One Peppermint Mocha Please, Hold the Jesus and the Whipped Cream

pmochaA cursory glance inside the nearest department store makes it clear that Christmas has arrived. Shoppers flock to Macy’s, churches prop up trees and nativity scenes, and the Starbucks baristas bring out the extra peppermint syrup for extra holiday cheer with your morning caffeine fix. While many voices in the media (especially the Christian voices) rail against the corporate takeover of Christmas, it is impossible to forget the entirely Christian basis of this cultural event. And while I enjoy a white chocolate peppermint mocha as much as the next girl, obligatory deference to Christian tradition can be rather irksome.

I attend a Catholic high school, where I take required theology courses, stare off awkwardly during lunchtime prayer, and attend monthly masses. And though I try to get away with skimming the latest atheist blogs on my laptop during prayer time, I usually don’t get far before a teacher glares at me disapprovingly, hoping to chastise me for my grave lack of reverence to a religion I view as intrinsically damaging to society. The hypocrisy of participating in Catholic events stings, but in the end I take the theology credits and mouth along the words to the prayers just like everyone else. Ultimately, I view the occasional sign of the cross as a fair trade for a college-preparatory education superior to any available from nearby public schools.

Clearly I’m no stranger to forced displays of Christian reverence. Yet as Christmas rolls around, the skeptic’s social dilemma becomes more prominent. As I would imagine that a relatively low number of skeptics and atheists attend all-girl Catholic high schools, most of the non-religious community probably deals with a low level of religious activity in their daily lives. But every December, society hauls out the Christian imagery and tradition. Few escape hearing the nativity story or being asked to donate to their local church. The increased visibility of Christianity forces atheists to make hard choices.

How are skeptics to respond to Christian cultural traditions?

My personal favorite is to substitute in a secular holiday, mostly because I like presents and good food. But past my rather selfish appreciation for eggnog, there is the undeniable benefit of having a yearly opportunity to gather with friends and relatives, eat good food, and enjoy each others company. Who decided that religion has to have a monopoly on community and celebration? It is absolutely possible to have a good, enjoyable holiday season without accepting the unverifiable existence of an allegedly all-powerful deity. Luckily for us atheists, critical thinking and an appreciation for presents are not mutually exclusive.

Whether you choose to celebrate the Winter Solstice, Festivus (for the rest of us), Kwanza, New Years, or simply a secularized version of a traditional religious holiday, there are plenty of ways to join in with the worldwide season of giving without giving away your beliefs. Indeed, secular celebrations of the holidays provide atheists a chance to stand up for their beliefs and show that we are not, as commonly believed, just bitter Scrooges.

A trickier problem is dealing with outright displays of Christianity. While Santa Claus, reindeer, and department store sales barely hint at the religious foundation of the Christmas season, the nativity scenes, bible readings, and religious relatives clearly point towards the religious foundation. How should you react in situations where you are expected to join in with religious rituals you disagree with?

In the end, these delicate issues have no easy solution. One way or another, someone is going to be at least a bit bruised- whether it is your integrity or your Southern Baptist grandmother’s peace of mind. Courtesy and tolerance always help, of course. As important as atheist visibility is, family dinner is neither the time nor the place to stand up and start shouting about your qualms with the Catholic Church. There has to be some compromise from both sides. There’s no perfect solution.

So as Christmas season rolls around, I’m making mix CDs of non-religious Christmas songs, planning my Winter Solstice party, and carefully evading my mother’s attempts to get me to go to church. While I won’t be re-reading the nativity story to remind myself of its inherent contradictions, I still plan on enjoying myself this holiday season, hopefully without having to compromise my beliefs.

Happy Festivus