Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Christmas is for atheists too

Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Christmas is for atheists too
The Rev. Ian Markham (Photo/Virginia Theological Seminary)

Christmas is upon us once again. It is a much-needed mid-winter festival. The nights are longer; the days are shorter. The weather is cold. We all need the log fire burning and some color in our homes to brighten up our days.

But what about our Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu friends? What are they supposed to do? Fortunately, all world religions have festivals. So, they each have their holidays where there is a pause from the daily grind and their eyes shift from the ephemeral to the eternal. And it is amazing how many traditions recognize that mid-winter in the northern hemisphere is a good time for such a holiday. Our Jewish friends have Hanukkah; the Buddhists have Rohatsu (Bodhi Day); and of course, Wiccans mark the Solstice.

But what about our atheist friends? Please allow me to make the case that they should feel free to enjoy Christmas.

First, atheists can fully participate in the aesthetics of Christmas. Creating a beautiful space is a universal delight. Having a tree, enjoying the music and putting on seasonal attire are all available and can be done without any compromise to the principles of atheism. It is just a fact of history that so much great music was fed by the religious impulse. But Handel’s “Messiah” is extraordinary music whether or not you are a Christian.

Second, atheists can enjoy gift giving. Finding a gift for a person you love is a joy. Deciding on your budget, looking at options and trying to get clues as to what a person needs are fun elements of gift buying. The fact that the genesis of Christmas gift giving are the three kings who brought gifts to the Christ child does not detract from the sheer joy of finding that perfect gift.

Third, atheists can join the culture of gratitude that surrounds the holiday. It was Alain de Botton, an atheist philosopher, who commended the act of giving thanks before a meal. The good fortune to have a home, family, friends, a full belly and a good night’s sleep are worthy of recognition. One never wants to take these things for granted. There is something amazing about living and life. Regardless of a person’s belief system, one should still be grateful for it all.

So, I invite all atheists to find the Christmas music channel. Sing with gusto about Santa. Pick the tree, decorate it with beautiful ornaments and wish everyone the best of holidays. Perhaps even on Christmas Eve make your way to Christ Church Alexandria or St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Old Town and join with countless others all marking this moment in word and song. Every single one of us needs this pause and this time of year.

The writer is dean of Virginia Theological Seminary.