Many people may wonder how atheists celebrate Christmas. Some call it Xmas, to take the Christ out of the situation. Many call it the holiday season to cover all brands of belief. The idea was to be less offensive to people who are not practicing Christians. Many Christians, though, especially those of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist bent, find this practice in itself offensive. I understand their discomfort. I agree, for heaven's sake, that they ought to be able to call their winter holiday by its correct name. Last time I checked no one had an issue with calling "Easter" "Easter." We don't call it Spring Holiday in the media. However, I do think some Christians take it too far when they expect people of other religions and no religion to participate in their religious fervor.
We had the problem solved very simply when I lived in Hawai'i. So many different groups of different ethnicities and religions live there that a "live and let live" policy threads through every policy. In front of government offices cheery decorations do start to spring up after Thanksgiving proper, sometimes as early as Halloween. These decorations, however are from every possible persuasion: secular Christmas, Holy Christmas, Bodi Tree for the Buddists, Hindu stuff for the Hindu's, Jewish, Islamic, you name it. If people do not understand how to celebrate someone else's holiday, they ask. There is always someone pleased and flattered that you took an interest in Kawanza, willing to explain to you the trappings and trimming. The whole adversarial vibe is non-existent. In Hawai'i, to be different is not equated with being wrong, nor with being less than. Therefore people are not afraid to ask what your ethnic background may be, or what language you speak. In Hawai'I being different is "interesting."
So atheists are in an interesting position because they have no slated holiday at all to match with the winter season. My brother the atheist, chooses to celebrate what I call "secular" Christmas. He knows his kids get a kick out of the season. It's cute to photograph them with Santa. Decorations of foil in red and green look festive and pretty. He certainly doesn't mind the way his office closes down for a week. It is fun to stuff children with candy and buy them gifts. Even the tree symbol doesn't bother him, pagan as it is. Because if you think about it, none of those activities challenge his notion of God. They are cultural activities more than religious.
I'll tell you what he does NOT do. He does not attend Midnight Mass. He does not go to Sunday Service. He does not read the baby Jesus story to his kids or him self out of Luke or Mark. He may not even watch the Peanuts Christmas Special, filmed in the 1960's which makes quite explicit reference to Christianity. Linus Van Pelt quotes from the Bible during the show's play within the episode. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a more palatable cartoon. It celebrates the spirit of Christmas, the idea of giving and loving, with going explicitly Christian.
Other atheists handle it differently. In Japan, where there are some Christians, but not a lot, the main holiday is New Year's Day. The holidays fall close to the same time, so it is very convenient for retailers to push merchandise on sale for gift giving. People generally work less in bad weather, and when there is less daylight hours, so it is a natural time to create a holiday. Many scholars argue that even Christmas was not originally set in December, but that it usurped an existing pagan celebration of Winter Solstice. New Year's Day in Japan is celebrated with visiting, traditional food, gift giving of both money and presents and the very pleasant tradition of listing to the bells chime out the end of the year.
New Year's Day in China is also the biggest holiday of the year, it generally does not fall that close to Christmas though. The lunar calendar puts their new year start at the end of January or beginning of February. It varies from year to year. They celebrate with amazing fireworks displays, feasting on traditional foods, drinking and a parade that includes lion dancers. Gifts of money are also exchanged. So you see a belief in God is in no way a prerequisite for people to celebrate a holiday.
There are other atheists who chose to eschew the whole business. I used to like taking a hike in the wilderness on holidays. It's quiet, beautiful and safe. Too many drunk drivers on the road during holidays started to bother me after my son was born. I saw no reason to subject to unpleasant traditions. My first husband dutifully dragged us to several of his family's holiday gatherings where no one was really happy to see each other. A lot of painful wounds were reopened as his family sniped at each other and complained. Bless their hearts, they only had to see each other about four times a year, and that was at least 5 times too many for most of them.
If your family is comprised of alcoholics and drug addicts, or even just peppered with a few, it is very naÃ¯ve to believe these people can suck it up and behave for the season. If they had it in them to behave for one day, they would do it any day, or every day. So don't pain yourself with unrealistic expectations. And don't torture yourself by wondering why everyone else has the perfect loving family. Few people have the Waltons or the Brady Bunch kind of perfection. Work with what God gave you. For years I would show up the day after Christmas, citing a dearth of seats on the plane or whatever, just to spare myself the dramas my alcoholic mother would cook up to spoil the day. It's a personal choice and a self preserving boundary.
I know another atheist who celebrates Christmas by attending a Catholic church service with his wife. It is not because he is magically converted on that day, nor moved by the season. It's because he loves her and wants to share respectfully in her traditions. It's not a bad choice.