This will be my first holiday season as an outed atheist, so as December approaches, I've had an internal monologue going about whether to say "Merry Christmas" (as I've always done) or "Happy Holidays" (or something else similar.) After much deliberation with myself, I've come to the conclusion that I'll say... Merry Christmas! Here's why.
First, the holiday season was always Christmastime when I was a kid, this despite the fact that it was not about Jesus. Sure, my mother told us about Jesus and Mary and the virgin birth, but not in much detail. It's obviously too late to ask her what she really thought about religion, but whether she considered herself a Christian or not, I definitely have the feeling Mom didn't buy into the literal story of Christ's birth. I have vague memories of attending midnight mass as a young child, but church wasn't part of our Christmas season in any way for most of my memories. My parents' gradual separation from the Catholic church provided me an almost non-religious, mildly "Christian-ish" childhood, for which I am thankful.
While not about Jesus, Christmas for me is and always has been about family. Yes, the gift giving and receiving is fun (and not related to Jesus either, despite the retrofit of Jesus's birthday to the pagan holiday that already occupied the calendar.) It's a time to share love and season's greetings with your family and friends, to reflect on another year, and to spread wishes of peace through the world. Rum-spiked eggnog is also really, really important.
Another reason I will stick with "Merry Christmas" is that I don't want to call my Christmas tree a "holiday tree." I just don't. I tried it out and it just seems silly. Similarly, I want to give Christmas gifts and not "holiday gifts." I want to make Christmas cookies, send Christmas cards (though I've been known to draw a line through the word Christmas and write "Hanukkah" when sending one to a Jewish friend), listen to Christmas music...You get the picture. Now, I am not in any way opposed to and certainly not offended by atheists who don't want to use the word Christmas in these situations (hell, my whole point here is that it took me a while to decide for myself. I see the other side to this, too.) But for me, December 25th and the weeks surrounding it are and always will be Christmas. The bottom line is that I don't think of it as celebrating Jesus any more than I think of the month of January as celebrating the god Janus, and don't feel the need to rename either one.
And on that note, here's a very awesome, sappy poem by Digital Cuttlefish that I read this evening on the subject of Christmas from an atheist point of view. I love it.
The reason for Christmas is bigger than Jesus;
It’s bigger than even a God up above.
The reason we gather together this season
With friends and with family, simply, is… love.
The stories they tell of a wonderful heaven,
The myth of a savior’s miraculous birth,
Are mere consolation for leaving behind
All the love we encounter in one life on earth.
More precious, more rare than the greatest of treasures
This life we are living—each one, we know, ends;
I wish you a love even greater than Christmas
And hope you will share it with family and friends.