Christmas is undeniably the largest annual celebration in many Western countries, but it’s no longer one that I celebrate. I was raised in a Christian family, and therefore celebrated it for the first two decades of my life, but as I began to question the world around me, I could no longer justify partaking in the festivities and sought to get away.
My objection to the religious part of the holiday came from a process of questioning my beliefs that led me to becoming an atheist in my late teens. It’s not that atheists can’t celebrate Christmas—a great number of atheists do so by focusing more on Santa than Jesus—but my objection isn’t solely religious. It also focuses on the rampant consumerism the modern holiday inspires, or even requires.
As an atheist teenager, I continued celebrating Christmas to receive gifts, but when I started to think critically about my political ideology and the erosion of positive values that I saw taking place as the result of a heartless system that puts corporate profit before the well-being of the many, I could no longer support such consumerist behaviours.
I recently had the displeasure of visiting a shopping mall during the peak holiday shopping period, and I was disgusted by what I saw. The shops were so busy that people barely had room to move around; they were stuck in lines far longer than usual, and while the music being pumped through the mall celebrated the joys of the season, all I saw on the faces of those around me was stress and frustration. I couldn’t help but wonder why they continue to subject themselves to such a horrible experience year after year, and the only answer I could find to explain it was a deference to tradition.
Once I explained to my friends and family why I no longer wanted to celebrate Christmas, the vast majority understood. However, some of the people around me still subtly pressured me to participate, though I’m not convinced they did so intentionally. Being part of the dominant culture, Christmas is hard to avoid. Some religious people feel the recent push to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is akin to oppression, when it’s really a way of recognizing that many celebrations take place at this time of the year, and that Christians shouldn’t dominate the conversation simply because theirs is the most common in Western countries. It’s due to this pressure that I prefer to avoid Christmas by traveling, as I’ve found it dissipates with distance.
That first year, I wasn’t militant about my desire not to participate. I asked not to receive gifts, didn’t object if someone gave me one anyway, and only bought them for a couple people. I still attended a couple family gatherings, and while it wasn’t a bad experience, it also wasn’t an enjoyable one, which is why I was so happy to be away the next year.
In 2013, my second year of not celebrating the holiday, I ended up in Cairo, where the only evidence of the holiday was a few Santas and snowmen in the shopping malls. The city was as busy as usual on December 25th. I started my day by heading to The Mogamma, the notorious centre of Egyptian bureaucracy, where I was forced to wait in several lines before finally being referred to right person to get my visa extended. I then spent some time walking around and had some pancakes at a café before returning to pick up my passport later in the afternoon. I actually found the day quite enjoyable, as I’d never been in a country where Christmas wasn’t a public holiday.
The third year was my most difficult, as I was home again, but I did not want to participate in any way, and the pressure that had subsided when I was in Egypt returned because I was no longer on another continent. I didn’t partake in gift exchanges, I avoided family gatherings, using the fact I had a cold as an excuse, and people seemed to be far less understanding than they’d been when I initially gave up on Christmas. It almost seemed that while people recognized I didn’t celebrate, they didn’t understand why I wouldn’t do so secularly, as is common for atheists. It was by far my worst experience, and it’s why I was happy to leave again.
Last year, I was living in Melbourne during the holidays, and even though Christmas is still a big deal in Australia, the culture is very different because it takes place in the middle of summer. Plus, my friends were all fellow travelers. Instead of celebrating with gifts, we spent much of the day at the beach, which was filled with travelers drinking, swimming, playing football, and simply having a good time. Over the next few days people were jokingly sending around media stories about the complaints Australians had made about the noise and the garbage left on the beach.
While the mid-sized eastern Canadian city where I’m from has always been quiet on Christmas Day, since pretty much everything is closed, I remember the streets of Melbourne being quite busy. I’m not sure why it was so different, and maybe other large cities are the same, but I attributed it to the great weather, and to the city being home to so many backpackers, travelers, and expats. I thought it was fantastic.
This year, I will be home for Christmas again, and I’ve been debating how to approach the pressure I’ve been receiving to take part in the holiday. I was hoping to get away for a couple of weeks, but being a poor student, that isn’t possible. I’ve made it clear to the people close to me that nothing has changed, and that I still won’t be celebrating the holiday, but that hasn’t stopped some family members from wanting to buy me gifts.
Just two years ago, I would have vigorously opposed this, but this year I haven’t. I’ve told people I don’t want gifts, but when they’ve persisted, I’ve tried to ensure they won’t get me anything big. I’m simply not in the mood for a battle. When I approached the holiday with an unrelenting militancy, it was also stressful for me, and that’s one of the reasons I gave it up in the first place. I’m still not partaking, but for those who do, there seems to be a socially constructed necessity to gift something to everyone close to them, and I’ve decided not to fight it as much as in the past.
I have been surprised by a shift I’ve noticed this year. I’ve received a number of messages over the past few weeks from friends and family telling me they hate Christmas or that they’re beginning to understand why I stopped celebrating it. This is certainly no scientific sample, but it suggests to me that more people are getting fed up with the profit-fueled shopping bonanza that Christmas has become, and hopefully that means it will change in the future.
Regardless, I have no intention of ever celebrating Christmas again. I’m perfectly content not doing so, as it’s not a holiday that reflects my values. I much prefer to travel to escape the pressure of the season, and even though I haven’t been able to get away this year, I’ve decided not to let that pressure bother me. While I’ve been rewarded with evidence that a growing number of the people I know are fed up with the consumerist Christmas, I hope never to be home for the holidays again.