the sails for pagan Yule, but what was replaced and what remains are pretty similar—personal gatherings that bring light and happiness in the otherwise bleak and depressing backdrop of winter.

 

Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones
Washington, DC


I wouldn’t consider myself atheist so much as a celebratarian. Technically, I am an atheist but atheism has too much baggage associated with it these days. Too often it is the province of vituperative cranks who are just looking for a topic to vent their spleen at. And most of their ranting was best done by stand-up comedians 20 ago. I highly recommend Ken’s Guide to the Bible in this regard.

For my grandmother, a small dose of opium every Sunday doesn't sound like such a negative thing.

Religions have crazy beliefs and even crazier followers, but for many it really is just a social organizing tool: a way to get people together and sing “Had Gadya.” Religious literalism is madness, and some modern rituals are out and out incomprehensible, but I also can’t see the benefit in referring to the larger majority who idly attend church and sing in a gospel choir as sheeple. Every time I hear socialists talk about opiate of the masses I can’t help but think of my grandmother who went to church every Sunday. For her, a small dose of opium every Sunday doesn’t sound like such a negative thing.

Growing up, we celebrated everything, which is essentially what I do now. Passover seders and Christmas parties. I don’t understand any of it and still believe that all the holidays are really just glossed-over pagan rites—winter solstice, vernal equinox, Samhain, etc.—but who is going to pass up an invitation to an Easter egg-rolling picnic because of their staunch anti-religious beliefs? Every time I go I just secretly remind myself that I’m participating in a spring fertility ritual.

Karolle Rabarison is at home wherever she can satisfy her coffee habit. She currently lives in Washington, DC. More by Karolle Rabarison