An Infidel’s Christmas

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.

7 thoughts on “An Infidel’s Christmas

  1. Shark

    I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the conservative’s outcry of “War on Christmas” has subsided this year. Again, I could be wrong. It seemed to reach ridiculous new heights about three years ago…simultaneous with the ridiculous new heights of wingnut’s intolerance of anyone who didn’t agree with their point of view 100 percent. With the upcoming departure of the Bush Administration, this holiday season seems to be more focused on restoring our belief in each other and overcoming the problems associated with these troubled times.

    I’m a believer myself and I’ve said this before…if you love Christmas, enjoy it….but don’t force it down other people’s throats. If you don’t enjoy Christmas, then…you don’t have to…but don’t force it down other people’s throats.

  2. Quite possibly the top Christmas post! What a review and what a video. At first it was cheerful to see Greg (how young he looks!) sitting in sand and the camels against the background, but just how emotionally powerful was it to watch the soldier/father kneeling, throwing down his gun and pack to embrace his little boy?

    Not a dry eye left in the house!

  3. Pingback: Greg Lake - I Believe in Father Christmas (1975) | Rock And Roll Blog

  4. Miles

    Wow. I can’t believe someone found a way to find Bush responsible for the woes of Christmas. Oh well, the Christmas you get, you deserve—indeed. Peace to all and work toward helping your fellow man instead of hurting him. Merry Christmas!

  5. Mikelj3

    Ya know, I got the Atlantic stereo 45 of this and was quite proud of my Shure Type V VR in the old direct drive Marantz Turntable… I played this at a decent volume thru the pair of 50Watt Mac Mono blocks and the Scott S-11 speakers… (sorry ’bout the equipment set up, but it sure defined the playback of this song) and by the end I was in absolute tears. This is one of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever. (Make sure ya get the one with the vocal chorus at the end…) There are a few versions out there. Greg deserves an award for this composition, even more for a different perspective on the holiday.

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