This piece is inspired by The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas , a superb collection of essays on the Holiday season written by atheist scientists, writers, comedians, and thinkers. The book offers funny, thoughtful, and practical advice for surviving Christmas and appreciating its finer aspects, regardless of one’s belief system. I’ve also dropped in some of my favourite Christmas tunes throughout.
Christmas comes but once a year, and an often hellish time it is. It’s easy to understand why. Gathering together a massive collection of your insane relatives, your insane drunk relatives, your insane racist relatives, your insane homophobic relatives, your insane judgemental relatives, all of whom you have little contact with throughout the year and thus really mean very little to you, all for the sake of engaging in an orgy of smalltalk and gluttony that often leaves one feeling unwell and guilty by the time it’s all done really isn’t a brilliant idea.
Almost everything about Christmas is irrational and would make no sense at any other time of year and even in mid to late December can only really be justified with the qualification of “Come on, it’s Christmas!” This is how we justify spending an ungodly amount on gifts that are usually impractical both in terms of cost and usefulness, horrid food and beverages like Christmas pudding and eggnog, extremely wasteful Christmas lights and displays on our front lawns, and the absolutely insufferable musical stylings of Michael Bublé.
Exactly how can the existence of eggnog, something that goes bad faster than you can drink it, is loaded with fat, can only be made tolerable with alcohol, and makes you (or at least me) sick almost immediately upon consumption, be rationally justified? Any other time of the year, we would see it for what it is, an inexplicably expensive health hazard that cannot be relied as a source of nutrition or enjoyment. But, of course, come the day after Halloween – we’re lucky if Christmas starts that late – we fall in line with the Holiday spirit and make our customary visits to “friends” and “love ones,” who offer us a festive drink that we do not dare turn down for fear of being rude. As the Christmas Industrial Complex has expanded beyond limits, the Nog is also now available in latte form, coffee form, tea form, etc.
But I digress. My objective here is not to write another curmudgeonly rant against the Christmas season laced with snark, the type of which is now as clichéd and liable to make you roll your eyes as the most saccharine and overdone of Christmas customs. I do believe, however, that Christmas asks us to do so much that we’re not used to doing, and such is the source of our greatest anxieties at this time of year.
At least as far as the marketing of Christmas goes, and let’s face it, Christmas has essentially become purely commercial, it demands that we go over the top and attain perfection in our roles as gift givers, parents, spouses, and hosts. Images of the ideal Christmas are often decadent and require superhuman efforts to bring to fruition. The perfect Christmas meal, as it is dictated to us by our celebrity chefs, requires days of effort, impeccable planning, and the tracking down of ingredients that no one with an ounce of sanity simply has lying around the house.
As children, we see that the greatest elation we can experience on Christmas day is tied to the gifts we receive. To not receive the latest and trendiest toy, which now includes technologies that cost hundreds, is to not have a perfect Christmas. Judging by the television commercials that we’re so used to seeing by now, it seems that even the supposed “real meaning” of Christmas, the enjoyment of family and friends, the rest from our daily lives, cannot be enjoyed unless tied to this type of decadence.
For the rest of the year, we’re just not used to entertaining company or cooking a nice meal, certainly not on such a grand scale as we tend to do on Christmas. We’re just too busy. We’re just too stressed. We’re not good at enjoying the company of others or the simple pleasure of a nice meal.
What we North Americans are good at is complaining and living in a constant state of fear and anxiety that we’re not good enough or that we’re not doing enough. Our inability to stop, to turn our phone off, to disconnect from technology, to get the right amount of sleep, to spend some time in the company of friends over a pint, is worn as a badge of honour.
Just think of how many times you’ve heard phrases along the lines of “I only got three hours sleep last night,” “I worked sixty hours last week,” “I stayed up all night working on that assignment,” “I haven’t eaten a proper lunch in a whole week,” all of which are supposed to be greeted with reverence and admiration. To not sleep properly, to not have the time to socialize, is a sign of success and determination no matter how bad this might really be for our health.
We don’t think for a second that it might be okay to not be productive, or at least appear to be productive, which is what we’re really trying to do most of the time rather than actually doing anything of value. Again, despite it’s obvious detriment to our health, this attitude goes hand in hand with the typical understanding of Christmas. When it comes around, the Holidays provide us with a superb opportunity to take gold in the Oppression Olympics by bringing chaos, confusion, and the nonstop need for hustling in to our lives that we can subsequently brag about to others.
When we do manage to have face to face conversation with others, we engage in a gripe-fest, offering ourselves up as martyrs who have suffered against the harsh elements of the shopping centre, persevered against the Inquisition style interrogations of our in-laws, and offered the entirety of our physical and mental capacities to make others happy. This is the thing that Christmas asks us to do that we’re quite good at.
It is my belief that once it’s been stripped of all the commercial aspects, Christmas is ultimately well intentioned. At it’s core, it’s asking us to do something that’s actually good for us. It demands that for one day, or over the course of a few days, we detach ourselves from our daily routine and spend time in the company of friends and family whose company we are denied and deny ourselves for the rest of the year. This is the supposed upside of Christmas, but we’re just not very good at it. After all, as noted, we as a culture seem to have perverted this very pure and simple concept by transposing on to it the attitude we hold the rest of the year, that we must be perfect, over the top, and stressed so as to show that we are productive and valued members of society.
It’s no wonder that Christmas is a time of profound anxiety and alienation for so many. It’s no wonder that we can’t seem to come away from the Holidays feeling that we have experienced the “true meaning of Christmas,” the one marked by a humble acknowledgement that we are privileged to enjoy the love and support of wonderful people whose company brings us laughter, perspective, therapy, and the strength to continue.
The reason for this, in my own humble opinion, is that so many of us have had our social faculties dulled by lack of practice. We often fail to understand the unique value of sharing time and conversation with friends and family because it’s just something we don’t do. We know how to complain, make irritating and unfulfilling smalltalk, rush as if it will be the end of the world if we stop to talk for more than a few minutes, and so that’s what we do and as a result we don’t go into Christmas seeking solace in family and friends because we simply haven’t built up an appreciation for such things. We treat it as we treat anything else, namely just another obligation that requires constant rushing and hustling.
It is this, and not the religious aspect of Christmas, that should prove most despairing to the atheist. After all, in choosing atheism, one has affirmed that nothing lies beyond this mortal life. All the joy that life offers, and it does indeed offer so much, will only be offered to us once. Your suffering here will not yield massive payoffs in the afterlife but will simply accumulate as misery before you’re thrown into a hole in the ground never again to enjoy a delicious meal, a glass of wine, a literary or cinematic masterpiece, and most importantly, never to be reunited with those who made your time here worthwhile.
This is not the privileged knowledge of the atheist, nor am I the first to acknowledge that you only live once or that every diem must be carpéd to its fullest, but the fact that the message is so often repeated might well be a sign that we’re not getting it.
I once read somewhere that there was a song called “I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day.” I’ve never bothered to search for it because it sounds like it would be about as enjoyable as the Rwandan Genocide, which is to say it doesn’t sound enjoyable at all. Nonetheless, I think it the title does reflect a certain truth that I didn’t discover until this year along with the solution to the dilemmas discussed here.
This year, I started doing something I hadn’t quite attempted in previous years, which is being social. The most memorable of these occasions, in my opinion, were the times when I would have a few friends over to my house for dinner and actually attempt to cook a proper meal. We’d break open a bottle of wine, and with no other distractions like music or noise or anything requiring participation, we would converse. Yes, we complained, but we also listened, reassured one another, joked, told stories, shared ideas, and simply enjoyed one another’s company.
For a few hours, the outside world, comprised of our day to day concerns, ceased to exist, except to be ridiculed with humour. We weren’t there to prove anything to one another, like that we were incredibly important and busy people whose every move was depended upon by the world at large. We just basked in the glory of one another’s company and appreciated the blessing – yes, the atheist often feels so – that good friends offer. I for one came away in awe of the fact that such simple things can restore order to chaos and serve as a singular reminder that love, kindness, laughter, and joy can in fact be found in this world if we’re willing to slow down and let these things show themselves to us.
I learned it in the brief time I spent travelling this summer, when every evening, without fail, my hostess and I would find ourselves either enjoying a bottle of wine or noshing a simple snack from the boulangerie. Topics of conversation would flow freely from books to love to music to family and so on. Again, I always came away knowing something I didn’t know previously, or feeling reassured that I was cared for and loved.
Obviously, these things cannot be done every day, nor should they be. One of the key points I’ve been trying to make here, after all, is that excess is harmful. These things must be done, however, for the sake of our sanity. They must be treated as an obligation and just as vital to our lives as anything else.
Practice makes perfect, and if we can practice enjoying one another’s company and get used to the fact that an enjoyable meal need not be overly complicated and require superhuman efforts, surviving Christmas might be made simpler. We might, as a result, enter the Holidays knowing that all we want is time spent with family and friends, who now that we’ve actually spent some time talking to them the rest of the year can offer more than mind-numbing smalltalk.
We can admit that no one likes eggnog and that Christmas pudding is gross and requires too much effort and that a good meal is one that leaves you full and satisfied, not overstuffed. We don’t have to go all out, because the occasions on which we come together do not happen but once a year, as we are constantly reminded that Christmas does, but are routine, though a routine that is valued for its regularity and eagerly greeted at each occurrence.
Once again, this is hardly new. Deep down, we know this. We experience these moments regularly, but seem to do so reluctantly for fear of being accused of “slacking” or not being busy enough. The “true meaning of Christmas” and its greatest joys are available all year round, but if we’re going to experience them when December finally does come, we better learn to recognize and appreciate them in the lead-up to the big day.