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Every time that Christmas comes around I hear religious believers expressing sympathy for atheists who are apparently deprived of the pleasure of enjoying the season. In some cases it is even suggested that atheists are annoyed by Christmas because of the way it celebrates and promotes religious beliefs. Well, there are certainly things about Christmas that annoy this atheist, so I will look at a couple of these annoyances.
The first complaint is about drivelous Christmas songs which have nothing to do with either the religious reason for Christmas or even reality itself. It does not snow in Sydney in December. A traditional Australian Christmas Day has a temperature in the mid 30s Celsius and the only white flakes coming from the sky are ashes from bushfires. Reindeers might make nice venison (although it is a bit dry for cooking on a barbeque) but otherwise have absolutely no use or relevance here. (My opinion of these songs could very well have been influenced by the fact that I used to work in a large chain store when I was a mere youth and each year I would be exposed to continual repetition of Christmas songs. Even now I have a reflexive action when I hear "Jingle Bells" and feel the need to tell some mother to stop letting her child tear the wrapping off the toys on display.)
Some of the finest music ever written was inspired by religious belief, and this brings me to the destruction of traditional Christmas carols. (I make a distinction between carols and songs. Carols are examples of fine music, songs are songs. There are exceptions to both of course, and I offer as examples "Away In A Manger" and John Lennon's "Merry Christmas (War is Over)" - a dreadful carol and an inspirational song.) What I have been hearing this year are translations of carols into Christian Pop Rock, possibly the most useless form of popular music since the depths of disco. There seems to be a formula for doing the rearrangements which consists of replacing all notes with crotchets, making all rises and falls in pitch simply semitones and moving all breath marks to the middle of words. The prime example I have heard so far is a version of "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" which applies the formula rigidly and must have Felix Mendelssohn twirling in his grave every time it is played on radio.
While we are on Christmas music, another annoyance is the incorporation of things that have nothing to do with Christmas. Every public carol-singing festival that can locate a baritone seems to need a performance of "The Holy City", a majestic and beautiful song which refers to the crucifixion of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and then loops back to a vision of the new Jerusalem from Revelation 21. Nothing to do with Christmas at all. I can find no reference in the Bible to any little drummer boy doing paradiddles for the infant Jesus, and how an unspecified number of wise men turned into "Three Kings of Orient" is a real mystery.
The three wise men remind me that many Christians seem to be unfamiliar with the Bible. Every Christmas pageant and nativity diorama seems to include these three men, offering their gifts to the baby Jesus in his manger. I've actually read the book, and it quite clearly states that they visited Jesus in a house, not a stable (And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother Matt 2:11). No number of wise men is given (Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Matt 2:1) and Jesus was about two years old at the time (Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men Matt 2:16). If Christians can get these simple facts from the gospels wrong, one must wonder what else they believe is in the book but isn't.
Let's get back to the claim that atheists have nothing to enjoy or celebrate at Christmas and might even resent the festival because of its religious significance. Well, this atheist is perfectly capable of enjoying Christmas because he sees it as a secular celebration. It is a time for renewing and reinforcing relationships with family and friends. It is a time for relaxation from work and reflection on the good things of life. It is a time to celebrate the potential in our children.
One of the most offensive accusations made against atheists is that they have nothing on which to base moral standards of behaviour. The simple answer to that is the slogan "Good without God". It is only slightly less offensive to suggest that atheists can't enjoy Christmas because they don't have religion, but we have families and friends and children and we don't need any more than that. "Good times without God" would go nicely on my t-shirt.
Have a merry one.
This article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on December 21, 2010