Celebrating Christmas as a Non-Believer

As a former Christian who now identifies as non-religious, I’ve heard wisecracks from my Christian friends as my family and I gear up for the holidays. The cracks are all in good fun: decorating the Darwin tree, singing science carols, Sagan Claus, etc.

While these are just friendly jabs between friends, they say a lot about society’s attitudes on religious rituals, customs, and appropriation.

We have all witnessed the War on Christmas that erupts each year (Starbucks, anyone?). Donald Trump has promised that, if elected, he’d make sure businesses say “Merry Christmas.” And, like clockwork, the American Family Association has released their annual list to inform consumers “which companies are Christmas-friendly.”

Many American believe that Christmas is being snuffed out — by politically correct businesses, by the media, and by any variety of anti-Christian threats real or imagined. One of those threats is a very real decline in religiosity in America.

There is a sentiment felt by many Christians that non-Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas (about 8 in 10 non-Christians do). For a long time in America, it was just the Jews who sat on the sidelines while Santa delivered sack-loads of toys to their Christian neighbors. Now, as the non-religious population has become a sizable demographic (the so-called ‘religious nones‘), many Christians are dismayed, and perhaps bewildered, to not see them sitting on the sidelines as well.


Just as non-practicing Jews often participate in the rituals associated with their heritage, many non-Christians who grew up in Christian households still find comfort in the rituals associated with their Christian heritage.  We do, after all, come from Christian cultural roots.

I grew up in a religious household. We celebrated Christmas each year in the same way that most Christians do. We went to church, wrote letters to Santa, decorated a tree, hung wreaths, lit candles, baked cookies, opened Advent calendars, set up a table-top nativity scene, sang carols, wrapped gifts, and reflected upon the birth of Jesus and the real meaning of Christmas.

My parents participated in these same rituals and customs while they were growing up, as did their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. I imagine that my family’s Christmas customs are nearly as old as the customs themselves.

Like secular Jews who light the Menorah at Hanukkah, the customs associated with Christmas are important to who I am and where I came from, whether or not I personally accept Christianity’s claims as true.


I have wonderful childhood memories of Christmastime. It is a time of wonder and joy for any child who experiences it. Some of these memories are as powerful, and as comforting, as any memories I have. There are Christmas songs from my youth that will perpetually rank among my most cherished recordings.

It is no coincidence that retailers infuse the air with the smells of cinnamon, pine, and cider during the Holidays. We are psychological beings, and our memories carry deep associations with sights, sounds, and smells of our experiences. Just as we might like playing a particular song that connects us with a specific joyous experience, partaking in the sights and sounds of the holidays can elicit many of the feelings we experienced at a simpler, more innocent time in our lives. We also find pleasure in sharing these memories, and making new memories, with our own children.

Participating in the customs and rituals associated with Christmas, despite our religious conviction (or lack thereof), is a beautiful way of appreciating and strengthening our bond with the past, of passing this gift of heritage along to our children, and of extending these bonds into another generation. Whether or not the next generations choose to believe in the tenets of Christianity is up to each of them. I don’t wish to deprive them of that opportunity.


So, sure, all this sounds great, but still, isn’t it just a case of having your cake and eating it too?

If participating in the customs of my ancestors while not sharing the same beliefs is wrong, then a whole lot of customs we participate in each year are wrong as well.

The Christmas narrative in and of itself has many similarities to other religions that pre-date Christianity, suggesting that elements may have been appropriated by early Christians.

The date of Christmas was chosen to coincide with winter festivals that pre-date the holiday. The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia featured gift-giving, visiting with friends and loved ones, the lighting of candles, and a feast. Pagan Scandinavia celebrated Yule, for ‘a fertile, and peaceful season,’ with customs such as the Yule log, singing, and the Yule boar (reflected today in the Christmas ham). Koleda, an ancient Slavic ritual celebrating death and rebirth, featured a custom of roving from home to home singing songs and receiving gifts. Christmas customs related to greenery, lights, and charity pre-date Christmas and were likely adopted from Roman New Year celebrations.

Anyone with a knowledge of religious customs throughout the ages would agree that there are not many Christmas customs that did not exist prior to the holiday’s origin.

Despite the mixed religious roots of Santa Claus, he is largely a secular phenomenon, along with Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, The Grinch, and other recent staples associated with the season. Puritans, in fact, opposed celebration of Christmas at all for nearly two centuries because of its secular and pagan associations.

We can point to any number of holidays that Americans participate in despite not really ‘deserving’ to celebrate them. One need not be religious, or Irish, to wear green and drink a pint of Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day.  One doesn’t need to be Mexican to enjoy Mexican food and a Corona on Cinco de Mayo. It’s not required to believe in pagan supernaturalism to dress up on Halloween and trick-or-treat. The eggs and bunnies associated with Easter (named for the goddess Ēostre of Anglo-Saxon paganism) are customs that millions of non-pagans enjoy each year.

So, really, this business of appropriation is nothing new. As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9 (although I’m sure it was said before), “There is no new thing under the sun.”

The Message of Christmas Is A Good One

Just as one doesn’t need to be African-American to acknowledge the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message, one needn’t be a Christian to acknowledge the importance of the philosophies associated with Jesus.

You really couldn’t ask for a greater message: Love everyone, regardless.  Extend kindness to all, even those who you may feel are undeserving. Always strive for justice and peace. Be charitable, and be forgiving. 

Whether or not I actually believe that a historical Jesus preached this message, and whether or not I accept that this figure was born of a virgin, was the son of God, worked miracles, was crucified, was resurrected, and ascended bodily into heaven, the philosophies associated with Jesus are certainly worthy of observance.

We could do much worse than spending a portion of our year with a heightened sense of awareness of these sentiments. These philosophies are certainly not unique to Christianity, nor were they new philosophies at the time Jesus would have lived, but his message, as well as his story, was a big part of my family’s heritage and was a big part of my own childhood. Acknowledging this through the the observance of long-practiced family customs and rituals is anything but dishonest.

Doing What Works

There are many Humanists, agnostics, or other religious ‘nones’ who choose to refrain from participating in religious holiday traditions. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. There are degrees of non-belief.

While I may reject supernatural and religious dogma as a basis for morality, I don’t reject religion as a whole. I don’t discount the benefits many receive from religion, and I certainly understand and accept the concept of sacredness.

I am lucky in that I live in a society that holds dear the right to religious freedom. In my home, we exercise this right by participating in customs associated with a variety of religions. Our kids have enjoyed spinning the dreidel for chocolate gelt during Hanukkah. They have lit the Menorah and listened to the story of the Holy Temple. They are curious about the beliefs of their Islamic and Hindu classmates and neighbors. Together we learn about the vast array of religious customs and observances around the world, and throughout history, and some interest them more than others.

A religiously literate child will rarely grow up to become a xenophobic exceptionalist. She will very likely grow to be tolerant, charitable, kind, and will likely value peace and justice.

Much like this Jesus person that is celebrated this time of year.

Eric Shepherd

About Eric Shepherd

Eric is a marketing professional working and living in Portland, ME. His writing on politics, science, and culture has appeared on NPR.com, Babble.com, and other national and regional outlets. Eric is also a public speaker on topics related to branding, social media, and cause marketing. He spent 10 years as a recording and touring musician. He has lived up and down the East Coast, but loves Portland the very most.