Given how thoroughly secularized Christmas has become, it’s perfectly OK to pick and choose aspects of the holiday to celebrate, and to ignore others. That’s what I do. I’m not religious at all, but I enjoy Christmas music and other trappings of the season, and as I write, I’m up to my whatsis in Jesii and Wise Men, thanks to the big collection of nativities that The Mrs. gets out every year.
This sort of assemble-it-yourself spirit probably makes superfluous the concept of the atheist Christmas song. Nevertheless, they exist. In 1975, Greg Lake and his songwriting partner Peter Sinfield wrote a song Lake intended as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, back when people still cared about that sort of thing.
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
They told me a fairy story
Til I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
I looked to the sky with excited eyes
Then I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise
A common misconception about unbelievers is that we’re hard-hearted, selfish misanthropes who don’t love nobody. But after seeing through the “disguise” being sold at Christmas, Lake doesn’t go off into a cave like the Grinch and start hating on Christmas and all who celebrate it. Instead, he finds meaning in the holiday where it matters most. Lake once told an interviewer that for him, “Christmas was a time of family warmth and love. There was a feeling of forgiveness, acceptance. And I do believe in Father Christmas.” Me too—as the embodiment of the spirit of family and our relationships with those we love. And what would we wish for the people we love?
I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
In the song’s last lines, Lake reminds us that we get out of our relationships what we put into them: “Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell/The Christmas we get we deserve.” Which is a purely atheist sentiment: humanity has to make its own way in the universe, and whatever happens to us is our doing. The responsibility for how our existence turns out, as a species or as individuals, is ours alone. There’s no benevolent being in the sky to bail us out. We can reliably depend only on one another.
“I Believe in Father Christmas” made Number Two in the UK at Christmas 1975 and just squeaked into the Hot 100 here in the States. Released originally as a Lake solo record, it finally appeared here on Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Works Volume 2 in 1977. (There’s a re-recorded version from 1995 floating around that is occasionally found on holiday compilations, but it’s to be avoided.) Lake also made a video, which was still a rare thing in 1975. Its images of war made it somewhat controversial. I remember staying up late to see it on The Midnight Special at Christmas 1975.
Up next: another Christmas song for unbelievers, from the unlikeliest of sources.