TRENDING: An atheist view of December
December 23rd, 2010
07:00 AM ET

TRENDING: An atheist view of December

By Katie Glaeser, CNN

“Christians don’t deserve a monopoly on holiday cheer," reads a simple yet loaded statement on the American Atheists’ website.

But how could Christians monopolize a holiday that is based on their beliefs?

It turns out that traditions associated with Christmas have morphed into social norms adopted even among nonbelievers.

Everywhere you turn there are decorations, cookies, and music. But for many of the 5% of Americans who say they don’t believe in God, December is not that different from what it’s like for those affiliated with a Christian religion. Those who don’t believe in the reason behind the holiday still celebrate the season’s concentration on values, family, and kindness.

Liz Turcotte from Kentucky grew up Catholic, but her views on religion changed during college. “I feel like a lot of people associate atheism with a lack of tradition and bitterness towards religious holidays when this is far from the truth, at least for me,” she tells CNN in an interview.

Atheism is a very broad term. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, says it can be the lack of belief in God, or never giving much thought to God, and can also include those unwilling to make any sort of decision about what they believe in.

Turcotte says the holiday festivities feel more secular than religious and she’ll be celebrating like many others on Christmas Day.

“We celebrate the end of a long year, whether it was difficult or fruitful, and the start of a new year to come,” Turcotte says. “For me, it is about being appreciative of the people in my life who have helped me through the past year.”

Silverman, with the American Atheists, says many nonbelievers celebrate December milestones like Christmas and the winter solstice.

“Me personally,” Silverman jokes, “I do nothing. I roll in a ball and hide in the corner until it’s over.” But his wife, who is a practicing Jew, puts up a menorah in their house and celebrates Hanukkah with the couple’s daughter.

Silverman says it’s a problem that Christmas is a religious holiday that’s also a U.S. federal holiday. “If you’re going to force Jews, atheists, Hindus to observe Christmas by shutting down the country, what we’re going to observe is the most secular parts of the holiday,” he explains.

Christmas has been a federal holiday since 1870. The explanation offered on the government website America.gov is that the holiday “began to honor universal values such as home, children and family life, and to incorporate secular customs like exchanging gifts and cards, and the decoration of evergreen trees.”

So, Silverman says, “A tree with tinsel and chestnuts roasting on an open fire … it’s perfectly acceptable for an atheist to celebrate these.”

Atlanta resident Adam Olansky says he doesn’t believe in the existence of God, but he and his family still have traditions around the Christmas holiday. They celebrate it by focusing on family and food. The tree was recently trimmed and on December 25 they’ll have brunch and exchange presents.

To Olansky, it’s not the customs that are the problem with Christmas. “I think the most overwhelming part of the holiday season is the way people behave, not the way the stores are dressed up or the music.” He says it comes down to the crazy holiday shoppers - “the person who has allowed a season that’s presumably about peace and joy to drive them off the deep end.”

Silverman says some atheists are upset with Christmas because “Christians do not own the season.” In fact, he accuses Christians of stealing the holiday. “Christianity is one of over a dozen religions that named the winter solstice as their god’s birthday. This is not original,” Silverman says. “It’s not about being out against Christmas, it’s about Christmas being a monopoly.”

Kyev Tatum, pastor of Friendship Rock Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, disputes Silverman’s assertion. “For him to make that kind of claim is just flat out untrue," he says. "It’s Christ-mas.”

“Christ was born during this time. While there is a debate about whether the 25th was the actual date, no one debates it was called Christ-mas to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” says Tatum, president of the Fort Worth chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

As for atheists celebrating Christmas, Tatum says that’s their right. “We want them to embrace it,” he says. “Christmas is about peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. Whether you believe it or not that’s the reason Jesus came.”

Liz Turcotte will be spreading goodwill this Christmas but says it will be on her own terms, “Exchanging gifts and donating to charity are not religious statements but more of a chance to stop and show people you care.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Charity • Christianity • Church and state • United States

soundoff (1,186 Responses)
  1. Drew

    I'm an atheist and I don't want to participate in it. But I do like yuletide trees! 🙂

    December 24, 2010 at 6:02 am |
  2. Steven

    I find that more and more people try to point out the flaws of most religious faith, i suppose thats how society works in these days, but i find the sense of community has been lost due to the out come of our history.

    Its interesting to read some of these comments, but not very many have pointed out the fact of what good has become of christmas and any religious meaning behind it. of course december 25th would not be the exact date of christ, but the idea and the intention behind it is still good, regardless of the fact if it is true or false. many people believe in christ based on family traditions and believe because it is in their hearts to believe. Many christian feasts and gatherings come together to celebrate christmas, and other important dates in christianity, but does that necessarily make it a bad thing? as if its wrong to come together and rejoice in their own personal beliefs.

    along with many of the posts that i am reading, i find to be quite ridiculous. Catholics separate themselves from christians? robin williams should save that and use it for his stand up because i find that to be quite funny. the idea of religion has been completely lost in our society in the sense that it has become completely independent to one self and is no longer a community we once believed. religion is supposed to be essentially about community and the coming together to rejoice(depending on the religion). still there are christian and muslim groups that gather together to celebrate god and their beliefs, that must be sacrilegious!!!! say it aint so. this idea of religious community has been distroyed in todays society, and the count of people celibrating their faith in mosques, or temples or churches. has gone down at a significant rate.

    and for your information, i have not heard of catholics actually considering themselves to not be christian. the very idea of the catholic church is to rejoice in the saviour christ. so the idea of catholics rejoicing saints is not as strong as it seems.

    people need to understand that christmas is about sharing, coming together with family, relaxing, rejoicing, anything that really makes one feel like its christmas. its what ever it is to you.

    i wish everyone a merry christmas, and happy new years! its too late for me to rant even longer! =D

    happy new year and happy holidays!

    steve –

    December 24, 2010 at 5:33 am |
  3. Tdilla68

    5% of Americans don't believe in God....wow, and you all decided to share your lack of faith on CNN.com today, cool. I could never understand how the same people that don't believe in a "higher power" turn around and insist that there are little green men somewhere out there waiting to communicate with us...

    December 24, 2010 at 5:33 am |
  4. Lucy

    I am not a Christian. But I am also not an atheist.

    I sincerely do not understand this knee-jerk reaction against "Christmas". My grandmother was 81 years old when she passed away, never Christian, and yet never left any sort of need to turn argue against this celebration, which for most people,has really been about family, charity, and friends anyway.

    The planned coinciding of pagan holidays and Christs birthday have been recognized for years. Many churches choose not to celebrate with trees or feasts, as they don't want to celebrate the pagan aspect. But why this anger now? Why such hatred towards the concept of an all loving God being born? You might feel its foolish, you might not believe it. You might not agree with the direction in which Christianity or its followers are headed. But the Christmas holiday is really about hope, charity, kindness, and unconditional love, and these are things we should celebrate regardless of religious faith.

    December 24, 2010 at 5:15 am |
  5. Gary Gordon

    The present Christian Christmas is an adaptation of the pre-Christian Roman winter celebration honoring "Sol Invictus," the sun god. The holiday was remade as a Christian holiday when Christianity replaced paganism in most of the Roman empire. Prior to the celebration of Sol Invictus, many people in ancient europe celebrated the winter solstice because it marked the turning point in the solar schedule. Longer warmer days were coming.

    The celebration of Sol Invictus included a form of "carroling" done both nude and intoxicated, gift giving, and role reversal between servants and householders. Feasting was a big part of it. When many Romans dropped poytheism for the singular worship of Sol Invictus, they became more comfortable with the idea of a single god. For a while, Jesus was touted as the "the true sol invictus"

    So the origens of Christmas are by no means Christian. Anyone in their right mind will be likely to appreciated the coming of shorter nights and warmer days, and the replenishment of food stores. As an atheist, I view this as a time to reflect on generosity and kindness, and to strengthen bonds with freinds and family. It is also the "reset" button of the solar and agricultural calendar.

    December 24, 2010 at 5:06 am |
  6. Jane

    Sorry folks, a true atheist doesn't celebrate Christmas. You don't put up a tree and you don't buy presents. To me an atheist that modifies the Christmas traditions to suit them isn't any better than the Christian that modifies the Bible to suit them- like they all do. My family gave up Christmas and all it's trappings about 5 years ago when we came out of the closet, and when I'm told Merry Christmas for the thousandth time today and will politely thank them but tell them I don't celebrate Christmas.

    December 24, 2010 at 4:51 am |
  7. Carlos

    I am atheist, but I still enjoy the Christmas season. I like having an excuse to see family and friends, and to give and receive gifts. I only put up a Christmas tree, though, because my kids get excited about it. If they did not want a tree, I would not bother.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:29 am |
  8. Paulie

    For all of you anti-religion people: Its Christmas. There is a God or at least some higher power. There may be an afterlife. Are you ready? If you dont believe in God or religion how about you leave strict instructions when you die that they cremate you and flush you down a toilet (without any last rites, a wake or a funeral) so you can spend eternity with the rest of the human waste rather than be buried in a cemetary with the rest of the decent, respectful, God fearing human beings. I cant prove that you dont touch yourself at night either. But we all know that you do. Merry Christmas.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:23 am |
  9. Bobby yARUSH

    The people that think about this stuff have way too much time on their hands. Ive never understood why it is that the believers are so hell bent on making sure I believe... and I could care less as to whether or not anyone believes?? The "True" believers truly have way too much time on their hands.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:14 am |
  10. jules

    considering all the traditions of christmas – yes even christmas trees – were stolen from pagans...
    and jesus wasnt even born in december...
    I dont think you have to be "christian" to celebrate....

    December 24, 2010 at 2:51 am |
  11. A Catholic Christian

    @ Krystale: As a former Protestant who now identifies herself as a Catholic Christian, I'd like to make clear that Catholics do not worship Mary. We worship God and believe in Jesus as God's son just as non-Catholic Christians do. Mary is revered because of her unique role as Jesus' mother, but she is not the 'centerpiece' for Catholics. Jesus is.

    I have always been perplexed as to why many (though not all) 'cradle Catholics' do not identify themselves as 'Christian.' If asked their religion, many reply "Catholic" rather than the more-accurate "Catholic Christian." The first followers of Jesus Christ were not called 'Catholics.' They were called 'Christians.'

    Merry Christmas to all!

    December 24, 2010 at 2:43 am |
  12. A Catholic Christian

    @ Krystale ~ As a Catholic Christian (that is how I identify my faith affiliation) and former Protestant, I want to make clear that Mary is not the centerpiece for Catholics. Jesus is. Catholics do not worship Mary as they do God. I think this is a common misconception. I did not join the Catholic Church because of Mary, but because I found myself drawn to many different aspects of Catholicism's particular expression of Christianity.

    I have always been perplexed as to why many 'cradle Catholics' don't seem to understand that they, too, are Christians! The first followers of Christ were called "Christians" not "Catholics." Catholicism is simply one expression of Christianity.

    Merry Christmas to all!

    December 24, 2010 at 2:20 am |
  13. Smiley MIghty

    What a LIGHT WEIGHT article! 5% of Americans DO NOT believe in god? That is the REAL story. When 95% of Americans DO NOT believe in god, wake me up. You are all delusional dimwits until then. God? What a joke... and if he isn't then strike me dead right now.... cough, cough.... Still here. Sorry.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:43 am |
  14. herrsonic

    I love Christmas. We get to take off from work and spend time with our families.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:43 am |
  15. Truth

    Are atheists just bored these days? I guess when you've got nothing to believe in you just start picking on everyone else who does? Atheism is turning into its own religion, and it's the most annoying religion to date.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:13 am |
  16. jayman419

    None of my friends are particularly religious. We have a diverse assortment of beliefs and practices, but none of us attend church, not even for Easter or Christmas.

    For me, this time of year is both a sad indictment of the commercialization of our culture (though less-so in recent years) and a time for personal reflection on my actions over the previous year. For my social circle, it is a time of charity and fellowship. Gifts are reluctantly exchanged, although they tend to be much more low-key and personal (though not necessarily hand-made) than traditional Christmas presents.

    I don't need the threat of a naughty/nice list, whether it's Santa or God keeping tabs, to live a moral life. The mirror is all the judge I require.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:52 am |
  17. mfaphoto

    There was a Saint Nicholas, but he didn't look anything like the current Santa Claus. He was basically normal weight and wore a long robe that went from shoulder to the ground, The current depiction of Santa Claus is a result of various American artist's between 1850 and 1940 . As for what Jesus looked like, we have painters throughout the ages, and especially those of the Renaissance to thank. All the artist's painted Jesus the way they thought he looked. If they were northern European, then Jesus looked like northern European man of the times. In other words, how Jesus looked and how Santa Clause looked, was all made up.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:51 am |
  18. Kashtin

    Fun Fact 😀 : Christmas was a pagan ritual that was enveloped into christianity!

    December 24, 2010 at 12:17 am |
  19. lynn


    Atheists don't need their own holiday - you stole ours! your religious stories are way late, way borrowed, from the original meaning of Solstice. I do wish you religious fanatics would even pretend to read/study history. How sad ignorance is... and how dangerous.

    December 23, 2010 at 11:48 pm |
  20. And the winner is...

    Jesus is alive, he lives in our soul... now if i could just remember where I left that, I could solve the greatest mystery of all.
    Most of the worlds greatest atrocities have been committed 'In the name of God, and for Jesus.'

    December 23, 2010 at 11:47 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.