I’m an atheist, and I love Christmas. If you think that’s a contradiction, think again.
Do you remember as a child composing wish lists of things you genuinely valued, thought you deserved, and knew would bring you pleasure? Do you remember eagerly awaiting the arrival of Christmas morning and the new bike, book, or chemistry set you were hoping for? That childhood feeling captures the spirit of Christmas and explains why so many of us look forward to the season each year.
You may no longer anticipate Christmas morning with that same childhood excitement. After all, even if you still make a wish list, couldn’t you just go out and buy the items yourself? Yet the pleasure of exchanging gifts as a token of friendship and love remains. Particularly when you receive (or purchase) a gift that could come only from someone who knows you well — say, a shirt that broadens your style or a new wine that becomes one of your favorites — it serves as a material reminder of a spiritual bond.
More widely, through cards, telephone calls, parties, long-distance travel, and vacation, Christmas serves as a time to reconnect with cherished family and friends, to share important events of the past year, and to look forward to the next. It’s a time to enjoy delectable chocolates, spiced eggnog, four-course meals, festive music, and party games.
Christmas is a spiritual holiday whose theme is personal, selfish pleasure and joy. The season’s commercialism, far from detracting from this celebration, as we’re often told, is integral to it.
Before Christians co-opted the holiday in the fourth century (there is no reason to believe Jesus was born in December), it was a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, of the days beginning to grow longer. The Northern European tradition of bringing evergreens indoors, for instance, was a reminder that life and production were soon to return to the now frozen earth.
This focus on earthly joy is the actual source of the emotion most commonly identified with Christmas: goodwill. When you genuinely feel good about your own life and when you’re allowed to acknowledge and celebrate that joy, you come to wish the same happiness for others. It is those who despise their own lives who lash out at and make life miserable for the rest of us.
The commercialism of Christmas reinforces our goodwill. When you scour the malls in search of the perfect gift for a loved one and witness the cornucopia of goods and lights and decorations, you can’t help but feel that your fellow human beings are not enemies to be feared or fools to be avoided but fellow travelers and potential allies in the quest for joy. It’s no accident that America, the world’s most productive country, is also its most benevolent.
Christmas’s relation to goodwill leads many to believe the holiday is inseparable from Christianity, allegedly the religion of goodwill. But the connection is tenuous. A doctrine that tells you that you’re a sinner — that you must seek redemption but cannot earn it yourself and that Jesus, sinless, has endured an excruciating death to redeem you, who doesn’t deserve his sacrifice but who should accept it anyway — can hardly be characterized as expressing a benevolent view of man.
Christianity from the outset has been suspicious of human, earthly pleasure and joy. At best, these are seen as unbecoming a sinner, who should be busy repenting and fretting over his fate in an imagined next life. There once existed a war against Christmas — when religionists held sway in America. The Puritans canceled Christmas; in Boston from 1659 to 1681, the fine for exhibiting Christmas merriment was 5 shillings.
Christmas as we know it, with its twinkling lights, flying reindeer, and dancing snowmen, is largely a creation of nineteenth-century America. One of the most un-Christian periods in Western history, it was a time of worldly invention, industrialization, and profit. Only such an era would think up a holiday dominated by commercialism and joy and sense the connection between the two.
Christmas in America is not a Christian holiday. And besides, in a country that separates church from state, no national holiday can be regarded as the purview of a religion.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to hear people say Christmas is their most stressful period. Pressed for time, they feel there are just too many lights to put up, meals to cook, and gifts to buy. Seeking something to blame, they blame the commercialism of the season. But there is no commandment, “Thou shalt buy a present for everyone you know.” This is the religious mentality of duty rearing its ugly head again. Do and buy only that which you can truly afford and enjoy; there are myriad ways to celebrate with loved ones without spending a cent.
But whatever you end up doing, don’t let the gaiety of this holiday season pass you by. Perhaps now more than ever, we all need to remind ourselves that reaching joy on this Earth is the meaning of life.
A version of this article was originally published at U.S. News & World Report.