On November 23, this billboard will be seen by motorists using the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City.
Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists, said that the billboard will target people who “go through the motions” of celebrating the holiday but don’t believe in the Christ myth.
“Many people follow religions and observe rituals in which they do not believe,” said Mr. Silverman. “They go along to get along, which simply leads to more prejudice and bigotry. Closeted atheists hurt themselves and others like them by remaining silent about what they know to be true. LINK“
My first instinct is that I like the idea but I don’t like the presentation. I’m definitely in favor of non-believers “taking back” holidays that have been usurped by Christianity. And Christmas is definitely near the top of that list. Cultures all over the world have been having Winter Solstice celebrations as long as there have been cultures all over the world, and many (if not most) of the Christian Christmas symbols have been borrowed from earlier traditions.
Christians don’t own this holiday, and never did. Christianity is neither the first, nor the 5th, nor the 10th mythology to adopt the Winter Solstice as their major day. Mythra, Bel, Krishna, Horus, and even the Mayan Qetzalcoatl were all born on the Winter Solstice. Jesus, if you believe the Bible, was actually born in the Spring, but early Christians changed it to mesh with other mythos (look it up).
Indeed, none of the trappings of Christmas are Christian. All of it predates Christianity. Yuletide, and Yule logs come from the Pagan holiday of Yule (the pagans also took the Solstice for their own). Santa Claus is Nordic, Germanic, or Celtic, depending on who you ask, and there were no tinsel-covered evergreens in Bethlehem — that’s Pagan too. LINK
Many non-believers celebrate Christmas. Typically, they either avoid Christian symbols entirely and focus on Santa, or the Christmas tree, or whatever else appeals to them, or they include a few Christian symbols as a reminder of Christianity’s part in the long and diverse history of solstice celebrations. I think both approaches are fine, and I think it’s great to celebrate the season. After all, why should everybody who’s not Christian have to give up a great holiday just because Christians would like to claim it as their own?
But you know what? I don’t think I’m into “celebrating reason” this holiday season. Yeah, I think reason is great, and it might be awesome to have a holiday to celebrate it, but not Winter Solstice. In ancient times, the worst months of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) were January through April. If you were going to starve or freeze to death, that’s when it was going to happen. The Winter Solstice celebration was the last big hoorah before everyone hunkered down into semi-hibernation and tried to survive the lean months. The feast was not frivolous, either. It was necessary. Cattle were slaughtered because there simply wouldn’t be enough food for them. And wasting an entire cow would be the worst of sins!
So in a very real, practical way, the original message of Christmas was “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we [may] die.”*
I like the idea of a modern take on the same theme. We’re extremely fortunate in America to live in one of the only times in human history where there really is almost no risk of dying during the lean months. It seems entirely appropriate to celebrate this stroke of luck with a feast. But even more than that, it seems like a great idea to celebrate our good fortune by providing a feast for the less fortunate. In a time with so much abundance, it’s awful that there are still people without enough. Winter Solstice is the perfect time to do everything we can to correct that situation.
So if I have a message for David Silverman, it’s this. Great idea, taking back Christmas. But instead of doing something that’s openly antagonistic to Christians, why not just focus on doing something positive for everyone? While the Christians are all opening their forty-three presents apiece and reveling in their opulence, why don’t we donate our time to making a feast at the local homeless shelter, or donating to Toys for Tots, or passing out gift certificates in poor neighborhoods? Why don’t we turn our attention away from the Christians. Who needs to bother with them? We have good works to do.
*Interestingly, if the Christians were to use this saying, they probably would get to claim it as their own and be correct. As near as I can tell, it’s originally from Ecclesiastes and Isaiah.