Atheism and Christmas

Christmas is one of my favourite times of the year. I am terrible at dealing with cold weather, but there’s something very cosy about Christmas (don’t talk to me about January. Ugh, January …). I like the traditions. I like giving my friends and family gifts. I like receiving gifts. I adore the warmth inside houses, the warm, filling food, the hot drinks, the alcohol, the general excuse for good cheer. However, I’ve been told that atheists don’t appreciate Christmas in the same way that Christians do. This is true, it doesn’t mean the same thing — which isn’t the same as it meaning less.

Once, a friend of mine — a very good friend of mine, who I consider one of the most awesome people I shall ever meet — told me that atheists should not celebrate Christmas. I’m not sure if she was offended that I professed to love the holiday, or if she thought that only good, Christian children should receive presents (for being so pious all year long and suffering through church). Either way, this made little sense to me, and I was made more frustrated when I attempted to complain about this and, several times was met with, “Well … she’s got a point.”

I’ve probably thought a lot more about this than she has in the years since. I think it was probably some pet peeve of hers, and I took it deadly serious in a way that it may not have been intended. But no, she does not have a point.

Christmas is, it is true, a holiday named by Christians (shocking, I know). However, it has traditions suspiciously similar to those of the Roman mid-winter holiday (the feasting and lights, for example), which occurred on the darkest day of the year (22nd of December, I believe), pre-Christianity. Also, it is distinctly unclear if Jesus Christ was born in winter. There are different hypotheses. It seems likely that the Christians took a holiday that all were celebrating anyway, and renamed it. Which is OK, it’s a nice time to have a holiday (when all is dark and cold), and you’re celebrating your saviour’s undetermined birthday at a time convenient to you. That’s fine. However, telling me that the mid-winter holiday, in which there is light and warmth and feasting during the darkest, coldest time of the year, is exclusively Christian … that’s sort of bullshit.

“But Kate,” you cry, “you can have a mid-winter celebration, you just can’t call it Christmas.”

*cough* None of you were saying that? I’m just being defensive? Possibly. But anyway, in rebuttal:

If I go around saying ‘Happy Atheism Day’ around about December the 25th, most people are going to give me funny looks. Some will just be confused. Some will laugh. And someone shall be deeply offended. “HOW DARE YOU TRY TO REMOVE MY CELEBRATION OF THE BIRTH OF CHRIST,” they’ll thunder in indignation of my re-naming of their faith’s most important day, and in shock that I would proudly announce my beliefs (because I MUST be challenging their own). So you see, I can’t win.

Also, would that mean I can only give gifts to fellow atheists? Who share in my non-existent holiday? That’s kind of sad. Some of my best friends are not atheists. I wish to have the same holiday as them. I want to show them how much I love and appreciate them. I want a beautiful tree hung with lights, a warm fire, spectacularly nerdy gifts (of which I’ve already received one *_* — a Snitch necklace. Be very jealous), hot food. I like the traditions. I like the Christmas Carols. I was in my school’s Carol Service almost every year for 6 years. I like to sing. I love the harmonies. I do not believe in the Christian God, but I do not regret this. I do not feel that it is justified for me to be excluded from this for my lack of believe, in what is becoming an increasingly commercial and secularised holiday anyway (not that I like the commercialism too much … gets on my nerves. I love when people make gifts). I think, if you try to exclude me, it cannot be because of rational arguments, but because my being an atheist offends you, and you think I should not have nice things because of this. Also, if it truly offends you … That’s not my problem. I’m certainly not offending my own lack of beliefs by participating in the season’s celebrations, so … *shrugs*

So we can all celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, mid-winter, Humanism Day, whatever. Why not? Celebrations are great, I love them. Happy Holidays, folks.

Discworld coinage and a Snitch necklace. Doesn’t get much better than that, folks

Note: I recently received a Sunshine Award from the lovely Lily Wight (who runs a really cool Lord of the Rings-based blog here on WordPress). Go check out the awesomeness. Also, I watched the Hobbit. I loved it. Had so much fun. There were criticisms, and it wasn’t as good as LotR, but still wonderful 🙂

Snitch necklaces and similar can be found here, for those interested 😉

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The gift of words …

“We read to know we are not alone” ~ C.S. Lewis*

When I was five, I hated reading. I loved stories, but others had to read them to me — it was just too much work. It was so much easier to just make up my own stories (and act them out using my hands — my parents are still talking about this, for some reason).

That all changed with one book. My brother read the first Harry Potter to me (he was only eight at the time — retrospectively I’m really impressed by his patience), and then refused to read out the second.  So, if I wanted to find out what happened next to Harry and his friends (who seemed so brave and cool, being a whole 11 years old) I would have to, horror of horrors, read the next one myself.

I like to tell my brother that he created a monster, but really he gave me my love of reading, which I think has defined me as a person more than anything else in my life, except perhaps for my family. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that I would have discovered the joy of literary endeavour anyway, but I don’t think as soon, or with such a passion.

“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” ~ John Green

I think the most important thing about books is that they can be an insight into the mind of the Other. An insight into a mind completely unlike your own unlocks thoughts, and the realisation that everyone thinks, just as you do. That everyone remembers and dreads and hopes and dreams. That the same thoughtless fury that provokes your own harsh words can be why others lash out — books taught me that the villain can be human, and that the hero can be flawed. They taught me that my own flaws must be recognised and overcome. And even better when you discover a like mind, a kindred spirit, and realise that you are not some bizarre abnormality for thinking the way you do.

“It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.” ~ John Green

I was not a neglected child, by any means, but we all have our hardships, and I found solace in the stories of others, feeling like Matilda as I escaped to Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Time City, the amazon and even rural Britain. Books made me think about the world, and its complexity.

The first time I truly began to think about my own morality, or my own possibly passive immorality, was when I was 12, and read a heart-breaking book called Is Anybody Listening by Larry O’Loughlin. Almost anyone in my class who read this book seemed to say, “It was good, yeah. Sad, though.” I cried at least once an hour for about two days. It made me think of horrible things happening in other places, it made me think about how privileged my own existence was, and it made me feel achingly guilty for the fact that I ever forget this, or ever ignore the suffering in the world.

I came to realise that, in fairness, I was only 12, and there’s a limit to what a 12 year old can do. A cause for current guilt is that I still don’t do a lot to help in various matters. But if ever I make any sort of difference or impact in this world, I think it will be because of that book, and others like it that I stumbled upon in later years.

Another advantage to reading: people often assume that I’m smarter than I actually am, and I attribute this directly to a rather good vocabulary. You really don’t need to be smart to have a good vocabulary, you just need to read a shit-load of books. But this can be a serious asset when writing essays or engaging in debates — if eloquent and verbose sentence construction is second nature to you, you will be able to more accurately convey your precise meaning and thoughts. So, on a purely technical level, reading helped me with my writing and those silly comprehensions they make you do throughout secondary school. Also, good knowledge of English can help with comprehensions in French, or Italian, or other Latin-based languages. They can have very similar roots.

So yeah, reading is good from that aspect. But I think the true value will always be emotional, historical and intellectual. Books taught me to think in the way I do. Books taught me why others might think in the way they do. They taught me about historical events — not with dates, but from psychological and sociological perspectives (Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Good book). Books were my first peek into philosophical thought.

The Discworld series (by Terry Pratchett) taught me folklore, sought out the absurdities in both foreign and familiar cultures, taught me the beauty of parody, and taught me that no matter how silly a character, or how flawed a person, they have the ability to inspire with their own quiet determination. Also, for comedic works, Pratchett’s books contain an astounding amount of philosophical insight — no, really! (A philosophy lecturer of mine even quotes Discworld from time to time).

The Lord of the Rings (by J.R.R. Tolkien) taught me that heroes can come from anywhere. That bravery, especially in the face of fear, is far more admirable than physical strength or worldly knowledge (especially Samwise Gamgee — my hero).

“Sam: It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
~ The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

A Little Princess (by Frances Hodgson Burnett) taught me the strength of the will, the strength of the imagination, the desperate need for it in the darkest days.

And Harry Potter … well, Harry Potter teaches me new things every time I read it. Honestly. It taught me to re-evaluate my first impressions. It taught me the importance of forgiveness, the value of friendship, the bravery of necessity, that people are people no matter where they’re from or what gifts they possess.  It taught me that

“It is our choices … that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ~ Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling).

These lessons cannot be undone, and nor would I want them to be. Sometimes they were hard to learn (the tears — good god, the tears), but they’re important, and I will endeavour to always remember them.

This post is about books, but by no means do I wish to ignore other media of expression, I simply express that which had the most profound effect on me. Graphic novels can also be powerful (Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and Watchmen by Alan Moore are very much recommended). Films, while falling short of books in some areas, surpass them in others (Groundhog Day. Don’t even get me started. Everyone should see that film). Art, photography, plays and poems (Emily Dickinson’s where it’s at) all help to shape the world, and describe it in a way that our own minds cannot.

Tonight, I am going to a Harry Potter quiz. 14 years and infinite re-reads later, it’s still one of my favourites.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

A little doodle depicting one of my favourite quotes of all time …

*Attributed to C.S. Lewis in the film ‘Shadowlands’ — my lazy researching (by which I mean Googling) did not verify whether he actually said that.