It might be unexpected that such a strident atheist would be so in love with Christmas, but in spite of my disbelief in the metaphysical claims of religion, I love many cultural, philosophical, and artistic elements of Christianity. In the same way that an anthropologist can appreciate the evolution of human culture without adhering to stone age ideas about the nature of the universe, I am fascinated by the ways in which Christianity attempts to conceptualize man’s place in the natural world.
Christianity co-opted the pagan, naturalistic celebration of the Winter Solstice. After the solstice, the days begin to lengthen. The sun(Son) brings light to the Earth. The pagan worldview was intrinsically impersonal, humanity was a species among species in a world that wasn’t especially concerned with the survival of any particular one. The world is a mysterious, inscrutable web of unsympathetic forces which we must navigate at our peril.
The Christian view anthropomorphizes the natural world. We do not have a sun; we have a Son. Nature is given a human face, the intention and care of a Father. The forces which preserve or destroy life are understood through the lens of man’s will, his emotions, his personality.
The process by which these forces are bent and subsumed into the Christian worldview leaves a disjointed, patchwork theology full of conflicting elements.
I like to think of Christmas as made up of two elements, daytime and nighttime. These two elements are encapsulated by my two favourite Christmas movies: Elf, and the Polar Express.
Daytime Christmas is Elf. It is bright and loud, secular and optimistic. It is beautiful and accessible. It praises the basic virtues of altruism and naïveté. Daytime Christmas is shopping malls playing Michael Bublé. Daytime Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. It is the doublethink that latches onto anything festive and cheerful to offset the fatal dark and cold of early winter. Daytime Christmas is the Christian Christmas in all its heavy-handed cultural baggage.
Nighttime Christmas is The Polar Express. It is quiet and mysterious, frightening and ephemeral. Nighttime Christmas is the Solstice, the shortest day of the year. It is the long long night that a child doesn’t have the experience to know will give way to the augmentation of the light. Nighttime Christmas is confusing and incongruent. Nighttime Christmas is the warning of a ghost about the vices of ignorance and want. Nighttime Christmas is a pagan intrusion; it is uncertainty.
Christmas is the end of a dark night’s triumph through our world and the resurgence of a cycle of light and life. It is a cultural and religious juggernaut appropriating what it can’t obliterate. It becomes a museum of human ideas the cycle of life. It is a steamroller decorated with twinkling LED lights with an underbelly of all the west’s hopes and fears caked onto the cylinder.
If you only pay attention to the gaudy tinsel you’re missing the point, but that’s also the truth if you only scrape the ground looking for philosophy. I am a Pagan and Christian atheist. I’m a gluttonous westerner unwilling to renounce either the ugly or the beautiful. I am optimistic every day and frightened every night.
I fucking love Christmas.