Atheists and Christmas

Stephen Colbert is somewhat of a phenomenon in the entertainment world. He has his own show on the Comedy Channel called The Colbert Report (pronounced “kol-bare re-pore” – get it?). The lack of cable TV in my house, together with my fear of texting while driving, demonstrate that I am neither hip enough nor young enough to be counted among the legion of loyal Colbert fans. There is that, and the fact that the show crosses the line at times.

Still, Colbert has his moments. In early December of last year, the show featured a “wag of my finger” segment on the Order of St. Nick. This is an actual company, doing business online, with a range of alternative greeting cards. “Alternative,” as we all know, is code for “offends common decency.” One card featured a classic chart on evolutionary progress, with Santa Claus at the terminal end. Another card pictured Darwin wearing a Santa hat.

The irony was too much for Colbert who is, by the way, a practicing Roman Catholic. The comedian proceeded to poke fun at Christmas for atheists, including the classic year-end family newsletter. Here is Colbert’s take on what one of those letters must look like:

Dear friends and family:

In March, little Jimmy surprised us by saying his first complete sentence: “God is dead.” Suzy’s wedding was like a dream. We all cried when the city clerk stamped the form and asked if they had any outstanding parking tickets. Sadly, Grandpa passed away this year, but at least we know he’s not in a better place; he’s decomposing.

– Merry Xmas

Colbert has his tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course, but he is definitely on to something.

This goes much deeper than the atheist objection to nativity scenes on government property, or the insidious replacement of “Merry Christmas” with the generic “Happy Holidays.” It is more about the joy and celebration that is to be found in the redemptive work of God in human history.

Look, our family does not celebrate December 25th as a religious holiday. After all, no one really knows the year of Jesus’ birth, let alone the precise month or day on which He was born. The New Testament never calls on the church to commemorate the birth of Jesus. As a result, I refrain from singing overtly religious Christmas songs or sending religiously themed Christmas cards. I know, I know, you might think I am Ebenezer Scrooge revivified. “Bah, humbug!” and all that jazz.

Nonetheless, as a Christian I am glad that our collective minds are focused on the life of Jesus. As a minister, it reminds me that I should never neglect the doctrine of the virgin birth. In fact, I have made a personal commitment to preach on some aspect of the Incarnation in July of every year. It is my annual “Christmas in July” sermon.

Now think about the atheists who are lining up in droves to buy those cards from the Order of St. Nick. Christmas must be a particularly depressing time of the year for these people, to say nothing of Thanksgiving, Easter, Passover, Chanukah, and Eid ul-Fitr. No wonder they have had to invent Darwin Day, although that particular man has given us nothing to celebrate.

In fact, as Colbert suggests, weddings and funerals must be drab affairs, and what about those bundles of joy we call children? Without God there is no genuine source of joy because, in the atheists’ world view, there is nothing that is absolutely, eternally, objectively good.

Jesus might not have wanted us to spend so much time and money on His birthday, whenever that may have been, but He certainly understood the source of true joy.

When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. – John 16:21-22 (ESV)

[A version of this article appeared in Think, December 2010, p. 34.]

© 2009 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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