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Christmas Reflection 2017

More than any other time, event, or celebration, Christmas, for me, shows that you can take the boy out of Christianity but you can’t take Christianity out of the boy.  As much as I am a completely secular-humanist/agnostic/atheist (pick your term), I am still hopelessly attracted to Christmas and what it stands for.

As I said in the previous post, it is not that I “believe” in the Christmas story (stories) as a historical event (events).  In my judgment the biblical accounts have virtually nothing historical about them, other than that Jesus was born to two lower-class Jewish peasants somewhere in the land of Israel during the reign of Caesar Augustus.  Beyond that – I don’t see anything historical in the accounts.   No need to explain why here – I’ve talked about it enough on the blog before.

And yet I’m drawn to the season and all it stands for, surely in a way that someone who had not been raised Christian simply cannot be.   I think for me, in my thoroughly secular life, it is because of what I take to be the very best features of the season.

Before detailing some of those, let me say emphatically that I know for lots and lots of people Christmas is the most miserable time of year, a time of loneliness, isolation, fragmentation, and unwanted obligation.   I think the fact that so many people find it such a happy time is precisely what makes it such a miserable time for others, either for those who have lost their most cherished loved ones, or all their families; or whose families have fallen apart; who have no one to cherish the season with, or who can’t stand either the grotesque materialism or the superficial happiness of it all in the midst of real suffering, or … well or lots of other things.   I completely get that.

Even so, for me, still at this stage of my life, it is the happiest season of the year.  Today I was trying to think why, since I’m no longer a believer.   I think Christmas embodies for me most of the things in life that I think of as inherently good.  (While I say that, let me stress emphatically: I despise the materialism of it all, and would be far, far happier to be rid of it all.)   Here are some of them:

  • Christmas makes me remember very good times of joy and peace and happiness with my family growing up. And it makes me feel particularly well connected to my family now (even though I’m not with my kids – they are grown and doing their own things!  Still….).  It was, and still is, a time for togetherness, for being together in spirit if not in fact, for sharing, for celebrating together.
  • Good food and drink! OK, I know that sounds rather banal, and epicurean, but the reality is that I’m an Epicurean at heart (I’ll explain that some time) (I mean in the ancient sense, mutatis mutandis for a 21st century setting….) and I very much enjoy the simple pleasures.  Couldn’t we get rid of the frantic materialism of the season and focus on the family getting together over amazing culinary delights?
  • The goodwill. Is it just me, or do people on the street just seem happier at Christmas?  More smiles, laughter, friendliness?  And general good will toward one another.  “Peace on earth and good will to all” – what could be better than that?
  • The sense of giving. Even though I don’t like the crass consumerism of the season, I like the idea of giving very much.  Wouldn’t it be great if we just gave each of our loved ones one carefully chosen and meaningful thing?  OK, 9/10 of us might not think so – but I think it would express far more love and attachment than the pick-up-whatever-catches-your-eye-as-you-go-down-the-aisle mentality so many of us (US!) have.
  • The image of God it conveys. The God of Christmas is not a God of wrath, judgment, sin, punishment, or vengeance.  He is a God of love, who wants the best for people and gives of himself to bring peace, joy, and redemption.   That’s a great image of a divine being.  This is not a God who is waiting for you to die so he can send you into eternal torment.  It is a God who is concerned for you and your world, who wants to solve your problems, heal your wounds, remove your pain, bring you joy, peace, happiness, healing, and wholeness.   Can’t we keep that image with us all the time?  Can’t we affirm that view of ultimate reality 52 weeks of the year instead of just a few?

I myself do not believe in God.   But if I did, that would be the God I would defend, promote, and proclaim.   Enough of war!  Enough of starvation!  Enough of epidemics!  Enough of pain!  Enough of misery!  Enough of abject loneliness!  Enough of violence, hatred, narcissism, self-aggrandizement, and suffering of every kind!  Give me the God of Christmas, the God of love, the God of an innocent child in a manger, who comes to bring salvation and wholeness to the world, the way it was always meant to be.


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Comments

  1. erudite  December 24, 2017

    Can a non-believer be still be a Christian that is follow the ethos of Christ as promulgated in the Gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2017

      As far as I’m concerned, yes. It just depends on how you define Christian, and who gets the right to define it htat way.

      • Tempo1936  December 26, 2017

        The writers of the gospels had to very smart to develop stories that are timeless, appealing to all kinds of people over thousands of years. Perhaps they were inspired by God?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 27, 2017

          I’d say that there are lots of ancient stories, both inside and outside the Bible, that continue to appeal to all kinds of people, and that fail to appeal to others.

  2. Wilusa  December 24, 2017

    I’m glad you can celebrate Christmas happily! So can I. I’ve celebrated it alone since my mother’s death (in 1993), but I wouldn’t want it any other way. She actually suffered a stroke – which eventually led to her death – on Christmas night. But I’ve had closure regarding that, and I never feel sad during the holidays.

    I don’t find anything inspiring, or even interesting, in the Christian Nativity story. But I still love some of the hymns. Specifcally, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” and “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” I love them as music and poetry, while choosing not to think about what they’re really saying: that we humans are subservient to some heavenly “King.”

    And most important: I like the early Christians’ having sought to connect the birth of their “savior” with the winter solstice. *That’s* what I really *celebrate*! Because we know the days are going to grow longer – a symbolic victory of light over darkness. I think it says something about human nature that we make more of that than we do of the summer solstice (which could, just as plausibly, make us fret over a coming “victory of darkness over light”).

    By the way, I believe what I heard at some time or other, from a Catholic source: that the winter solstice was to be associated with Jesus, the summer one with John the Baptist (“he must increase, and I must decrease”). But they set the dates for honoring them, in each case, a week before the first of the next month. So since June is a day shorter than December, one is celebrated June 24, the other December 25.

    • webattorney  December 28, 2017

      I lost my mom on Thanksgiving Day slightly over one year ago also to something similar (same as how Debbie Reynolds died I found out later) — mercifully pretty quickly. I give thanks on that day for having had a great mom who made a lot of sacrifices for her children. So, the cycle goes on.

  3. Jana  December 24, 2017

    Thank you Dr. Ehrman… a moving writ. It’s extremely poor in my small Maya pueblo so gifts are out of the question for most. They focus on food. And yet there exists a light touching spirit of good will. Lots of chanting in both Spanish and Maya. Personal anecdote: It’s mandatory for people who have help to provide an additional December payment. The government provides the calculations. It’s obligatory. Two younger women who have helped me for seven years receive bonuses and because they both are married to alcoholics who might drink up what little i can provide, I sought permission to buy what they cannot afford .. simple kitchen appliances. For both families, I was told, this will be all the family with little kids will receive. And the entire family is coming to my house. I felt humbled and moved. Does anyone really have cause for complaint? I don’t and I am reminded of it daily. Blessings Dr. Ehrman and good health.

  4. Telling
    Telling  December 24, 2017

    Ah, this is the perfect time to present my (somewhat elementary) understanding of Iranian Sufism, the mystic side of Islam. Sufism is of the abstract, very elevated:

    The world is represented by a square, the edges being North, South, East and West. The “man of light” is “oriented” toward the true north, which is not in the East, but rather is the North Star above us, in a different dimension, the shape is of a four-sided pyramid,, the North Star at top. It is this orientation that gives us direction. If we lose the connection we become hopelessly lost, running around the four edges exploring and discovering everything imaginable, but having lost the true orientation, we accomplish nothing and gain nothing. Reorienting ourselves to the true north brings the magic of Christmas (my words, not Sufi)

    Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst and student of Freud wrestled with Sufism’s forerunner Gnosticism and wrote a treatise “Seven Sermons to the Dead” which he didn’t let circulate widely until his death. These several lines are from the final sermon:

    In immeasurable distance there glimmers a solitary star on the highest point of heaven. This is the only god of this lonely one. This is his world, his Pleroma [his all and nothing], his divinity.

    In this world, man is Abraxas [God], who gives birth to and devours his own world.

    The star is man’s God and goal.

    It is his guiding divinity; in it man finds repose.

    [W]hen the outer world grows cold, this star still shines.

    http://www.gnosis.org/library/7Sermons_hoeller_trans.htm

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  5. Jana  December 24, 2017

    If you have time this nondenominational video a Grateful Day embodies the spirit of what you’ve written. I am touched by what you’ve written and associated: https://gratefulness.org/grateful-day/?utm_source=banner&utm_medium=internal

  6. Seeker1952  December 24, 2017

    Very moving. I agree with it all.

    I also think Christmas can or does have a strong theme of hope and promise–in contrast to, say, Easter which, arguably, puts a lot more emphasis on fulfillment, triumph, and validation. Hope is seen in a newborn baby and the promise for the future s/he can bring. The nativity is a burst of light and warmth in the cold and dark of a winter’s night. There’s also a sense of peace after the travails of childbirth and optimism and energy for a fresh start.. And a newborn child is, at least for many, a gift.

  7. JoshuaJ  December 24, 2017

    Thank you, Dr. Ehrman! This describes precisely how I now view Christmas. An atheist can still find deeply profound meaning in the Holiday season.

  8. GTGeek88  December 24, 2017

    Bart, you say “pick one” and one of the choices is agnostic which is quite different from an atheist which it would seem you are if you say you don’t believe in God (which you did). I think you’re always unclear on where you really stand. Being atheist is nothing but a different belief system. A believer cannot prove the existence of God and an atheist cannot disprove the existence of God. They both believe something they can’t prove. It seems that if you want to be objective, the farthest you can go towards disbelief is being an agnostic (though I’m not sure you can define agnostic as “being close to disbelief,” but I hope you get my meaning).

  9. thormas  December 24, 2017

    Nicely said and appreciated even by one who still believes!

  10. J.MarkWorth  December 24, 2017

    Well said. Thank you and Merry Christmas!

  11. ardeare  December 24, 2017

    The God of Christmas may only be possible through prayer, good intentions, and real deeds of honor. The ancient way of believing by hearing, medieval way of believing through compliance, or the modern way of believing through giving money without questioning is dead. IMO.

  12. Pattylt  December 24, 2017

    Having never been a Christian, I love Christmas! I am an American and America is mainly a Christian culture and you can hardly grow up without realizing it. I have wonderful memories of driving around the city on Christmas Eve to look at the lights with mom and dad (they were Jewish). We bought Christmas presents for our Christian friends. We watched Christmas parades and I participated in Christmas pageants. I love Christmas music (well, most of it). Finally, I certainly have no problem with giving and receiving a hearty “Merry Christmas” from friends and strangers. The Christians that accuse me of mounting a war on Christmas make me laugh and think they’re pretty pathetic as I never want to get rid of Christmas! I agree with you that nothing is better than celebrating peace on earth, good food and friends and babies. My Christmas has no religious connotation connected to it and I know that idea would upset some Christians but it is the Christmas I know and grew up with. The culture of Christmas, not the religion associated with it. So to all, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  13. gbsinkers  December 24, 2017

    AMEN! Merry Christmas Bart! Borrowing from John Lennon:

    “So this is Christmas and what have you done
    Another year over, a new one just begun
    And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun
    The near and the dear ones, the old and the young
    A very merry Christmas and a happy new year
    Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fears
    And so this is Christmas for weak and for strong
    The rich and the poor ones, the road is so long
    And so happy Christmas for black and for white
    For yellow and red ones let’s stop all the fights
    A very merry Christmas and a happy new year
    Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear
    …”

  14. doug  December 24, 2017

    While I don’t believe in any supernaturalism and am not a member of any religion, when I was growing up I was a Christian. I have memories and feelings of Christmas as an emotionally warm and happy time, when many of us feel closer to each other. I still enjoy the warmth, happiness, and feeling closer to people. And I imagine there is more to my enjoyment of the season than that, which I am not aware of or cannot put into words.

  15. Pegill7  December 24, 2017

    “Give me the God of Christmas, the God of love, the God of an innocent child in a manger, who comes to bring salvation and wholeness to the world, the way it was always meant to be.”

    I think most “good” people would say Amen to that. But mankind was offered that nearly 2100 years ago but despite
    claims of the true believer we’ve still got a long way to go. I agree with Pinker that mankind as a whole is more “moral” than ever before in history but only a small part of that achievement can be attributed to religion, Christian or any other. Indeed there has been and there still is a lot of evil in the world that can be traced to religious zealotry. As one astute observer has remarked, “Bad people do bad things and good people do good things, but in order for ‘good’ people to do bad things, you need religion”. 81 % of evangelical Christians voted for Trump!

  16. Stylites  December 24, 2017

    A truly magnificent piece of scholarship and reflection. If I may borrow a phrase from Marcus Borg, it was like meeting Christmas again for the first time. Thank you.

  17. talmoore
    talmoore  December 24, 2017

    Even as an atheist Jew I still like the Christmas season. And it’s probably for the same reason that most people like the season, because it has become an excuse to be as decadent and epicurean as we would all like to be normally but can’t be for budgetary and/or socially respectable reasons. I mean, it would be pretty awesome to have “christmas” lights up year round, but think about how wasteful that would be. And it would wonderful if we all exchanged gifts more than once a year, but think about how expensive that would be. So we focus all that overindulgence during only one time in the year, and, for some reason, we have all chosen Christmas as that time. Anyway, I like it, and if we could get rid of the religious aspect I think it would be even better.

  18. godspell  December 24, 2017

    There must also be a God of suffering–for as long as suffering exists. Pain is a necessary part of life–and be honest–we love Christmas so much–including many who have little or nothing in the way of religious belief–precisely because it provides us a place of respite–a goal to aspire to. But if everything was hunky-dory, it’d be nothing more than what it so often becomes anyway–a chance to practice crass consumerism.

    We do need to find a way to preserve the best of Christianity–and of all religious traditions–in this world that seems bound and determined to destroy those traditions–sometimes in the very name of preserving them.

    There is still a place in this world for quiet contemplation, for asceticism, and for prayer. We need it now, as much as we ever did. We can reshape it to match all the things we’ve learned on our journey. Or we can throw it in the trash, and see how long the true Christmas spirit survives without it.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/21/opinion/sunday/christmas-nuns-abbey.html

    Although I will never call myself an atheist, I know that spirit exists in many who call themselves that. By their fruits shall ye know them. Merry Christmas, Professor.

  19. RonaldTaska  December 24, 2017

    Merry Christmas! I agree that the God of Christmas seems a whole lot better than the God who sends people to Hell if they do not have the correct beliefs about someone who lived 2,000 years ago with our main evidence for these correct beliefs being a book which has all sorts of problems with it. If you guess right, you go to heaven. If not, you go to Hell! Yikes!

  20. dwcriswell  December 24, 2017

    I don’t like Christmas for another reason…I like living every day, I don’t need a special day to make me happy. So the articifical happiness seems somewhat disingenuous to me. Some people might think this is a strange attitude to have, but to me its more positive than having events prop you up for a day. No offense to the people that enjoy Christmas, but I hope you also enjoy every day like I do.

    • webattorney  December 28, 2017

      I share your feelings to certain extent, but in general, having other people happier makes me feel a little happier, so Christmas is a good thing. As for gifts, there is really nothing that anyone can give me that I really want or need, except to bring back my deceased mom. A good gift for me is my kid calling me to stay he loves us; that’s all I need or want. I do agree there are too many “special” days these days, such as Black Friday day, White something day etc. We should all try to keep the Christmas spirit towards everyone throughout the year.

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