No Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus, by Greta Christina
‘Twas the Night Before Reason, via The Friendly Atheist
“What an odd question . . . I adore Christmas. The fact that I know that Christianity’s origins lie more in Paul of Tarsus’s mental illness and [Emperor] Constantine’s political savvy than in the existence of the divine has no bearing on my ability to embrace this age-old festival of giving, family and feasting.” – Tim Minchin
And since we’re talking about Tim, here’s his Christmas song, White Wine in the Sun:
I noticed the irony that Tom Flynn really looks quite a bit like Santa when he’s in his Anti-Claus getup. Then I happened to read a tribute to Christopher Hitchens by Daniel Dennett, and the picture of Dennett made me investigate a bit further. Now, I give you a surprising number of famous atheist “Santas.” Mouseover for names.
I may not be posting new stuff until the 26th, as we’ll be busy partying with family. Joyous Chrismahannukwanzaakah, Happy Yule, Merry Solstice, Felicitous Humanlight, and so on and so forth. Whatever you’re doing during this season, I hope you have fun. Tom, I hope you enjoy the easy drive to work and the peace and quiet once you get there!
Tom Flynn is infamous for being anti-Christmas. It’s not just that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural bits. It’s not just that he has decided not to celebrate any flavor of winter festival himself. He doesn’t want me to, either. And he’s kind of insulting about it. In his recent interview on Point of Inquiry, he literally said, “if you’re a serious atheist and you know, you no longer worship the babe, sooner or later you let go of the bathwater, and that’s what I did.”
He argues that we’re propping up Christianity because grade school kids from Hindu and Buddhist backgrounds identify even secular Xmas stuff like Frosty the Snowman as Christian. I see what he’s saying in a way, but Christianity is very intertwined with Western culture, and I can’t see how I would expunge every characteristic about me that says “Christian” to people from other cultures. Most of these features peg me as Christian all year long, not just in December. My name for instance – that “C-H-R-I-S-T” right at the beginning is a dead giveaway. Also my complexion and eye color, my language, and my place of residence. I’d be willing to bet that an awful lot of the population of Earth would call me Christian, without inquiring into my actual religious beliefs. So what? I’m reminded of the joke about Northern Ireland: “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic atheist?” When you come from a part of the world that was known for quite a while as “Christendom,” people will often assume you’re Christian whether you celebrate Christmas or not.
I don’t believe in Jesus, but Christmas is part of my family tradition, and it’s a great excuse to party, give and get gifts, eat and drink with abandon, and lounge around not doing work. What’s not to like? Also, I don’t have to be scared that The Great Dragon is consuming the sun to give a little cheer for longer days, returning warmth, and the sun moving upward in the sky, so it doesn’t stab me in the retinas when I drive to the Y in the morning. (Though perhaps I shouldn’t go the YMCA, since it might be perceived as supporting the Christian social hegemony.)
I don’t really understand Flynn’s particular hate for Christmas either. I also celebrate Thanksgiving, though its origins are decidedly Christian. I love Halloween, which wouldn’t exist without All Saints’ Day. Like most people, any celebrating I do during Mardi Gras is totally unrelated to getting in some last partying before Lent. If I lived in Thailand, I’d probably participate in Loi Krathong celebrations; in India, Diwali, and so on. Parties are fun. No further justification required.
Flynn also objects that celebrating the winter solstice is somehow incompatible with a global society. I’m totally puzzled by this argument. He says non-believers shouldn’t try to build any alternate celebrations around the winter solstice, because it’s only relevant in the northern hemisphere (the southern then experiencing the summer solstice, while areas around the equator experience no significant differences in weather or daylight hours in any case). This seems like a non-sequitur. Why does any particular celebration have to apply to every person on the planet? Should we also hesitate to call Memorial Day the beginning of summer, and refrain from hitting the beach because it’s winter in Australia? Is it OK to celebrate the 4th of July, given it only applies to the United States?
I would understand most of his argument if it was an answer to someone saying he should celebrate Christmas. It doesn’t speak to him, he has no particular reason to give it special meaning, and he chooses not to partake. No problem. But the implication that somehow I’m not a Real True Atheist because I do celebrate it definitely rubs me the wrong way. I’d like to read his book, The Trouble with Christmas, but I’m not coughing up $80 for it, so for now I’ll just give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the best. He was speaking extemporaneously, and describing his inner thought process, so maybe he just meant, “I thought to myself, ‘Hey, if you’re an atheist, why are you celebrating the birth of Christ?'” and meant only to refer to his internal debate, not to comment on the sincerity or thoughtfulness of other non-believers.
If so, it’s cool. More fruitcake for me.
My parents didn’t try to convince me Santa was real. We had lots of fun pretending, and I never felt deprived. I do feel it helped cement a bond of trust with my folks – I knew I could rely on them to tell me the truth. So I never really considered instilling Santa belief in my kids.
For the past few years, Chloe has had such a ball being in on the big secret of Santa, I can’t help but think it will contribute to her being a skeptic. Her personality is definitely oriented toward wanting to be right, in the know, and a keeper of knowledge. She adores being proven right when we disagree about something. And recently I had to pull her aside several times at a friend’s party because she kept interrupting his Grandpa’s magic show, yelling, “I know that’s just a trick,” and such.
Which brings up another point – having a child who knows Santa is pretend is an opportunity for teaching about politeness and sensitivity to others. I didn’t outright discuss what the Santa deal was until I could be reasonably sure she wouldn’t immediately tell all her friends their cherished beliefs were balderdash. We know that Santa’s pretend, we like to play along for fun, and we don’t trample into other people’s conversations about him with, “You know he’s not REAL, right?!”
As you can see, this is great practice for coping as a religious minority. There’s a good chance my kids will be freethinkers, or at least unorthodox in a big way, and negotiating the social landscape of Santa belief is a great way to get them used to different people believing different things, and not butting into other people’s sensitive ideologies with ostentatious skepticism.
One other thing a-Santaism provides: many people get a feeling of being special, wise, or gifted because of their religious beliefs. I can see that Chloe feels this way about knowing the real deal about Santa, and I’m glad my daughter has a foundation for feeling these (admittedly sometimes venal) emotions as inspired by knowledge about the natural world, skepticism, and inquiry.