Before the new year dust settles and we leave January, Katherine Sissons takes a look back at Christmas. In this article, she considers the question: ‘What do atheists do at Christmas?’ Drawing on interviews with her London based atheist participants, Katherine argues that their Christmases are far from meaningless without the ‘Christ’, showing instead that they are linked with family relationships and a sense of personal identity.
Many readers will sympathise: it’s Christmas, you’re trying to relax, but well-meaning friends and relatives keep asking about your work. This year, the 25th December fuelled questions about my own work – researching experiences of nonreligion in London. One question in particular kept cropping up: ‘What do atheists do at Christmas?’.In a recent poll, 93% of the British adults who were surveyed reported that they celebrate Christmas. Other contributors to this blog have written about the difficulty of measuring the religiosity of the population. However, it is clear that the number of people who celebrate Christmas greatly exceeds the number who identify as ‘Christian’, which might be 59% (according to the 2011 Census for England and Wales) or 42% (according to the British Social Attitudes 2013). These figures suggest that most British adults will know someone – probably several people – who do not consider themselves Christian, but who do celebrate Christmas. Nevertheless, the questions from my friends and family indicated that some people remain curious about how and why non-Christians, and the nonreligious in particular, celebrate Christmas. Back in December, I asked some nonreligious Londoners to share their Christmas plans.
Sonia identifies herself an atheist. She describes Christmas as ‘a non-event for me, but still an event’. Although Sonia is the only atheist in her family, none of them go to church on Christmas day. ‘My family were all raised in different places so we come from an array of Christian backgrounds: Seventh Day Adventist, Church of England, Pentecostal’. If all the family members were to attend their different churches, they would be separated. ‘Christmas Day is when we get together as a family. There will be plenty of Caribbean food and plenty of cheer. The cupboards are emptied of their contents, so we have rice and peas, vegetables, mac[aroni] and cheese, sweet potato, yams, boiled green banana, fried plantain, salad, meat, lamb and chicken, finished with a slice of rum cake’.
Sonia has not given any Christmas presents for about nine years. ‘I’d been toying with the idea [of no longer giving presents] for a year or two’, she explained, ‘but I didn’t have the courage to do anything about it’. Once she had made the decision to stop sending gifts, she had to explain this decision to her young nephew. ‘I told him that I wasn’t buying presents anymore, because Christmas is a holiday that doesn’t mean anything, but I would buy him a birthday present, because that day does mean something’. For Sonia, her nephew’s birthday is a time to celebrate his life, and to be thankful that he is here, part of her world. I asked Sonia to describe how she felt, having this conversation: ‘I was a little nervous’. Now, with hindsight, she jokes ‘What was I expecting him to do? Throw a tantrum? Have me arrested for withholding presents from a minor?’
Now, Sonia neither gives presents nor expects to receive them. Reflecting on these experiences Sonia concludes: ‘if you explain and are clear, people will try to understand, even if they don’t agree. Then they can cross you off their Christmas list – in a nice way’.
Kathleen feels uncomfortable with terms such as ‘atheist’ and ‘humanist’, but says that she would ‘probably tick “none” on survey’ (i.e. a survey asking about religious identity). Although Kathleen is adamant that ‘you don’t need to go to church to be a kind and compassionate person’, she would like to attend a carol service because it reminds her of the Christmases of her childhood. For her, the carol service is not an act of worship: ‘it just makes me feel like it’s Christmas’. However, she is reluctant to go alone and is usually unable to persuade her husband and daughter to go with her.
Kathleen sends Christmas cards as a way of staying in touch with friends and distant relatives. Most of the gifts she buys are for her husband and daughter, although she also buys presents for some of her work colleagues: ‘they all get me things, so it feels like the right thing to do, really’. Kathleen explains that Christmas is ‘about spending time with family’. She was especially keen to describe her Christmas tree: ‘it’s really lovely. We don’t use any shop-bought decorations – well, just the lights. Everything else is something we’ve made’.
Until recently, Kathleen was still using decorations inherited from her mother and grandmother, as well as decorations that her daughter (now in her late 20s) had made as a child. This set of decorations was lost: ‘We didn’t realise they were gone until we bought the tree and had nothing to put on it. It was very sad – I’m still very sad about it. They were connections with the past I no longer have – lots of lost memories…but we have fabulous new memories with the new things we have made together and hopefully we can pass those on to future generations’.
Rita and Scott both describe themselves as ‘atheist-slash-humanist’. They give presents and send cards, though Scott explained that they ‘deliberately avoid cards that say “Merry Christmas” or have pictures of Jesus on them’. For Rita, whose parents were Latvian, the Christmas period presents the opportunity to take part in what she describes as ‘Latvian traditions rooted in the country’s pre-Christian pagan heritage’.
This year she and Scott travelled nearly 200 miles across the UK to attend a Latvian Winter Festival celebration. They sang Latvian songs and took part in a ‘log pull’ – a log is dragged (usually around a property or around a town) and then burned, burning away the bad things that occurred in the last year. They also ate Latvian food – diced pork, sausage, pickled pumpkin and plenty of black beans, which, Rita explains, ‘are supposed to stop you from crying in the next year’.
Explaining the significance of these practices, Rita says: ‘a thousand years ago the songs and rituals might have been seen as a kind of active magic, a necessary part of bringing back the sun. I doubt anyone has thought that for centuries, so now the purpose is to come together with friends, neighbours, and your compatriots to mark and celebrate the turning of the year’.
Writing in 1971, Colin Campbell noted that the nonreligious were often depicted as ‘loners’. (Campbell 2013). Interviewing nonreligious people for this article, it was clear to me that, although they celebrate Christmas in different ways, they all plan their celebrations with reference to a web of social relations. They consider, accommodate, and negotiate the expectations of family, friends, colleagues, and wider society.
Sonia delayed her decision to stop giving Christmas presents because she was nervous about the impact that decision would have on her social life – her ties to her family and to her nephew in particular. Kathleen’s enthusiasm about her Christmas tree is not a symptom of individualism or materialism, and does not contradict her statement that ‘Christmas is about family’. When she speaks of ‘connections to the past’ and ‘lots of lost memories’, it is clear that the lost decorations were important to her because they represented some of her most significant social relationships – to her mother, grandmother and daughter.
Theorists across a range of disciplines have acknowledged that social identity is multifaceted: gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, religion are just some elements that might comprise one person’s identity. Social identity is also situational – as an individual moves between social settings, different aspects of their identity may feel more important than others. Perhaps some people expect the Christmas activities of the nonreligious to differ radically from those of Christians. In doing so, they assume that a person’s position with regard to religion should override other aspects of their identity in determining their Christmas practices. In fact, other aspects of identity also influence the ways in which nonreligious people celebrate. Sonia’s family acknowledge their genealogical and cultural ties to the Caribbean with the food that they eat. Rita described her Latvian celebrations with great enthusiasm, but only talked about her lack of religious belief when prompted. Perhaps for Rita, her Latvian heritage is more salient than her ‘atheism-slash-humanism’ at Christmas time.
Sonia, Kathleen, and Rita and Scott have not adopted their Christmas practices unthinkingly. They are highly reflective when thinking about why and how they celebrate. They are not celebrating Christmas, as in the birth of Christ, but they are celebrating at Christmas time. They differ in exactly what and how they celebrate, and their attitudes and practices indicate just some of the variety of nonreligious responses to Christmas.
Campbell, C., 2013. Toward a sociology of irreligion 2nd ed., Reading: Alcuin Academics.
Katherine is a doctoral student in the department of anthropology at the University of Oxford. She is interested in the variety of lived experiences of nonreligion in the UK. Before starting her doctorate she lived for a while in Vanuatu and is still interested in religion and religious change in Melanesia. Katherine is also Assistant Editor for NSRN Online, with responsibility for the commissioning and publication of book review and media related blog posts for the NSRN blog.