A long time ago I got into a discussion by email with an ex-colleague of mine, the question has been asked of me by others since though not in such an aggressive fashion.
It was the best part of twenty years ago and this one-time colleague of mine used to show me a number of handouts about "The Decreasing Speed of Light", "The Age of The Earth" and at the time I hadn't thought much about it (I was much younger and much less experienced). He presented himself as someone with a fairly balanced viewpoint and seeming to be asking what I thought rather than claiming any validity. He seemed to be superbly educated, ultra-academic (if you're a Brit and you've heard of "University Challenge" & its most famed presenter you'll get the idea) and, at that time, I knew little or nothing about creationism. Since then I have found out a lot about it as well as its bastard progeny, "Intelligent Design" and I suspect that he was more devious in his approach to me than I then realised ... perhaps he was seeking to convert me, I don't know.
We had not kept in contact so I was surprised, around a year ago, by an email from him asking if I was his old colleague? I told him I was and said what had been happening etc. He then came back asking if I wanted to know more about the number 666 on the Pope's hat (something we had briefly discussed whilst working together) and I told him I didn't. I believe I was fairly dismissive and said something to the effect that whilst I was no great supporter of religion, I felt that the Catholics were not quite stupid enough to put the number of their beast on the hat of their leader.
One thing led to another and just before he wrote me off as a lost cause we discussed the existence of Jesus to which I responded that I didn't necessarily accept his existence as historical fact. His final comment was that he hoped I would enjoy celebrating the festival of the birth of someone I didn't even think was real. My return comment was that there were people at work who are non-Christian (Islamic, Jewish, African) and that most IT people I've met were either agnostic, atheist or more interested in other things and all of them celebrated Christmas.
Regardless, you might have noticed that it's Christmas once again (for those of you that don't here's a heavy hint ... it's the 25th) so I figured it might be appropriate to make a few comments on the subject, on why I, as an atheist, celebrate Christmas.
I figure it's a given that most people know Christmas is a Christian festival and, in this context, commemorates the miraculous birth of the Christian saviour Jesus Christ. With that in mind, I reviewed Freke & Gandy's "The Jesus Mysteries" as well as a number of similar claims and it seems that Christianity may not quite have the exclusive rights to Christmas it thinks it has.
Christmas (or rather December 25th) was celebrated as a pagan festival long before the birth of the Christian messiah and the Roman Catholic church adopted the winter festival as a means of winning converts to its faith. Jesus Christ, if he even existed, may not have been born on that day but instead sometime in the autumn (Loughran, 1997) ... the evidence for this claim is scriptural (mainly Luke 1) and seems to be full of greatly troubled people and, naturally enough, claims of the miraculous. Essentially Loughran claims that Elisabeth (mother of John the Baptist) conceived in early July, Mary conceived some 6 months after her and Jesus was therefore born around nine months later i.e. autumn. Loughran also noted that the Romans celebrated the same festival as the Feast of Saturnalia, a five-day period when slaves were temporarily emancipated and "used all manner of freedoms with their masters". Even the Catholic Church admits, "Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church ... the first evidence of the feast is from Egypt." (Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1911) and, according to other sources, the church's founding fathers adopted the winter solstice as the festival for their Christ's birth in 340CE. Even the Christmas tree was a late addition to the majority of the Christian faith in 18th century.
So, whatever Christmas was meant to be I think we can be fairly sure that it isn't the exclusively Christian only festival it is often proclaimed to be. Add to that the fact that Christmas has become so heavily commercialised (which I hate but, considering my religious views, perhaps shouldn't) and ingrained into westernised culture that it is difficult to think of it in that way. Many UK companies close down in their entirety at Christmas because it isn't cost effective to continue running when a large number of staff are on holiday. Many of my friends are out at Christmas having a good time and, despite the cynicism of my ex-colleague with regard to my participation in a Christian religious festival, I think I would be a sad individual indeed if I sat at home avoiding all things Christmassy!
In fact, I don't celebrate Christmas as a religious festival, I just have fun at a time when my friends and family are enjoying it as there is good company, good cheer, food & drink and, quite simply, a good time to be had by all. I am sure there must be many Jewish people who celebrate Hanukah, and Muslims who celebrate Ramadan in much the same way.
Margo McKenna, an Intern Minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, on December 17th 2000, gave an address that included the following as a possible view of the miraculous and one that I feel is appropriate.
"The miraculous may be the acknowledgement that there is awe in the simple events of everyday life. I find the miraculous in the smell of pine needles and cookies baking, the feeling of a warm bed on a cold night, the joy of having friends who may have become like family, a full moon on a clear night, our pets who love us unconditionally, a wheelchair in which to be mobile, a hug or a smile, the opportunity to eat or share from our bounty with someone who has nothing to eat, the wonder of waking up in the morning."
What puts me in awe is magnificent natural splendour, rolling hills spread out before my eyes, science & my children. I, for one, am grateful to be alive, grateful to the blind, pitiless & indifferent forces that shaped this universe; grateful to those that went before without whose efforts I would probably have been born into poverty or slavery. I am grateful to those who remain (for whatever distorted reasons) my friends, I am grateful (if only for the intellectual challenge they offer) to those who I "hang with" on the Internet. But most of all I am grateful for the love and support of my family, my beautiful wife & my two wonderful children and I, as an atheist, look forward to spending my Christmas (one, I hope, free of religion) with them. In short, I am grateful to those that I love & those that love me and, even though that gratitude can never be returned, I remain grateful to a universe that without reason or purpose brought me into existence.
Though I dislike sending Christmas cards, though I rail against the emphasis on religion, though I am dismayed at the commercialisation of Christmas (I could spit when I see shops display Christmas advertisements in September) I still regard Christmas as a very pleasant holiday. I love to give gifts to others (and at my age it really is about giving), I love to eat, I love to talk & drink with friends, I love the new films on TV, DVD & blu-ray (even the Christmas classics) ... all in all it is a nice time!
So, to my fundamentalist ex-colleague I say that ultimately, it's just one of those things! Christians apparently "stole" the festival from the pagans when it was a celebration of their winter solstice ... the cultural traditions in the UK are largely Christian and now everyone else has "stolen" Christmas from the Christians. Today the celebration, to me (and the majority of others I suspect), is just a good time when people get together to talk, drink, be friends, give gifts etc. and religion, quite frankly, just gets in the way!
Besides, who's to say I don't do it because I'm celebrating the fact that reindeer CAN fly (and who the hell was that fat bugger in a red suit?) ... yes, I DO enjoy Christmas but it's got nothing at all to do with the birth of some supposed saviour. I do it just because I want to!
So, no matter whether you are atheist or theist; no matter what whether you believe in the existence of Christ or Buddha or Mohammed; no matter whether you look for salvation to Yahweh, Elohim, Allah or the simple rest from a life of which you have grown weary; whether you believe in god, gods or UFO's I wish you all a happy Christmas and hope that the next year will bring you peace & happiness.