Sure, I hate going into a store in December (sooner in some places) and hearing dodgy lyrics written about a mythological baby god-king.
- “Worship Christ, the newborn King”
- “Go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.”
- “Jesus Christ was born to save!”
- “Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
Unless you’re someone who left behind a religious community saturated with language like this, you’re probably not going to notice this very much. Most people don’t. To most, Christmas music is often infused with rich and fragrant memories of childhood, of time spent with family and friends, and of the beauty of winter (if you’re into that sort of thing).
And most people have likely never stopped to question the logic of the whole Christmas story. A teenage girl in Iron Age Palestine suddenly becomes pregnant with the son of the Hebrew God, who himself is the Hebrew God in human form? As David Hume (via Christopher Hitchens) once quipped, “Which is more likely, that the whole natural order is suspended or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?”
And why did Jesus have to temporarily suspend his divinity and come down to Earth as a dirty, squalling, snot-nosed infant? Because four thousand years earlier, two presumably immortal humans who lived in a mythical garden ate a piece of fruit that they were warned not to after a talking snake (just think about that for a second—a talking snake) told them to go ahead and do it anyway.
Because of this, God got royally pissed off; threw them out of this garden and put an angel with a flaming sword to guard the entrance; cursed them both with mortality, with work (for the man), and with painful childbirth (for the woman). So now every human born since then was also cursed with this “original sin” and is doomed to burn in the eternal fires of Hell.
(Brief side note: Hell is actually a Greek invention and wasn’t included in Christian theology until a bit later as a means of capitalizing on fear of death to control behavior (especially sexual behavior). Just in case you hadn’t figured out yet what a ludicrous invention this story is.)
As if that wasn’t overreaction enough, now all of creation—every tree, rock, animal, star, planet, galaxy—is cursed and spoiled because of the presumed disobedience of two humans on an insignificant piece of rock orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun (as Douglas Adams once wrote) “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy.”
Anyway, that’s the fundamentalist Christian take on the story.
And let’s not even get into the fact that early Christians didn’t observe the birth of the their Lord and Savior. According to the website Biblical Archaeology, “Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices.” It wasn’t until late in the 4th century CE that the date of Jesus’ birth was moved to December 25th and celebrated, mainly as a way of appropriating pagan holidays. December 25th has been the date of several Roman holidays, including Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.
Sorry, guys, Jesus was not a Capricorn.
And what are the chances that other gods like Krishna, Mithras, Horus, and Buddha were also born on December 25th? What a crazy coincidence!
For me, the atonement theology underpinnings of Christmas were impossible to miss growing up. It was drilled into us virtually every day that humans are sinful, and the reason that Jesus had to come to earth to be murdered was because of how sinful we are. The whole Advent calendar was essentially a daily theological lesson in how awful humans are, and how the only redeemable thing about us is Jesus dying for our sins to make up for the fact that God loves us so much that he wants to torture us forever to show us how much he loves us.
So you’ll excuse me if I don’t find Christmas carols particularly heartwarming. In those lyrics I hear the self-hatred and self-loathing buried deep in the heart of Christianity, that tells us that not only are we not good enough—we’re fundamentally flawed and broken.
You know, the language of an emotional abuser.
But that is not the reason why I hate Christmas music.
And it’s not necessarily that I hate Christmas music. Some of the melodies to the songs are quite nice. And I do have some warm and fragrant memories of Christmas from my childhood. It was a magical time of year. Everything was transformed, by the cold and snow, and by decorations around town and around the house. We used to put cloves in pomegranates and oranges and hang them around the house, so the house smelled like spices.
When I became an atheist, it was as if twenty-eight years of my life no longer belonged to me. All of those memories, all of the enjoyment that I’d found in singing songs at Christmas, in the celebrations, in the community, were all part of someone else’s life.
You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.
– C. F. Ramuz, Histoire du Soldat, trans. by Michael Flanders
So that’s why it’s hard for me to listen to Christmas music. It’s not so much the lyrics that bother me anymore. I’ve developed enough coping strategies to walk into a store without asking to yell at a manager to “turn that shit off!”
Christmas music is a reminder of everything that I lost when I jettisoned my faith. Further, it speaks to the fear I have of what I may never have—a family of my own to make new memories with, to banish the sadness of the old ones.
But who knows. Anything’s possible.