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Unlearning Christmas

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For the first 29 years of my life I celebrated Christmas along with the vast majority of the West. Sure, like most of us I’d grumble about how commercialized Christmas had become, but even as I struggled to put up a tree, decorate the house and workplace, and buy the gifts I could afford, I felt I was still in the “spirit” of Christmas because it was all a part of commemorating the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. I would also sometimes see those who didn’t celebrate Christmas for whatever reason and feel some measure of pity for them—for this was supposed to be a holiday for all humankind, right? That’s why I continued to celebrate Christmas through the years that I was an agnostic, and did so even when I came close to becoming an atheist.

That was close to 20 years ago and a lifetime away; indeed it now seems that life belonged to someone else. Now when I go driving down the streets to and from my house, I see the decorations that my middle-class neighbors have put up…and I think of the hundreds of dollars and tens of hours they’ve spent on those decorations. Don’t get me wrong—the decorations are beautiful, but I now see those decorations as a grand waste of time and money in the never-ending race to keep up with the Joneses…and I feel a deep sense of gratitude and relief that I no longer feel a need to go to the time and trouble and expense of the decorations, the parties, and particularly the gifts. That, and for a lot of years my co-workers were always grateful that I had absolutely no problem taking their shifts on Christmas Day.

I’ll save all the Christian evidence against the celebration of Christmas for another time. My only intention in this article is to point out the weight that is lifted from one’s shoulders when one is able to see past it all and forsake the quasi-religious chimera that is Christmas for the commercial and political tool that it has been for many centuries. Now I see in the eyes of the celebrants the same pity for me that I once had for those who didn’t celebrate Christmas…but do they see in my eyes the pity I have for them, for the religious, commercial, social, and political blinders they still wear? Probably not, for I remember how I felt when I was in their shoes long ago.

But now I am reminded of the two times I went to the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok and watched the people perform their devotions, lighting incense, bowing before a statue, perhaps placing a small stamp-sized piece of gold foil on one of the statues as they petitioned what they believed was a higher power for a better life. I was interested not in the religious sense but sociologically, as a part of my lifelong curiosity about cultures other than my own. I respected and would never hinder their religious belief, but I could never join with them. That’s how I feel now whenever I see mothers standing in line to bring their little girls and boys to talk to Santa, or a group of carolers strolling down the avenue as I once did, or the oversized inflatable interior-lighted Christmas lawn decorations that are all the rage now.

I won’t say to you “Merry Christmas,” for I see that as being as religiously empty as “Happy Eid” or “Happy Hanukkah.” But I will say to you “Happy Holidays,” for there’s too much heartache in this world as it is.

Happy Holidays to all, and may the coming year be better than this one (the Republicans’ War on Civilization notwithstanding)!

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About Glenn Contrarian

White. Male. Raised in the deepest of the Deep South. Retired Navy. Strong Christian. Proud Liberal. Thus, Contrarian!
  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “Think of Joan of Arc, for instance. She wasn’t burned at the stake for being an atheist. Not to believe in those days was unthinkable. She was burnt for being a heretic, which is to say, her beliefs didn’t correspond with the accepted dogma.”

    Actually, I think Heresy involves trying to change a system of beliefs which isn’t the same as proclaiming a non-belief in deities.So, if I was to proclaim my disbelief in God,back then, I still would have been looked upon negatively. I never said being an “Atheist” could prove fatal…

  • Priyank Chandra

    Yet another glorious Winter Solstice. Isn’t that occasion enough to celebrate?

    Without bothering with all the religion ….

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “All terms of language are culturally defined and the meanings of terms change over time.”

    And, yet, the English term, derived from the French, dates back to 1587 (and even earlier) in the sense of “one who denies or disbelieves the existence of God”.

    A pretty well acknowledged writer named Karen Armstrong wrote,that “During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word ‘atheist’ was still reserved exclusively for polemic … The term ‘atheist’ was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist.”

    So, sure, the definition may have changed from “godless” to “impious” and then to a sentence encompassing a similar meaning but it still held a negative tone.

    “They had no faith in the sense we today understand faith. Their beliefs in their gods was more like an expression of their aesthetic impulse, nothing more. It was purely egotistical.”

    Yet, they still fought wars with the intent to please their “Gods”. Honestly, I would argue that Christianity is very much the same.

  • Ruvy

    He (Mark Twain) was impressed with Joan of Arc.

    I am too. And I’m even more impressed with the God who got through to her and anybody else who’s listening, no matter how much other confusing noise is in competition.

    That is why I respect you, Irene. G-d gets His message through to believers and provides Messengers, when in His eyes, they are necessary – hence, Jeanne d’Arc. The Messengers are the ones who have to cut through the noise and competition of the World of Lies and Falsehood when the Message is urgent. Apparently, in G-d’s eyes, it was important that France be independent of England. Why – I dare not speculate. My knowledge of European history (and therefore the possible alternatives at decisive forks in the road of its history) is just not good enough.

  • Irene, please deploy your brain and explain exactly how an omnipotent deity would have problems getting through to any of its creations or exactly what other noise, confusing or not, could compete with your omnipotent superstar?

  • Mark Twain was disgusted by the hypocrisy of American Christians, particularly at how very easily they were induced to occupy the Philippines…ah, some things never change. The anti-American sentiment which this occupation engendered no doubt helped lay the groundwork for the claim of Glenn’s church that there were no Christians in the Philippines before the Iglesia ni Cristo was established there by a native, Felix Manalo, in 1914.

    Some of Mark Twain’s scathing mockery of institutionalized religion wasn’t published until after his death. Some of it, such as “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” was considered tame enough to publish before then. For all that, Twain knew that there was more to life than what meets the eye. He was troubled by a dream he had a month before his brother’s untimely death. It turned out to be chillingly predictive, uncannily accurate in its detail.

    Mark Twain was a critic as well as an author. He despised George Macdonald’s books, finding them to be nauseatingly moralizing. Surprisingly, though, the two developed a close friendship, and their young children became friends, too.

    There weren’t too many Christians who impressed Mark Twain. I think George Macdonald impressed him. I know Jesus did. Mark Twain writes that his favorite of all the books he wrote was Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.” He was impressed with Joan of Arc.

    I am too. And I’m even more impressed with the God who got through to her and anybody else who’s listening, no matter how much other confusing noise is in competition. The end. Have a nice winter, Rog. I feel an early Lent coming on.

  • Indeed, Irene. I can’t think of a better testimonial to raw faith. I’d be interested, though, with Twain’s fascination with her. That would be something.

  • Roger Nowosielski, now, Joan of Arc, that was ONE interesting lady. I, even as a Protestant, am fascinated by her, and so was Mark Twain, even as an…um… Adherent to the World View Whose Name We Durst Not Utter.

    Joan of Arc encouraged French Catholics (the “underdogs”) in battle against English Catholics in the Battle of Orleans in 1429, leading the French to a stunning victory. Not bad for a teenage girl.

    She was captured by the English a year later, and tried for being a witch by a pro-English ecclesiastical court, and then burnt to death. She was burned for political reasons, quite obviously. Fair-minded Catholics were able to see this, and declared her innocent about twenty years after her death, and she was eventually beatified by the Catholic church.

    Joan of Arc took time out of her busy British-butt-kicking schedule to write a nast-o-gram to the Hussites (proto-Protestants, with whom my sympathies tend to lie, generally) but it’s not unlikely that they were forgetting about mercy in their zeal to reform, so they probably deserved the dressing-down.

    I’m impressed with her. She was a simple, uneducated young girl, who managed to convince the powerful men of her day that she heard voices sent from God, instructing her to help the oppressed French people, whose cries for help had reached His ears. She rode into battle, but she preferred to inflict as little harm as possible. Her mere presence, quite literally, scared the hell out of the English Commanders on the battlefield.

    But what’s almost MORE fascinating to me is how MARK TWAIN got so interested in her story….more to come…

  • zingzing

    well, joan of arc wasn’t an atheist, it should be noted. also, there was some problems between science and the church during the period with science challenging the basic laws of the church and calling into question their view of the nature of reality, which is something the church took as heresy, i suppose, but it’s certainly the beginnings of atheism, even if it wasn’t termed as such.

  • But it does, Brian, it makes all the difference. All terms of language are culturally defined and the meanings of terms change over time. The ancient Greeks had no real stake in their beliefs in anthropomorphic gods; consequently,they had no stake either in denouncing those who wouldn’t go along. They had no faith in the sense we today understand faith. Their beliefs in their gods was more like an expression of their aesthetic impulse, nothing more. It was purely egotistical.

    Only with the advent of Christianity the term assumes negative connotation. In fact, even this statement is misleading. I’d be more comfortable to trace the term atheist to modern times defined by thoroughgoing secularization of societies, a term of disapprobation on the part of those who felt their world is rapidly slipping away. Prior to then, I submit, the term atheist was rarely if even in use.

    Think of Joan of Arc, for instance. She wasn’t burned at the stake for being an atheist. Not to believe in those days was unthinkable. She was burnt for being a heretic, which is to say, her beliefs didn’t correspond with the accepted dogma.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “the ancient Greeks’ beliefs in their gods was nothing like what we’re familiar with, so that part of your argument doesn’t wash.’

    Roger,the difference or similarity in beliefs has no bearing on how the term originated. The word has a definite meaning and speaks very clearly to how people of “faith” viewed those who do not. In fact, as Glenn pointed out, the pity is still very much present today towards people who are “without [a] God” and that label is mostly used in the same manner. Like Chris said in comment #13, “…there isn’t a word for people who don’t believe in Astrology.”

    “I’m surprised that you seem to feel that ‘atheist’ is pejorative, for it isn’t meant as such. Should I, then, take offense that Christopher Rose referred to me as a ‘faithist’?”

    Glenn, if the word didn’t have a definite meaning rooted in such history then I wouldn’t take offense,but, this is just one of the major problems with people & religion. They feel that they can twist words to support their own personal definitions which doesn’t provide a truthful answer but one that deflects the issue back at the person who challenged them. I, seriously, believe that you don’t use the word to insult people, but, it does reflect your ignorance.

  • #19

    Glenn of course is referring to our proclivity to project. Little does he realize, however, that his chosen form of response tends to validate the very point Baronius was making.

    All credit goes to Baronius, in this instance, for having voiced his observation in the most overt kind of way. Glenn’s response, in contrast, is a cagey one, balanced and evenhanded on surface but in effect coming close to ad hominem.

    Round One scorecard from this judge:

    Baronius 1, Glenn 0

  • Brian, the ancient Greeks’ beliefs in their gods was nothing like what we’re familiar with, so that part of your argument doesn’t wash. I admitted, however, that the term acquired negative connotations, contrary to Glenn’s disclaimer (which is no reflection of course on how Glenn uses the term).

    My point I suppose was that mere linguistic jncongruity and matters of usage are hardly the kinds of things that people get excited about so as to raise hell; and if they do, it’s because the usage strikes a different chord.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And for Chris –

    As I said before, salvation is a matter I take most seriously. I am able to prove to myself my beliefs to my own satisfaction…and if you feel that’s all stuff and nonsense, then that’s certainly your prerogative.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Brian –

    I’m surprised that you seem to feel that ‘atheist’ is pejorative, for it isn’t meant as such. Should I, then, take offense that Christopher Rose referred to me as a ‘faithist’?

    I used the word ‘atheist’ in no wise as an insult, but in the way it is meant to be used: to refer to someone who does not believe in God. BUT I will say that I will try (not always succeed, but try) to determine first whether a particular person is offended by that word before I use that word to refer to him or her.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Irene Athena –

    Point taken that the pagans referred to by Jesus were the Gentiles…but the context of the passage is clear that He would not want us to do what any other religion does. For instance, would Jesus say, “Don’t do what the Gentiles do, but it’s okay if you do what the Celtics do”?

    I don’t think so. My point stands.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Baronius –

    Glenn, does it concern you that the one consistency in all your stories is looking down on others?

    One thing I learned in the Masons is that a man will generally suspect of other men what he would himself do in their shoes. I’ve found this doesn’t apply to everyone…but it applies to most men.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus


    I don’t know how you could object to that term on any other grounds. The definition specifically states that its root meaning, from the term atheism, “originated from the Greek ????? (atheos), meaning “without god”, which was applied with a negative connotation to those thought to reject the gods worshiped by the larger society.” -Wikipedia. Which in fact, no matter how indirectly, offers a huge pronouncement of righteousness!

  • The term “atheist” shouldn’t be objectionable on strictly linguistic grounds (as offering a mere contrast to “theist”); nor does it offer any pronouncement as to who is “right,” the theist or the atheist. The objection has to do with denotation. Even today, it still has a ring of a pejorative term.

  • Brian, I appreciate the clarification that you were chastising Glenn, not me, for using the word atheist–though I can’t really BLAME Glenn for using the word (if he did.) Some of you bear the title proudly, insisting you’re NEW and improved atheists.

    So, have a word with Richard Dawkins about the terminology, if it offends.

    Incidentally, the pejorative term “faithist” has really started to grow on me. When I get discouraged or frustrated about the way things look NOW, I have a handy little word to use: “but you’re a FAITHIST, Irene, who walks by faith and not by sight. Don’t you forget it.”

    Christopher Rose, I AM sorry that there was confusion over my use of the term “spiritual world.” The fact that you don’t believe in a “spiritual world” as I do (angels, demons, all the rest, manipulative and manipulable) does not mean you don’t hold to some sort of spirituality, some sort of sense-making moral scheme. I have not accused you of not having spirituality, if that’s what you mean by spirituality, nor will I.

  • zingzing

    baronius: “Glenn, does it concern you that the one consistency in all your stories is looking down on others?”

    were you looking down on glenn when you said that? am i looking down on you now?

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus


    I guess it came from reading about disproving a negative. Maybe, I didn’t follow the context?

    As for the “Atheist” remark, that was directed towards Glenn,but, I appreciate the clarification. I’m glad someone understood my rant…

  • Irene, there is indeed a literal need for light in the deep midwinter – it’s called seasonal affective disorder..!

    Not at all sure how that gets conflated with Jesus but it is a great example of how people can use natural events for unnatural purposes.

    How we get from there to bridges, well, that is one bridge I’m not going to cross.

    As to the spiritual world, I consider myself to be far more open to it than you faithists and your wacky ideas which you cling to like safety blankets. It follows, therefore, that the likelihood of getting useful or even meaningful advice on the subject from this kind of magical thinking borders on the minute.

    Brian, I’ve been on record as objecting to the use of the word “atheist” for many years now, on exactly the same grounds that there isn’t a word for people who don’t believe in Astrology.

    I’ve also said many times that the burden of proof lies with those making the claims, so how you get the idea that we differ on that is unclear…

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “some key to Christopher Rose’s soul–not the same thing at ALL as his intellect–that has the potential to open up the reality of the spiritual world to him–if he isn’t afraid to use it.”

    Yea… It usually isn’t the same thing as intellect. It’s the purging of intellect that allows people to fall into the God trap. At your moment of weakness when that someone with the right “key” (Sales pitch, Recipe,whatever) comes along and takes advantage with these irrational stories of salvation because without “the way” you’ll burn for eternity.

    Honestly, I have pity for people that would worship such a prick that would do that to his/her own creation!

    Oh & one more thing… Please don’t call people “Atheist”. That term deems that there is such a thing as a deity. There has never been proof of a God,so, how could anyone possibly know that I am “without” if you can’t prove that you are “with”. This is where Mr. Rose & I differentiate. The burden of proof is on the “believers”….

  • I’d have a LITTLE bit of trouble letting go of the flaming Plum Pudding with Hard Sauce, even if Jesus appeared to me in a vision to tell me he didn’t like birthday cakes. But I’d do it, and I’d gladly get rid of most of the rest of the Christmas commercial greed-fest without any special divine directives at all.

    Here’s WHY Glenn, though, I am not inclined to rain on anybody ELSE’s Christmas parade. There is something universal about a yearning for Light in the deep midwinter. The “pagan”–pagan used as a non-pejorative word for Gentile—the pagan festivals of light bear witness to this. That yearning for light is not a bad thing. Satisfying that yearning for light with celebration of the story of how Jesus the Light of the World came to us is not a bad thing either. That yearning for Light was the remnant of the ancient faith God handed down to the first humans, retained in cultures worldwide, and built into human consciences. It was what the sages who traveled for miles to find the Incarnate God, a baby in his mother’s arms: a light in the darkness.

    Those remnants are BRIDGES, Glenn, to be walked across and used, not burned.

    I firmly believe there is a similar remnant, some key to Christopher Rose’s soul–not the same thing at ALL as his intellect–that has the potential to open up the reality of the spiritual world to him–if he isn’t afraid to use it. God only knows what that key might be, possibly something to do with internet marketing, I don’t know. I pray that Chris and the person who holds that key find each other. That’s pretty much the best I can do.

  • Baronius

    Glenn, does it concern you that the one consistency in all your stories is looking down on others?

  • Glenn, unfortunately there was very little food for thought in your response.

    It is actually quite depressing how your reasoning process falls apart as you try to deal with spiritual matters.

    Perhaps your Uncle’s response to your entirely reasonable youthful question had a disproportionate affect upon your young self?

    Anyway, I don’t follow your reasoning when you say that the apparent similarity between stories (and they are no more than that) somehow disproves that they are merely biological reactions. Indeed, I would say that the similarities tend to reinforce the idea that it is just a biological reaction.

    So your assertion that there is something waiting for us on the other side of death remains just an assertion, albeit a comforting one.

    Our “salvation” is a meaningless notion to me to me and to get me to take anything about your particular strand of this cult seriously, you’d first have to prove the existence of your deity. Good luck with that…

    It really doesn’t matter that you can’t disprove something; as I’ve said before, disproving a negative is a pointless exercise, best suited to garrulous philosophers, so again, the fact you “can’t” disprove a prophecy means nothing, without faith at least.

    Similarly, it is also useless to make the cliché point that religious regimes have caused less harm. Again, so what?

  • Glenn Contrarian


    Chris, there was a time I would’ve agreed wholeheartedly with you.

    I remember a time about thirty years or so ago. I was sitting with my grandmother across from my Great-uncle Kenneth. He was a WWII vet (whose claim to fame was getting personally butt-chewed by General Patton for wrecking a deuce-and-a-half (a transport truck) on the way into Germany). He was a very cynical man whose political leanings were probably as libertarian as anyone here on BC.

    I sat there listening as he told us about a near-death experience he’d had while he was clinically dead on the operating table – you know, where you see the beautiful light and all the friends you’d once known who passed before you. Mind you, this was back in the day when ‘near-death experiences’ were not yet in the public lexicon or the public consciousness.

    Anyway, being a young and foolish teenager at the time I tried to make light of it and said, “So what did it feel like being dead?” Uncle Kenneth turned to me and gave me a withering look, one that made me want to crawl under the table with shame. Up until that time he’d always been pretty light-hearted with me and had never admonished me even once for anything stupid that I’d done. But that look…I can see it even now. He was being completely truthful about one of his deepest secrets, and I’d acted like an idiot in return.

    Chris, I know the atheist arguments about near-death experiences…but these experiences are too detailed and too similar across all the cultures of the world to be ‘mere’ biology in reaction to a lack of oxygen to the brain.

    There’s something waiting for us on the other side, Chris – the similarity and detail of near-death experiences across all the cultures of the world should tell you that! So yes, our salvation is the most serious of all possible subjects. As for myself, I’ve chosen the only faith that I cannot disprove, that has a fulfilled prophecy that I can prove for myself.

    One last thing – I have no illusions about the evils that all the major religions have done…but I’d also point out to you that the death toll brought about by officially-atheist regimes in the 1900’s exceeds the death tolls caused by all the religions in human history combined. I don’t support those other religions – but they’ve done far less to harm humanity than atheist regimes.

    Just some food for thought….

  • Glenn, in terms of your non-faithist comments, you are indeed a person who tries to follow reason but, alas, just as it does for every other victim of this cruel deception, that all goes right out of the window when you turn to matters spiritual.

    On this subject you just blather inanely but confidently, whilst making absolutely no sense at all. In that regard there really is precious little difference between you and every other irrational faithist, be they Christian, Jew or Muslim.

    You state that eternal salvation is the most serious of all possible subjects, which is both factually incorrect and an unproven assertion.

    As such, you, like every other victim of monotheism, are indeed in a cult, which is not an opinion but a fact, as there is still, after at least 6,000 years of trying, zero evidence of the existence of a deity. Disappointingly, and unusually for you, your claim to rational fact based thinking falls over on this subject alone. I wonder why?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    I understand, for when I believed as she did I would have had the same opinion. The Church of which I am a member is named Iglesia ni Cristo, which is Filipino for “Church of Christ”. We have Worship Services in over 100 countries now – I’ve attended not only in several states, but also in Canada, Hong Kong, Dubai, Tasmania (Australia), and (of course) the Philippines.

    Doc, you know how much I try to make my decisions based on provable fact. I take my soul’s salvation quite seriously, and it would be the height of irresponsibility to simply trust my soul to cultural tradition. The Church of which I am a member strives to follow as closely as humanly possible the commands of Jesus and the apostles, and I’ve seen example after example of this for many years. That, and the Church has a fulfilled prophecy that I can easily prove to myself. As you can imagine considering my personality, being able to prove something is important.

    When it comes to other religions, I can disprove to my own satisfaction every other religion of which I’m aware. That’s why I became an agnostic and was almost an atheist before I was introduced to the Iglesia ni Cristo.

    Doc, IMO the discussion of eternal salvation is the most serious of all possible subjects. If someone wants to call us a ‘cult’, that’s their opinion…and such opinions are based in ignorance.

  • I suspect, Glenn, that the church you belong to is one that Kitty would regard as a “cult”…

  • I should think our celebration of the Columbus Day should be more objectionable than when we do so regarding X-mas. Whether you one subscribes to Christian theology or not is less relevant here than the Christian ideals.

  • Anarcissie

    In any case we don’t know Jesus’s birthday. As you note, December 25th was the old winter solstice, a holiday for European pagans, from whom we also get the Christmas tree, the yule log, and probably Santa Claus, onto which Christian stories and capitalist commercialism have been grafted. Jesus seems to have felt that such things were irrelevant fluff, but most of us are not as tough as Jesus. We seem to need our kitschy holidays.

    Christian involvement in an old pagan holiday is a lot less disturbing to me than Christian support for war, imperialism, and class oppression. That’s serious.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    kitty –

    I am very much a Christian – Jesus is my Lord and Savior, and I have been a deacon in His Church for over a decade now.

    But Jesus never told us to celebrate His birthday – He told us to remember His sacrifice. Furthermore, Jesus told us “Do not do as the pagans do”…but the Christmas tree and the yule log are drawn directly from pagan rituals…and I refuse to believe that Jesus would not mind pagan rituals being included in a celebration of His birth when He expressly forbade it!

    For this same reason we must not celebrate Halloween, and the celebration of Easter should not include rabbits and Easter eggs.

    I did all these things when I was younger, but I had a choice – either do what Jesus said, or not.

    If you wish to follow Jesus, then you must follow His words even when they go against your own cultural traditions. After all, He said, “How can you say you love Me, but do not do what I say?”

    It’s a hard choice you face, klondikekitty. I choose to follow His commands because I feel my salvation is infinitely more precious than cultural tradition.

    Follow Jesus’ commands…or do not. It’s your choice.

  • klondikekitty

    Ohhh, Glenn, how can you so easily dismiss perhaps the greatest Gift to all humanity in the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour?? Let go the commercialistic part of it, the gifts, the Christmas tree, even Santa Claus, but for your soul’s sake, please don’t forget to thank God for His neverending, unconditional love that brought Him to send His only Son to this pathetic planet to die on the cross for our sins!!