I’m an atheist from a Jewish family and have celebrated Christmas my entire life. In my childhood home, Hannukkah meant watching my mother search for our menorah for eight days while the Christmas tree gleamed in the living room and I did what any kid would do — eagerly anticipate what loot may appear beneath those sparkling boughs. I don’t remember taking Santa Claus literally for very long and can say for sure that I was well-grounded in my Godlessness by age eight; so if this self-portrait might offend both Christians and Jews alike, let me use my pariah’s pulpit to suggest that when it comes to wishing good tidings to friends and neighbors, everyone might consider lightening up. It is, after all, a time to celebrate the light for reasons that transcend any modern religion.
In particular, American Christmas is a hodge-podge of pagan, secular, and religious conventions spanning the history of western civilization from Stonehenge to Macy’s. So, those who would lecture that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” are as inaccurate as they are militant. The season is as old as the life-sustaining Earth; and there are many pagan rituals celebrating light amid the descending darkness, rooted in hope for rebirth as the land literally “dies” into each new Winter. As Europe was Christianized, various pagan traditions were simply absorbed and codified into Christian doctrine; but many pagan trappings also survived and were ultimately exported to America.
In short, there are plenty of traditional reasons to keep Christmas in one’s own way, with or without Christ or even religion. Caroling (wassailing), for example, comes from an early English tradition akin to adult Trick-or-Treating, in which working-class folks would sing out demands to wealthy households to open their doors and provide food and drink — a practice that often lasted throughout the month of December, frequently becoming violent as well as debauched, thus putting much of the gentry off the idea of “keeping Christmas.” Scrooge is a character based in this period. In America, these Bacchanalian rites were chastened and quite purposely shifted to focus on children by early 19th century New Yorkers like Clement Clarke Moore with his famous poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas.
America is experiencing its own long Winter, and we have enough real problems without people getting their holiday stockings in a twist over the kind of seasonal greeting they receive. Personally, I feel it’s polite to wish a stranger “Happy Holidays,” and by the same token this courtesy applies to greetings from public people and entities. Acknowledging cultural diversity is not an attack on Christianity or political correctness run amok; it’s just good manners. On that score, though, if my non-Christian friends receive a jolly “Merry Christmas” from a neighbor, would it kill you to just say, “Thanks?”
Let’s all stay lit this holiday season, but not while driving. Peace and prosperity!