An Infidel’s Christmas, Revisited

War on Christmas? Of all the ginned-up idiocies we’ve had to endure the last decade or so, that’s the stupidest. There has never been a time, at least not in the last 150 years or so, when Jesus and Santa did not peacefully coexist with one another under Christmas trees everywhere in America. We have always picked and chosen which traditions we will include in our family celebrations—those of us who are unbelievers merely choose not to pick the Jesus part. At Christmas 2008, I wrote a couple of posts about atheist Christmas carols. They’re excerpted below.

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: “I Believe in Father Christmas,” which reached #2 in the UK that year and barely squeaked into the Hot 100 here in the States.

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. 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. . . .

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 humanist sentiment: we have to make 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.

In 1957, Dr. Seuss wrote a book called How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Nine years later, it was turned into an animated TV special under the direction of Chuck Jones, the cartoon legend who created some of the most memorable Bugs Bunny and Road Runner adventures. Boris Karloff provides the narration, and although he might have seemed to be a strange choice at the time, now the show is unimaginable without him. Most of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from the Seuss book, although the special also contains several original songs written by Seuss and Albert Hague. You might have seen Hague in the movie or TV series Fame, where he played Mr. Shorofsky, the music teacher. He is also animated into the Grinch cartoon itself—he’s the Who with a beard seen singing in the Whoville town square.

“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” has become the signature song from the show. . . . But it’s “Welcome Christmas,” the song the Whos sing on Christmas morning, that I want to write about here. A few years ago, a now-defunct website claimed that the song is an adaptation of a song sung in an isolated Norwegian town called Hu. I’m not buying that, but wherever it came from, it’s lovely:

Welcome Christmas
Bring your cheer
Cheer to all Whos far and near
Christmas Day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to clasp
Christmas Day will always be
Just as long as we have we

Like “I Believe in Father Christmas,” “Welcome Christmas” is completely plausible as an atheist Christmas carol. It doesn’t require commitment to a particular creed to show love to your loved ones, and to celebrate the fact that they love you back.

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