As one who is deeply immersed in the culture wars, I sometimes surprise people when I tell them that I do indeed celebrate Christmas. How can an activist humanist (whose national secular group last year ran ads reading "No God? No Problem!") acknowledge that December 25 is anything other than another day on the calendar?
With the religious right constantly ranting about the so-called "War on Christmas," it's easy to forget that that, to many, Christmas is very much a secular holiday. Indeed, in many American households denying the existence of God is no big deal, but questioning the existence of Santa Claus is another matter entirely.
Sure, I know that "Jesus is the reason for the season" to many people, and if that's what you think, fine. But it seems to me that there are two true "reasons for the season," and neither has much to do with the poor Nazarene, who was a devout Jew (if he actually existed) and would surely be baffled at what is being done in his name today. Of those two true "reasons for the season," one is admirable, while the other is not.
The admirable "reason for the season" is the idea of peace on earth and goodwill toward our fellow humans. This simple yet profound notion, which is too often ignored (at least by those with the guns and political power) should probably be a guiding principle all year, not just during the holiday season. But the important point is that we can exalt peace and goodwill without the necessity of actually believing anything about the humble Nazarene. To the extent Jesus symbolizes peace, hats off to that image of him, but there's no need to claim adherence to a religion named after him in order to be a pacifist. (And let's not ignore the fact that very few of his followers are in fact pacifists - in fact, quite the contrary!)
The less admirable "reason for the season," but the one that is most important to the corporate interests that run our country, is the massive orgy of consumption that accompanies the American Christmas season each year. Again, this has nothing to do with Jesus, and would no doubt be repugnant to him. The irony of this holiday, which supposedly marks the birth of a simple religious man who preached humility and loathed materialism, being a vehicle for gluttonous consumption, where millions of Americans go into debt to buy things they don't want and can't afford, is sublime.
Of course, it wouldn't be fair to focus solely on the negative, because the spirit of the season - once you get beyond the stress and the crowds and the absurdity - has a beauty that is unlike any other time of year. But again, the religious aspect of that holiday spirit, while cherished by the faithful who embrace it, is not a necessary element of an enjoyable holiday experience for many. In fact, as you make the rounds of holiday parties this year, tipping your glass, laughing with friends, catching a smooch under the mistletoe, you will no doubt be doing so with many who don't take seriously the supernatural myths of the Nazarene.
What they do take seriously, however, is the spirit of a cultural tradition that predates even Jesus. The winter solstice, when the longest night yields and days begin to grow longer as the strength of the sun slowly begins to exert itself, has been a festive time in most cultures for many millennia. Even if you are a devout Christian, your family tree of Christians probably goes back less than about a hundred generations. Before those Christian generations, your family tree was filled with countless non-Christian generations that most likely celebrated some version of a Sun God around the time of the solstice.
So this is a festive time of year, and has been for a long time. Jesus may be one reason for the season, but there are many other reasons as well, many of them secular. Secular folks like myself (and there are many of us), celebrating the holidays this year along with our religious friends and families, are just doing what our ancestors have been doing for as long as anyone can remember.
Merry Secular Christmas.