The fascinating thing about it is that this claim is brought forth by atheists who want to celebrate Christmas. I had a debate about this on an atheist forum where I argued that Christmas cannot possibly be a secular holiday (I stopped contributing because the arguments presented in support of that claim seemed to boil down to “well, I think it’s secular, therefore it must be”).
I had argued that Christmas is religious because its essence is religious. AR Cline, the Atheism Guide, makes the following claim:
Christmas, like any holiday has absolutely no “essence” aside from what we assign it. Christmas means exactly what meaning we impart to it — no more, no less.
I think this shows nicely how we end up with the claim that Christmas is a secular holiday: It’s the influence of relativism. There’s no “essence” to anything beyond the meaning I give it. Everything is the way I define it. If I claim that Christmas is secular, it is so. It doesn’t matter what the origin of the holiday is, nor what the majority of people think it is.
AR referred me to a couple of his articles. The key arguments seem to be presented here. The argument seems to go somewhat like this: Because the US has the separation of church and state, because Christmas is a government sponsored holiday, Christmas must be either violating that separation (as I argue) or Christmas must be a secular holiday (as AR argues). He proposes that the Supreme Court should simply declare Christmas to be a secular holiday. Surely that would make it so, right? Just like “In God We Trust” is clearly a secular statement since it is on our coins and the Supreme Court has said this doesn’t violate the separation of religion and state. Sure. Right. Just because we’d like Christmas to be secular, so that we can claim it, doesn’t make it secular. I love Bach’s music. But I can listen to it without pretending that it has nothing to do with religion. I don’t need to claim that Bach’s music is secular to enjoy it; I simply ignore references to God. Why do atheists feel this desperate need to claim that Christmas is a secular holiday in order to celebrate it? If you want to celebrate, do so! There are atheists who go to church or synagogue because they enjoy it. They don’t claim that the services are secular because they attend them (although, I am sure, people on the forum would).
The whole claim that Christmas is secular seems to stem from the need of some atheists to continue to celebrate Christmas. Most of us grew up with Christmas. The religious overtones have become meaningless to us. So for us, it is a secular holiday. But to claim that this makes it so for the 80% of USAmerican who are Christian is dangerous because it waters down the separation of religion and state. I have not heard anything in the arguments for viewing Christmas as a secular holiday other than: I say so and therefore it is. Fine, that makes it secular for you. But that’s a long way from redefining it as secular, which I would argue is not possible. Maybe, we will be able to replace Christmas with a secular holiday, just like Christmas replaced holidays from other religions. Notice, though, that Christians were largely successful in doing that because they created a new basis for it, a new story around the holiday. They didn’t simply say that Winter Solstice is a Christian holiday because Christians celebrate it. Christmas will not become a secular holiday simply because atheists and other secularist celebrate it. If we want to hijack the holiday, we’ll need to come up with something else to celebrate around this time of year. Something other than the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Aside from the absurd claim that we can change something religious to something secular simply by declaring it so, I also find it dangerous. Christians have imposed their value-systems onto the US and many other countries. Granted, the US is not a Christian nation in the sense that Christianity is not the official national religion but if we ignore that “the status quo has traditionally been one of privileging Christians at the expense of other religions,” as AR puts it, is not a thing of the past, we will not be able to truly establish a secular society. Rather than ignoring this influence, we need to question it. Why should Christmas be a day off? Why should “In God We Trust” be imprinted on our money? Why should marriage be a more valued form of relationship than anything else? All of this stems from the Christian influence on this country. If we can find secular reasons, I think it would be valid to continue these traditions. If not, separation of religion and state requires that we come up with new traditions.
It is difficult to not do what “everybody else does.” When just about everyone around me celebrates Christmas, I wonder what’s wrong with me. When just about everyone around me is married or at least coupled, I wonder what’s wrong with me. But just because everybody else does it doesn’t mean I have to do it. Nor do I claim that Christmas is meaningless to everybody because it’s meaningless to me.
(Note: I am proud to say that at least one prominent secular humanist agrees with me. Tom Flynn suggests that we should sit out Christmas in a dialogue with Ron Lindsay. Flynn also wrote about our bedfellows explaining the “paradox of Christmas” further.)