The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

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.

I read it as a(n): Paperback
Source: Publisher
Pages: 320

12 thoughts on “The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

  1. I might like these essays; they don’t sound as angry as I might have expected.
    I turn out to be constitutionally unable to give only one package to someone whose birthday is anywhere near Dec. 25; I was going to this year, for the child of some friends whose birthday is on the 27th, and for whom we’d gotten two books. But then I wrapped the books together and got a sweater for her birthday, which we put in a gift bag that announces Happy Birthday. This is partly because my brother’s birthday is Jan. 5, my father’s Jan. 7, and my mother’s Jan. 13. (I was born in July!)

    1. I feel bad for people with Christmas birthdays, especially little kids! I had a friend whose birthday fell on Christmas, and she said she never got two sets of gifts, and that everything would be wrapped in holiday-themed paper. It’s horrible!

  2. Yes! About “Oh, Holy Night”! My boyfriend and I, both fairly atheist/spiritual/agnostic/nonbelievers (you know, to give it a few names), were listing such religious songs, it really surprised me. I’m glad we’re not the only ones experiencing that phenomenon. But I often think religious music, like gospel and hymns, are some of the most beautiful songs ever written. I’m going to have to check out this book, it sounds great!

  3. Even an atheist must believe in the most fundamental issues of existence-life and death. For many, the idea of death being a finality with no hereinafter is the catalyst that brings them inside the doors where religion will assure them that this is not so. They want to believe, which makes them easy to bring into “The flock”. The other point is that while you are a child, whatever your parents tell you will be believed. It is only later in life that your consciousness will be able to judge what it deems to be real.

  4. This sounds like a really fun book. I, too, hate the preachy-ness. Especially when they are railing against religious people trying to win converts 😉 The barbie is the best too!

  5. I rarely comment on blogs that talk about my work, but a friend pointed me to this page because he thought it hilarious that Mellisa got my gender wrong.

    My friend sent me an email with a tongue-in-cheek subject that read “You Write Like A Girl” with a link to this blog.

    While my sexuality is a bit grey at times, I am stricken with very decisive plumbing and what’s more, I did mention my lovely wife near the end of my piece.

    Anyway, really nice and enjoyable blog, Mellisa. Thank you for thoughtful and intelligent review.

      1. Thanks, Melissa. I was a little bummed to see it changed! I thought it was funny! Started reading it to my wife just now and she thought I was making stuff up.

        Anyway, you write very well and I enjoyed reading your review very much.

  6. This sounds hilarious – I may even buy purely for the Barbie piece (love her lunch too and of course the no pants for orgies). I don’t consider myself and atheist, but I think this is a book that anyone with a sense of humor and a broad mind could enjoy. I’m adding it to my list – thanks!

  7. I bought a copy of “Atheists Guide” when it came out, and I now make a point of reading a few essays on the days it gets very stressful at Christmas time. I too especially like Phil Plait’s essay, but I like his writing full stop.

    I usually skip Dawkins piece. Far too wankerish for me.

    I have two nieces with birthdays within 2 days (either side) of Christmas, and I make a point of getting them separate presents. I remember years ago reading an interview with Annie Lennox saying how rough it was to have a birthday on Christmas Day as a kid, so I was going to make sure that didn’t happen to any kids I knew.

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