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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Opinion: The meaning of Christmas to an atheist

This past weekend, my husband and I put up our Christmas tree. Doing this on the first Sunday in December has become a bit of a tradition for us, and I have to admit, I really get quite excited about doing it. This might seem surprising when you discover that I’m an atheist. 

Why would someone who doesn’t believe in God, and who is not even sure if Jesus ever existed celebrate one of the most important Christian festivals?

Well, the answer is a bit complex. First up, like most children in the ‘Christian’ world, I was bribed with presents and good food from an early age, and all I had to do in return was kneel down before bed and pray to a man who was going to save our souls. It was easy.

Yes, that’s a bit cynical, but in reality, Christmas was a happy time where family and friends got together and we had a good time. 

Moving into adulthood, the feelings about Christmas remained, and I still buy into the season as a time of remembrance, goodwill, and peace. Those things are not exclusive to religious belief, they are fundamental human values and notions.

The other thing to note, is that the concept of celebrating at this time of the year goes further back in time than Jesus. The ancient pagans used to mark the northern hemisphere winter solstice with rituals and the placing of tree branches in their homes in anticipation of spring. For the Romans, December a time to honour their god Saturn, and a two week festival called Saturnalia took place. In Roman (and Greek) temples, worshippers also placed green branches and adorned them with metal decorations. 

These then were the earliest known ‘Christmas trees’ long before Christianity appeared. The type of tree decoration we are now familiar with actually came from northern European pagan tribes who worshiped a god called Woden. They put candles and dried fruit on their indoor ‘trees’ to honour the god. Eventually in the 1500s German Christians adopted the practice and decorated trees in their homes with toys, lights and confectionary. 

So the history of celebrating at this time of the year has a long and interesting history. Being an atheist doesn’t mean I can’t honour or participate in the celebration. Even though I am not religious, I can appreciate what this time means, and how it is part of my cultural heritage.  In honouring and enjoying that heritage, my husband and I have also created a little tradition of our own.

Each year, we place on the tree a symbol representing someone we cared about who has died. This year, we placed a picture of Queen Elizabeth II on the tree. It joins a watch that my father wore, a military medal worn by my husband’s father, a greenstone Hei Tiki honouring my beloved mother-in-law, and a necklace once worn by a dear friend who died in 2008. 

As with any cultural symbol, our Christmas tree is something that has deep meaning for us, and as should happen, we have adapted it to suit what we believe in.

Merry Christmas!

PS – the picture above is not of my tree!

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