I was raised Catholic, but I think I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic. By the time I went through Confirmation in tenth grade, I was just reluctantly going through the motions to keep my parents happy. But it wasn’t until my final years in college that I felt comfortable revealing to most of my family that I had joined the Dark Side: yup, I’m an atheist.
When I first heard about The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, I was intrigued, if not a little wary. The book is unlike other atheist books that have made their way onto bestseller lists in recent years–and that’s a good thing. The problem I’ve found with popular books like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great is that after a while, they start to sound a bit–for lack of a better word–preachy. My obnoxious Militant Atheist phase quickly came and went (thankfully), and I’ve long since taken a laissez-faire approach to life. As such, preachy books–even those that are playing for “my team”–quickly irritate me.
The editors of The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas were smart to (mostly) steer clear of the proselytizing. Instead, the book offers 42 essays written by atheists of all types of backgrounds. The books is split into six parts: Stories, Science, How To, Philosophy, Arts, and Events. Almost all of the essays remain lighthearted and humorous, and almost all of them agree on one thing: Christmas is awesome. As with any collection, some essays were stronger than others. For the sake of brevity–and because the collection is strong overall–I’m just going to highlight a few of my favorites:
In “A Child Was Born on Christmas Day,” Emery Emery writes about hating Christmas because his birthday falls on the same date. He talks about how he never got to properly celebrate his birthday, because everyone was more focused on Christmas. To add insult to injury, he’d only receive one set of presents each year. Coincidentally, his sister’s birthday fell on Christmas Eve, and the two would commiserate about the “profound injustice.” It’s a funny essay, though one can’t help but feel sorry for their predicament:
One particularly lamentable Christmas, my sister received two identically wrapped packages from our mother. She unwrapped one to find a single, fairly cheap earring. As she unwrapped the other box, revealing the matching earring, Mom exclaimed, “One is for your birthday, and the other is for Christmas!”
Profound injustice indeed. Why would you do that to your own kid?!
Another essay I really enjoyed was “Starry, Starry Night” by Phil Plait, which was in the Science section of the book. In it, Plait, dissected the Bethlehem story from an astronomer’s perspective. Using scientific data, Plait tried to determine which bright star it was that the three wise men saw, ruling out supernovas and planetary alignments. He explains why the star described in the Bible could not have existed, then goes on to explain why he’s content to celebrate Christmas anyway.
Jennifer McCreight’s cheeky essay, “Gifts for the Godless,” offered ideas on what to buy an atheist for Christmas. I laughed at idea #3: “Grayscale crayons. To represent how atheists view a bleak world devoid of divine purpose and meaning.” Mostly, I was just delighted to see Atheist Barbie make an appearance on the list:
Her lunch cracks me up.
I think my favorite essay in the collection was Julian Baggini’s “The First Honest Christmas Round-Robin Letter.” In it, he talks about how his family of atheists came to start celebrating Christmas in their own individual ways, rather than go through the motions of getting together as a family for the sake of tradition. When I described it to my brother he was a little taken aback, but I appreciated the honesty of it all.
A lot of the writers describe the desire to celebrate Christmas regardless of the fact that they’re atheists. Personally, I’ve had all kinds of Christmas experiences: everything from massive family get-togethers at my grandparents’ house where every inch of the floor was left covered in wrapping paper, to sitting alone in my apartment all day when I lived in New York and was too poor to afford a flight back home (honestly, it wasn’t a big deal at all for me; what I do recall being bitter about was the fact that all the restaurants were closed and I didn’t have any good food in my apartment). But I totally get that cultural connection people feel toward Christmas, especially if they were raised in an even remotely religious environment. To this day, “O Holy Night” remains my favorite Christmas song, even though the lyrics are totally at odds with my (non-)beliefs.
Such is the life of an atheist at Christmas. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
The Atheists’s Guide to Christmas was released by Harper Perennial in November 2010. All author advances and royalties from the book’s sales will be donated to the Terrence Higgins Trust, a UK-based HIV and sexual health charity.