"Christmas Tree" by Lotus Head is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Do humanists celebrate Christmas? Ethical humanist Anne Klaeysen on holiday spirit

Dec 24, 2019

By Emily McFarlan Miller

The war on Christmas is over — if you want it, according to Anne Klaeysen, leader emerita of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

Even the idea that there’s a war on Christmas is “antithetical to the holiday spirit, whether it’s Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanzaa,” Klaeysen said.

“(The holiday spirit) is about celebrating the human story that we are here on this earth, that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to engage in ethical relationships. I think it’s a message of unity and how we can be more inclusive.”

During the holiday season, many ethical humanist communities gather to celebrate the values that those wintertime holidays share, according to the humanist leader.

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15 comments on “Do humanists celebrate Christmas? Ethical humanist Anne Klaeysen on holiday spirit

  • 1
    Cairsley says:

    This is always a good topic to bring up at this time of year. The “spirit of the season” is what is at stake — that of family and friends, inclusiveness, goodwill towards all. Since I regard the traditional stories of Christmas simply as the myths that they are, I have no trouble singing carols or wishing someone a merry Christmas where appropriate, though I am more likely to wish others a happy Yuletide. It is a lovely time of year, so long as no-one starts insisting on believing anything historical about the stories, or insisting on the ahistoricity of the stories for that matter. Some of my favorite poems are steeped in Greek mythology. Does that mean that I believe in the Greek pantheon? No, this is a time for focusing on the spirit of the season, on goodwill towards all (even those with whom we disagree), beginning with those closest to us.

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  • 2
    Michael 100 says:

    Chaisley, I’ve got so that when people I know ask if I’m ready for Christmas, I say no and explain that I neither subscribe to the mythology, nor do I have children to entertain, so I don’t celebrate Christmas.  It seems to satisfyingly put people off their  cleché question.  If they persist, I say, I’m looking forward to Darwin Day in February.

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  • 3
    Cairsley says:

    Nothing like being up front with people, Michael, and letting them know where you stand on something like that. I do very little to celebrate Yule myself, apart from attending Christmas dinner (that is its customary name) with family or friends, but I do enjoy the traditional spirit of the season, along with the various customs that still convey that spirit, including the exchange of gifts. Where I live, religious beliefs play little or no role in the understanding of events and occasions in general society, so my relaxed attitude to traditional things like carols and stories related to the season do not spoil my enjoyment of it; and I think it works that way for most people here. Perhaps, where you live, there is still the problem of religionists and antireligionists politicizing and destroying the season of goodwill that has been a feature of our culture since long before Christianity arose. If so, you have my sympathy. And yes, we can certainly look forward to Darwin Day, but, before that, be sure to have a happy New Year!

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  • 4
    Michael 100 says:

    Cairsley. If I remember correctly Daniel Dennett makes the same point that you make in the Four Horseman discussion.

    I think, though, that with the exception of family obligations and other such social occasions, the further one stays from Christmas celebrations, the better it is, at least for me. My impression is that Christmas is a strange hybrid of religious sentiment and crass commercialism.  Religion wants to make people accept and perpetuate mythology as if it were true and the merchant want people to feel as though they must buy things they would not buy otherwise, again under the guise of mythology which I no longer can stomach.

    However, for those who enjoy one or another aspect of the holiday, I say go for it — it comes but once a year.

    All the best!!

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  • Festivals and celebrations have always played an important role in human societies. Yes, often they are badged as religious, but their *social function* is to strengthen the bonds between us and give us an opportunity to let our hair down together. They matter. They are an important part of being human.

    Must we go through this grinchy nonsense every year? If people want to give Christmas a miss, be my guest. But insisting on its religious significance is counterproductive and, anyway, inaccurate. Christmas is a religious festival to the religious, a secular one to the rest of us. Christmas is every bit as much our festival as it is theirs, and we are free to take the bits of it that work for us and to leave the rest. And so are they.

    Let’s leave it to the religions to police thought purity and dogma and impose the hair shirts. NOT believing in any gods doesn’t impose any requirement on us to be misery guts or to “witness” to our atheism at every turn, or never to just let our hair down, get a bit sentimental and simply have a few days when we can eat, drink and be merry.

    Whatever next? Are we going to boycott the ballet because we don’t believe in sugar plum fairies? Shun Mozart’s Requiem because we don’t believe in an afterlife? Insist on the French Revolutionary nomenclature for the days of the week because we don’t believe in the Norse gods?

    Like it or not, our societies and communities and cultures are steeped in the legacy of mythologies of one kind or another. Of course atheists don’t believe in them, but that doesn’t mean we have to cut off our noses to spite our faces and go all “unholier than thou”.

    The correct response to “Happy Christmas” (or Eid Mubarak, or Happy Chanukah, or Happy Diwali or whatever) is “Thank you, same to you.”

    There is nothing in atheism that requires us to be joyless, superior spoilsports, so let’s just not, eh?

    Happy Christmas, everyone.

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  • 6
    Michael 100 says:

    Marco, you make som good points, and I’m not an iconoclast, but consider this.
     I don’t get upset about New Years Day, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, or even thanksgiving day.  In addition to Christmas, those are legal holidays in the United States. I have no problem with St. Patrick’s day, lunar new year, Cinco De Mayo, and other such festivals.  I wouldn’t even mind if Christmas were a day that Christians observed in the privacy of their homes and churches, like Pass Over and other high holy days, or the Islamic month of fasting.  Likewise, Easter Is observed sans the color of law.  Christmas is a legal religious holiday in an ostensibly secular nation.   

    As Christopher Hitchens wrote, expressing many reasons for his dislike of Christmas:  “The “wall of separation” has to be patrolled in small things as well as big ones. When President Jefferson wrote his famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Conn., assuring them of the protection of this very wall, it was because they had written to him, afraid of persecution by the Congregationalists of Danbury, Conn. This now seems as remote to us as a Calvinist anti-Christmas protest outside a Catholic Church in Manhattan. But it is only remote because such scruple and consistency were employed to defend the principle in matters great and small.”  https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204791104577110880355067656.  

    In my opinion the celebration of Christmas, is a contributing factor to people hanging on to supernaturalism.  It’s easy to outgrow Santa Claus, but much more difficult to abandon the baby Jesus asleep in the manger.  That’s why I think this is a perennial conversion worth having.  While I have no illusion that the holiday will fade any time soon, I see no harm in expressing objections when I’m asked about how I observe it.  I frequently respond “same to you “ if someone casually wishes season greetings, but when my opinion is asked, I am comfortable expressing it. I think being openly secular demands as much.

  • I totally agree with everything you say Marco.  Christmas is not originally a Christian festival, any more than Easter or Halloween,  their roots all go back to pagan time-immemorial.  Most often symbolism of Christmas is entirely pagan; mistletoe which is parasitic on the sacred oak tree, and remains green in winter, and therefore becomes super sacred, holly and ivy similarly – spirits of the earth, displaying winter resilience when all other vegetation is dead etc.

    The best account of the real spirit of Christmas I  have encountered, is in The Longships,  Frans G. Bengtsson’s hilarious, but I sure pretty accurate, narrative of a ninth century Christmas in Viking Denmark.  There is a fusing of the pagan and Christian traditions in a kingdom which was in the process of converting from the old religion to the new.

    Anyhow, I attended the blessing of the tree outside of our local pub, stood respectfully for the prayers and joined in the singing.  There was only the briefest of prayers and one carol, then, as it was freezing cold and pissing down with rain to boot, priest and people hitailed into the friendly warmth of the pub, to enjoy more than a few pints, in my case thinking the while of King Harald and Orm the Red.

    On a more sober note I also watched and listened to the exquisite carol service from King’s College Cambridge broadcast on the BBC ( https://www.kings.cam.ac.uk › chapel › a-festival-of-nine-lessons-and-carols ) superb music, chapel, ceremony, robes and ornaments.  You don’t have to believe it to appreciate it, but it helps if, to use an American solecism, you know where they’re coming from.  At times like that I almost wish I could believe it, but that’s only a fleeting yearning.

  • Michael

    Even by my verbose standards, I’m afraid this is going to be a long one. But if you happen to have a few minutes to spare, I hope you and perhaps one or two others will bear with me.

    A Christian fundamentalist will spend a significant chunk of their life obsessing about religion – their own, and other people’s. They will worry about the state of their own soul (are they pure enough? are they devout enough? have they indulged in sin, be it never so trivial? have they failed to denounce sin in another?) and they will obsess on the state of other people’s: do they believe? do they believe enough? do they believe the right things? have they left tiny unguarded openings to their soul through which heretical thoughts may sneak?

    For the avoidance of such dangers, they will restrict their reading, either in its entirety or in large measure, to those that reinforce their faith. The Bible, obviously, but also any religious tracts that pass their strict Ideology Test. They will use quotes from their holy texts as though they were definitive declarations of Truth that put an end to all debate. They will deny themselves all sorts of pleasures: the hair-shirt and the self-flagellation may now be restricted to the most extreme of the extremists, but fasting and solemnity and obedience and rule-observance of all kinds are still alive and kicking in many fundamentalist households. They will also repress their compassion – or at least: make it conditional upon the recipient either already sharing their beliefs or being a candidate for conversion – because heaven forfend that they might accidentally squander it on someone God considers unworthy.

    They will attend church services, prayer meetings, Bible study, church picnics, church concerts, church anything, not just for the content itself, but for the safety of being surrounded by fellow Christian fundamentalists, because all their human interactions are based, not on shared humanity, but first and foremost: are they, or are they not, True Believers? Are they, or are they not, Saved?

    They look with suspicion on anything that does not actively reinforce their faith. You will find no non-Christian fiction in their homes, no non-Christian music. If they are Presbyterians, or Calvinists, or Plymouth Brethren, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or one of any number of other extreme religious groupings, there will probably be no alcohol and, frankly, precious little joy either. Life is a serious and fearful business. Its sole purpose is to tread the narrow path that leads to salvation and away from hell. They must keep their thoughts focused on their faith at all times. They dare not let their guard down for one moment. Their whole life is lived in accordance with that verse from the Bible:

    Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.

    The poverty of this way of life – the crime of it, even – is not due solely to the fact that their beliefs are extremely unlikely to have any truth in them whatsoever. Even if there were the slightest rational reason to believe in a god, this would be a terrible way to live, a real waste of human potential.

    It not only reduces their own lives to what they do or do not believe, it puts barriers between them and the people around them who don’t come up to their religious standards. It makes their compassion and their generosity conditional. It leads them to shut their minds against well-founded but non-judgmental explanations for their own or other people’s behaviour: weaknesses or failings of any kind are not due to genes, or upbringing, or insecurities, or neglect, or abuse, or inadequate schooling, or fear, or hopelessness, or mental illness, or disease, or poverty, or just sheer rotten luck, but only ever due to their religious shortcomings: they haven’t believed enough, trusted enough, feared enough – been good enough.

    It also shuts them off from an enormous portion of our shared cultural inheritance: the portion that does NOT come from Christianity. They will shun anything non-overtly-Christian, for fear of what it *might* contain.

    It leads them to live fearfully, distrustingly, judgmentally. Other people, and what those people do or don’t believe, pose a threat to their salvation. They put their belief before their humanity.

    It’s tragic, really. Tragic for them as individuals, tragic for their families, and tragic for their communities and wider societies.

    It seems to me, as a totally out and totally comfortable-with-my-atheism atheist, that if we allow our disbelief in the supernatural to similarly dominate our lives and lead us down similarly restrictive, judgmental, conditional paths – if we put our unbelief before our humanity, in other words – then we have not actually shaken off the real damage done by religion at all, just changed its form.

    When I first actively realised that I didn’t actually believe the teachings of Christianity, it was important to me to read up on atheist arguments, check out the science, read the Horsemen, follow online discussions so as to test whether my own position could withstand Christian arguments. There were a couple of years when I read very little else. But once I’d satisfied myself that, yup, atheism was far more rational than any religious claims and there was nothing any Christian (or Muslim or whatever) had said that had caused me to doubt that in the least, I was free to move on (and in some respects: back) to other things.

    Isn’t it rather bizarre to discard/reject religion – and then go on making it a central focus of our lives? One of the benefits and joys of clearing religion out of our brains is the huge amount of space and time it creates to devote ourselves to something far more constructive, enjoyable and worthwhile.

    Here endeth the first lesson, but I’m afraid the second is about to follow, and it very much leads on from this one …

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  • Part 2 …

    I do realise that religion plays a more dominant role in US society than it does here, and I am sure that would irritate the hell out of me too.

    But honestly, given the huge dangers currently being posed to both US and UK society by far-right, authoritarian, anti-democratic leaders bent on destroying any last vestiges of social decency, aren’t there more pressing things for humanists to devote our time and energies to than turning up our noses at some neighbour or colleague who still harbours some kind of religious belief? Or worrying whether we betray some entirely spurious notion of secular purity by sending a few Christmas cards?

    In the US right now, you still have huge numbers of migrant children separated from their parents, with next to ZERO chance of ever being reunited with them. This is a crime of unforgivable proportions.

    As at March last year, your military was officially involved in seven wars worldwide.

    These are the wars you’ve been involved in in the last 19 years alone: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_involving_the_United_States#21st-century_wars

    You have catastrophic numbers of people unable to afford medical care – in the wealthiest country in the world.

    You have obscene wealth inequality.

    Your gun-deaths are off the scale, and you have children rehearsing mass-shooting incidents in schools.

    You are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world and under your current regime, are actively obstructing global initiatives to restrict them.

    You are the only Western country that still has the death penalty, and you’ve executed 22 of your own citizens this year alone.

    You incarcerate more of your citizens than any other country in the world, significantly more than the country in 2nd place (Russia), and all too often hold them in appalling, brutalising conditions.

    You have 32 million people who cannot read at all, and according to the OECD, FIFTY PER CENT of your adult population can’t read a book written at eighth-grade level (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/11/01/hiding-in-plain-sight-the-adult-literacy-crisis/)

    I don’t even know where to begin with your institutional racism. The fact that blacks and Hispanics in “the land of opportunity” have dramatically, drastically, worse life-chances than whites.

    And I’m not just pointing the finger at the USA, either. So long as the UK has Tory governments, we will be your ever-faithful poodle in most of these respects too. God knows (and that’s just an idiom, before I trigger anyone’s religion allergy) how much worse things will get now they have a huge majority in the House of Commons and there will be nothing standing in their way. Already, under their tender care, poverty, child poverty, in-work poverty, homelessness, street homelessness, and food bank usage have soared. I do not think it an exaggeration to say there is a war on welfare recipients over here, and for some bizarre reason, on disabled welfare recipients in particular. Barely a week goes by, it seems, without another grotesque story of some terminally ill person ruled fit to work by the govt, only to die within weeks. This is just one of many.

    On both sides of the Atlantic, there is currently a systematic assault on the poor and the needy; state-sponsored ethnic nationalism and racism; the state-fostered creation of divisions between us and our neighbours, the blatant intention of setting  ‘us’ against ‘them’.

    The abuses, the injustices, are everywhere we look. And of course none of us as individuals can tackle them all. But is there nothing on this list that we humanists – who by definition believe that help and progress and improvement can only ever come from human hands – would do better to devote our time and energy and abilities to than obsessing about other people’s religion?

    This is not the time for decent, caring, compassionate citizens who care about our societies to be creating, or reinforcing, walls between us and our neighbours/colleagues/communities. It is not the time to be seeking out reasons to emphasise the differences between us.

    This is the time when we should be doing everything in our power to build BRIDGES, not walls. To be doing whatever we can to fight back against the assaults on our communities and societies. To set up or support local community initiatives. To do our bit, however small, to help create a sense of community – even if that’s just by making a point of greeting people we wouldn’t normally greet, sharing a bit of kindness, offering a bit of help, buying someone who needs it a cup of coffee or a sandwich, making a point of saying something encouraging rather than disparaging.

    We can’t rely on the state to foster decent, cohesive communities any more. We are going to have to do it ourselves. Now. Every single one of us, to the extent that we can. The need is acute. If we’re going to allow our atheism/secularism to create a barrier between us and the people we live among, then I’m afraid we’re going to be part of the problem, just when we really need to be part of the solution.

    I could add a whole lot more about why it’s not religion, but politics and capitalism that are at the root of these desperately urgent issues in our societies, but I’ve presumed too much on your time and patience already. Thanks for reading (if you have – I wouldn’t blame anyone for giving up several reams ago).

  • 12
    Michael 100 says:

    Marco, I too thank you for your two posts. I plan to save both of them (but especially the first) in a place they will be accessible for future reference.  I was reminded of the book by Ms Nixey that I wrote about recently in the book club .  I think it’s better to watch religion wither away then to go on the war path against it — and I think the data shows that it is dying institution.   I think you captured my feelings when you wrote:  “ I do realize that religion plays a more dominant role in US society than it does here, and I am sure that would irritate the hell out of me too.”  In any event, thanks again for your insight. All the best for the new year. 

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  • marco both posts

    fully agree with all your points

    except one about the u s as the

    largest source of greenhouse gas emissions

    you should have stipulated per capita
    china is the top gross ggs producer at 30%
    usa is half that at 15%

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