By Sergio Martinez
It is this time again: Christmas is in the air, or rather it is everywhere: the decorative lighting in the streets, the music at supermarkets and shopping malls, Christmas trees in any public building. For me Christmas is primarily a sort of landmark in the calendar anticipating the end of the year, filling one’s time with the parties that surround the date, and of course, carrying the reminder that one is expected to give presents to family and close friends. It doesn’t really matter that at a personal level I am a non-believer, or if you want, an atheist. I know: some people get scared even at the mention of such word: a person who doesn’t believe in God. “So, do you think that after you die there is nothing else?” That was a typical question I got from my students when I discussed this issue in my Humanities courses. I don’t know if my answer (“Yeah, there is nothing, this is all what it is…So enjoy it. Make it worth living it”) make them reflect. But as a college teacher that was one of the things I was supposed to do: make them think critically. Now that I have retired I guess other teachers continue that task.
Of course when I look back to past Christmases I have to concede that it was different for me as a child in my now far away country of origin. In my childhood, like most children I supposed, I was a believer: Jesus, Virgin Mary, and all of that paraphernalia associated with the date. The wait for Santa’s presents and then the showing off of one’s toys in the neighbourhood, all that a beautiful part of one’s life. That’s why when I affirm my atheist convictions I am not being hostile to the celebration, quite the contrary, I think Christmas is a great celebration, a great occasion for togetherness, a kind of collective event that is basically a good thing for a society.
Of course at the same time I may take a very critical view of the consumerist approach taken to the festivity, in a way quite a departure from the humble origins of the one whose birthday is celebrated, but that also reflects what most western societies have become under the present economic system, a lifestyle marked by the possession of material things and the display of social status over any other consideration. The departure from what some people like to call “the real spirit of Christmas” has been gradual, but persistent. It is now more of a pop culture event than a religious or spiritual one. In a way because as most educated people must know, Christmas is more of a pagan than a Christian celebration, or rather, in a quite convenient way, it was the co-optation of an already established pagan festival—the Saturnalias held around the time of the winter solstice—which then was arbitrarily designated as the date of Jesus’ birth. In fact there is no historical record indicating when Jesus could have been born. (Some would even question Jesus’ historical existence but I don’t want to go there, I think that most likely the historical character really existed, although of course not with the supernatural characteristics the Christian mythology has attributed to him).
Not even the Christmas tree is a Christian tradition, its origins going back to the ancient custom of Nordic tribes in Europe to hang handcrafted fruits from trees at the time of the winter solstice as a symbolic request to their gods for a generous harvest in the coming summer.
I also make clear that in principle I have no problem with many things that Jesus could have said (although based on the not very reliable sources available) especially in reference to some elements of social justice, and certainly some of its ethical principles—although hard if not impossible to put into practice—are worth considering as an utopian ideal.
Christmas for an atheist like me then is an interesting period, in which I observe some of my fellow human beings making their best to be good, or at least saying that they would be. It doesn’t matter that as Spanish songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat says, the day after, when the party is over and the lights are off and the stages empty there would be nothing left, not even the good intentions. Yet even an atheist like me might still hope that things and people will be better, not because of any divine commandment, but simply because that is what things should be from a strictly human perspective. Merry Christmas.