It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

In The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, André Comte-Sponville makes an important distinction between “faith" and “fidelity."  Faith is a blind, unreasoned acceptance of something as being true, but fidelity is an adherence — to a social unit or a person, to an idea or a tradition, to a shared set of ideals or values — that can be demonstrably supported by reason, and, more importantly, quantified.  Think of it like “membership” thoughtful reader — the degree to which you express your belonging represents your fidelity.  Pregnant teenaged virgins, babies with glowing heads, kings with weird gifts don’t enter into it.

I think many people hear the word “atheist” and they don’t just hear a rejection of faith, they assume it is a rejection of fidelity to the culture as a whole. The silly notion, put forth by fundamentalist Christians and amplified by things like Fox News, of a “War on Christmas” conflates faith (which I categorically reject) with fidelity (which I have no quarrel with) utilizing an old, outdated, and highly un-American idea that to question god(s) was to question the king, because not that long ago the king was considered a god!  But in our post-enlightenment world, we know that political leadership does not come by divine right but through the will of those consenting to be led, so faith (in a deity) and fidelity (to one’s country or culture) don’t have to go hand in hand — fidelity can exist without faith.  And in America, it should!

upside down Christmas tree

I could go on and on (as I am wont to do) about how the celebration of Christmas is much older than the stories surrounding the most famous carpenter’s son ever to have been born, or paraphrase Bono and point out that Christians stole Christmas from the pagans, and now we’re stealing it back — what with the consumerism, and gastronomic excesses and festive gatherings that put a Bacchanalian feast to shame.  I could point out how a substantial corpus of scholarly work has been devoted to how Christianity adeptly incorporated the beliefs around it in any locale to grease the wheels of its own introduction to a society, and Christmas is just an updated version of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a festival in honor of the god Saturn held from the 17th of December (Julian calendar) thru the 23rd (Gregorian calendar) characterized by public merriment and gift giving, and how the the earliest source stating December 25th as “the day" is Hippolytus of Rome, writing in the very early 3rd century CE, based on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox, which Hippolytus placed on March 25th, and then adding 9 months, so to place Jesus’ conception roughly around the date of his crucifixion, which early Christians would have seen as confirming the date of his birth, since there was a belief that the great prophets were conceived into the afterlife on the exact same day and time they were conceived into the world.

Then there’s the practical stuff.  Neither Luke’s gospel nor Matthew's mentions a season (let alone a date) for when Jesus was born; that said, the mention of shepherds grazing their flocks calls into question winter, because there’s nothing to graze upon till spring.  Moreover, clever authors trying to get their point across to an illiterate goat-herding audience may have chosen December 25th due to its proximity to the winter solstice, because as a narrative device, after the solstice, the days begin to lengthen with more sunlight, giving theological significance to natural phenomena —  the Light of Christ entering and overtaking the world along with the story of the birth of John the Baptist on June 24th, near the summer solstice (when the sunlight, in the Northern Hemisphere, is at its apex):  John the Baptist said "He must become greater; I must become less" (c.f., John 3:30) reflecting this seasonal change.

Sigh.  I could go through all of that, but what’s the point thoughtful reader?  It’s still Christmastime...

So sitting here in beautiful Palm Springs watching another beautiful sunrise and realizing that every day is “sacred” because I am conscious of it, I have reached the conclusion that I can celebrate Christmas just like I celebrate other American holidays like Halloween or Thanksgiving, because while I have outgrown the usefulness of faith, I still have fidelity to my national culture.  I grew up in it, I’ve never known anything else.  Christmas is part of who I am as an American.  I may have thrown out the baby deity, but I haven’t thrown out the bath water.

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