Tom Flynn – The Trouble With Christmas

November 14, 2011

Ebenezer Scrooge once called Christmas “a false and commercial holiday.” Is it? Should Humanists refuse to observe it? Should they wage war on it? Should they celebrate “Sanka” versions of it like Solstice and “HumanLight”? Christians complain that the holiday has become secularized—so should Secular Humanists just say “Thanks!” and enjoy listening to “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland”? As always, Tom Flynn brings new and well-informed perspectives to a difficult issue!

Tom Flynn is the Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism and the editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He is the author of the science-fiction novels Galactic Rapture and Nothing Sacred, which involve the lore of Mormonism, on which Tom is an authority. He is also a historian of the Freethought movement and a frequent speaker in humanist circles. You would be well advised to mortgage your home and purchase a copy of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, which Tom edited. Perhaps his most notorious book, though, is The Trouble with Christmas, which has a lot to do with this episode.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, November 14th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Robert Price. Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. Point of inquiry listeners will need no introduction to today’s guest Tom Flynn. But that’s not going to stop me from providing one anyway. Tom is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and the editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He’s the author of the science fiction novel Galactic Rapture, which involves the law of Mormonism, on which Tom is also an authority. He is a historian of the free thought movement and a frequent speaker in humanist circles. You would be well advised to mortgage your home and purchase a copy of the new Encyclopedia of Unbelief, which Tom edited. Perhaps his most notorious book, though, is The Trouble with Christmas, which has a lot to do with our show today. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. Tom Flynn a Bob. 

Great to be with you today, Tom. 

Why? You’re known, of course, as the anti Claus, and there’s pictures to prove it. Why are you not a modern day Ebenezer Scrooge or are you? 

Well, and certainly in one sense, I’m not a modern day Ebenezer Scrooge because Scrooge had a change of heart, and I haven’t yet. 

You know, sometimes kid people that the Christmas Carol is a is a great work of literature that really starts off strong. But then it has that bummer ending. 

But now I’m in some ways, I’m a little bit Scrooge like and proud of it. I don’t celebrate the holiday. I recommend pretty loudly to my fellow atheists and secular humanists and free thinkers and who all that they’re really doing themselves a disservice if they celebrate the holiday or one of its analogs, like solstice or human light. 

And it’s an interesting phenomenon. Every holiday season, lots of people like to come up to hear me, but only a few of them, you know, actually take me up on what I’m saying. I guess that’s just the way it is. 

Well, you mentioned this thing that fascinates me. This business, ostensibly secular humanist, said I don’t mean to deride the Murdy thing. I I respect this. But it seems ironic when when they try to substitute a cois zae Christmas holiday, like you mentioned, human light, which is created by our good buddy Joe Fox or just solstice. 

What do you think is going on there? Why are they so attractive? I suppose this is obvious, but but I know you always have new perspectives. 

Well, I think I think a lot of it is for for people who grew up celebrating the holiday. And, you know, as we know, an awful lot of secular humanist, atheist free freethinkers started out religious, thought their way out of whatever particular religion they were growing up in. And so the odds are overwhelmingly good that they kept Christmas. That was part of their childhood, part of their growing up. Maybe they’ve already got kids who have gotten the Christmas bug. And admittedly, it’s difficult. You know, if you’ve got young children and suddenly you get irreligion and decide, hey, we should stop celebrating Christmas. That’s a tough thing to sell around the family circle. So I suppose part of it is the, you know, the the wish to not being seen with nothing to do at that time of year. And of course, part of what I’m recommending is that, you know, we non religious should be much more visible, having nothing to do at this time of year to make it, you know, to really stress the point that while lots of people celebrate Christmas, a significant number of people don’t. It’s not a unanimous activity this time of year. So I suppose there’s a lot of compensation going on in there. 

Well, what do you do on Christmas Day? I don’t mean necessarily special, but what do you. How do you not observe it? 

Well, is to the greatest degree I can I just treat it as just another day. Christmas is a Sunday this year, so I’ll probably start the day as I do most Sundays, sleeping in late. Now I have to go to church or anything. But when Christmas falls on the Monday through Friday, I put in a full day of work. You know, a few people here at Center for Inquiry make a point of working Christmas, and I’m certainly one of them. And, you know, I’ve gotten to really enjoy working on Christmas. I mean, the you know, the there’s live very little traffic. The phone doesn’t ring very much, although I have to admit, it can be tough to find a place to go for lunch. 

Oh, yeah. 

You know, I’m one of. Things I have always appreciated about you among the many, as I’ve been associated with you all these sordid years and humanist activities, is that you strike me as the most completely I don’t want to say ruthlessly consistent secularist of the bunch. 

None of this stuff. Well, let’s have something else instead. Let’s let’s observe Christmas and say we didn’t. And I don’t know how many others there are like that, but yeah, I think I think consistency matters, say, in one of the reasons I got out of celebrating Christmas. 

I had you know, I grew up Roman Catholic. It took me about seven years to think my way completely out of that and admit to myself that I was an atheist and I spent about the next five or six years still celebrating Christmas just because I really hadn’t thought much about it. 

And eventually it dawned on me, hey, wait a second, this this isn’t the birthday of anybody I know. So in in 1984, I. I went cold turkey on the holiday, I became you will free up. 

And it seemed to me like just very natural thing to do that if you’re you know, if you’re a serious atheist and you know, you no longer worship the babe, sooner or later you let go of the bathwater. And that’s what I did. Now, of course, I found out later on, especially after after the book came out, that that’s actually a fairly unusual choice among non-religious Americans. And, yeah, that’s. That surprises me a little bit, too. I mean, yeah, it’s it’s not the birthday of anybody I know. Why would I want to celebrate it? Mm hmm. 

Do you think that. Well, that this brings up another interesting paradox. 

You hear Christians all the time saying that Chris Christmas is increasingly secularized. And there is a point to this. For instance, it seems to me that the story of Ebony’s ah Scrooge is gradually overtaking the Jesus story in the popular mind as what Christmas is about. But suppose Christmas is becoming secularized. Why shouldn’t secular humanists rejoice in this and say, all right, we’ll take it. 

We’ll we’ll celebrate it. Call it Xmas if you want. But what the heck? It is a secular celebration. 

Well, the problem is Christmas is is not really becoming more secular at a rapid clip. 

In fact, probably the oldest surviving Christmas tradition is precisely the squabble between the sacred and the secular sides of the holiday. Now, in the three hundreds, you had people like the church, Father Origin, complaining about the celebration of Christmas, because in those days, Christians didn’t celebrate birthdays. You know, it was largely a church of adult converts and nobody really cared which pagan cult you’d been born into. And the point was when you died as a Christian and went to heaven. So the very idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus was a borrowing from paganism. Specifically, it was a borrowing from Mithra ism. And there was a great deal of dispute within Christianity on that score. And ever since you look through the history, there’s always been a controversy between the sacred and the secular sides of the holiday. Now, in our own time, you’re going back the last century and a half or so, it’s taken the form of the commercialism of the holiday versus the sacred side. But one of the things I mentioned in the book, and in fact, I call it the paradox of Christmas, is even though hardly anything that goes on at Christmas, even in the churches, even though hardly any of it is uniquely Christian, I mean, most of it was borrowed from one pagan tradition or another. And of course, then we have all of the later accretions that are largely secular or post Christian, if you will. Nonetheless, here’s the paradox. Even though hardly anything we do in connection with Christmas is uniquely Christian. Everything connected to the holiday gets all wrapped up in this Christian. Are these surveys of grade school children from Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist backgrounds show that these kids tend to respond to any symbol of the holiday, whether it’s a manger scene or Santa Claus or Frosty the Snowman as emblems of Christian dominance of the culture. You know, they get the idea that somehow Christianity gets, you know, gets to ride on the coattails of all of this stuff, even though very little of it is Christian. So for that reason, I look at it and say, hey, if the holiday is is seriously becoming more secular, that’s great. I don’t expect much to change with that because we’ve been having this argument for about 15 hundred years. And so far, in spite of all of Christian’s best effort to ruin the sacredness of their holiday, it still gets perceived as the Christian religion having a special purchase on the last six to eight weeks of the year. And as long as that’s the case, I think humanists are much better off, visibly not participating than, you know, trying to put their own spin on the holiday. Mm hmm. 

In fact, the the celebration of the solstice, which I see in various circulars, newsletters from different atheist groups doesn’t strike, is kind of ironic that this even this basic, apparently stripped bare and neutral thing is implicitly a pagan survival, that there’s something to to as if you’re you’re facilitating the passage of the seasons like the primitives to say, well, if we don’t don’t do this song and dance or not, the sun’s not going to come back. 

I mean, it’s a dragon is going to finish eating the sun unless we do our magic. Yeah. 

As they say in the book, you know, we secular humanist, atheist free thinkers. We’re not Christians. Well, we’re not pagans either. So it’s difficult to see how a you know, a recycled pagan tradition, however ingeniously it might be repackaged, can really speak to us. Plus, you know, the circumstances of life today are so different. I mean, you know, you can’t blame our European ancestors of eight, nine hundred years ago for being really worried that the days were getting shorter. I mean, these were communities that were just barely hanging on through the average winter. You know, we we not only understand the astronomy of what’s going on, we know why the days are getting shorter. We know that they’ll stop getting shorter. But, you know, we’ve also got much improved technology. We have central heating. We have you know, we can drive around in our cars and what have you. I mean, we’re really you know, you can still freeze to death in a winter if you’re very unlucky. But by and large, we’ve pretty much got the threat of winter largely at bay. So why should the solstice ceremony speak to us? And then there’s one final objection to it, which is that the the idea of the winter solstice as the shortest day of the year after which the days get longer only matters, and about a third of the earth only in the north temperate zone to the degree that we’re moving towards a truly global society, if we want to if we want to come up with an alternate holiday, a solstice isn’t going to be it, because it means exactly the opposite in the southern temperate zone, and it means nothing at all in the tropics. 

Fascinating. Out of Nevada. And one other than that, there’s nothing wrong with it. 

Well, do you do you know, one thing I’d like you to elaborate on in a moment is the surprisingly recent origin of Christmas, as we think of it. 

Well, maybe you wouldn’t mind doing that now. And you speak of the. Is it the six eminent Victorians who cooked up Christmas as we know it or not? 

Oh, yes. Yes. You know, a minute ago I was mentioning about the conflict between the sacred and the secular going back fifteen hundred years. That’s about the only aspect of the holiday that goes back about 15 hundred years. And in fact, if you look at the history, partly as a result of fallout from the English civil war and the period of Puritan rule in England and thereafter the celebration of Christmas in the English speaking world largely died out by the end of the 17th, hundreds, the early eighteen hundreds. What happens is, as with the beginning of the Victorian era and at the height of the Industrial Revolution, for a complex variety of reasons, the holiday became. You might say, reanimated, brought back from the dead in a significantly changed form. The medieval Christmas had been something that was celebrated largely communally, largely by adults. And the new Christmas was something that was very much organized, according to each individual family, centered on the family hearth of the family’s children. All this sort of thing. So it was a very different holiday. And in fact, nobody really planned it. But as it worked out, I identified just six prominent Victorians, people like Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, the cartoonist Thomas Nast. Folks like that. Who. 

Without their frequently accidental contributions, the holiday probably would not have a recognizable form like we have it today. It was really accidental. I mean, for example, if Charles Dickens hadn’t come along or if, you know, the visit from St. Nicholas the night before Christmas hadn’t been published. Locking in the public impression of who Santa Claus was and what he looked like, what he did. You know, these are all you know, these are all things that happened largely by accident. And if they’d happened differently, you know, as Stephen Jay Gould loved to say, if we ran the movie over again, we might not have a winter holiday at all. And we certainly wouldn’t have something that looks much like the Christmas we know. And I guess you could add to the list the guy that does the Coca-Cola Santa paintings, all he has had and some Bloem, if I if he’s a 20th century figure, if I wanted to keep the if I wanted to extend the Pantheon, he’d be the next one. Actually, in the book I call them the call these folks, the dynamics, D.W., A. WAMC, U.S. it’s an acronym. It stands for five dead white Anglo males and a queen. 

This guy did for Santa what Holeman Hunt did for Jesus, I guess a sort of forever created a Shroud of Turin image. That’s going to control everybody’s thought. 

Which which kind of reminds me of something totally irrelevant here, though, I think. Speaking of chintzy merchandise, we in addition to these these great black and erm an antique clauss hats and bumper stickers saying keep the X in Xmas. I would love to see maybe the Council for Secular Humanism start selling Shroud of Turin Beach towels. I think that could be a big, big attraction. 

Oh, I have to keep that in mind. Well, a couple of years ago I actually had a bumper sticker on my car, had to have a few of them made. That said, I’m a soldier in the war on Christmas. Oh, you’re just reading my mind. And I conclude was one thing very important from that. Nobody reads bumper stickers because your car wasn’t vandalized. Nothing. Not even not even a gospel tract under the windshield wiper. I was so disappointed. 

Well, is there a war on Christmas’s? O’Reilly and the others say, oh, not so you’d notice. 

I mean, if if I if there was one, I guess I’ve been continually fighting it since 1993 and I’m just looking myself over and searching in vain for shrapnel wounds. What there is, is a growing realization that there’s a lot more religious diversity in the country than there used to be. And so you’ve got the Wal-Mart’s in the Home Depots and the people like this looking around and going, hey, there’s a lot of people in our stores with money to spend who aren’t Christian. Maybe we should find some way not to accidentally snub them during the holiday season. And, of course, you know, the folks at Fox News get on their soapbox and wax wrath that, you know, Wal-Mart might hit its greeters saying happy holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Now, what I say to that is that happy holidays may be an improvement, but it’s still pretty darned presumptuous. I mean, most of the people who are not Christian and aren’t celebrating Christmas probably aren’t celebrating a holiday at all during the interval between a western Thanksgiving and western New Year’s. You know, it’s it’s a handy way of saying, oh, well, we’ll we’ll throw our sop to diversity by saying happy holidays, but we’ll only do that when we’re having the holiday. And because we’ve been tolerant and inclusive and done that, now we don’t have to pay attention to things like when these other groups actually have their holidays. We don’t have to worry about that. We took care of it on our escape. 

That’s the worst of both worlds. And if they could, of course, theoretically start having sales on Shivas birthday and all that sort of thing, the ascension of Hercules or whatever, but there’s not yet enough people to make that commercially viable. So they’re never gonna do that. So, you know what? The holiday, it’s it’s sort of like the intelligent design people saying, yeah, we think there was a designer of the cosmos. 

Oh, you don’t have to call him God. You can call him Fred or something if you want. Oh, this makes a lot of sense. 

So there’s there there is sort of a war on Christmas being waged by Christians in some ways of it’s always bemoaned. 

Isn’t it at least a good thing that it’s good for the economy and so on? I mean, with. That be something we shouldn’t sacrifice? 

Well, I you know, I don’t think it would really be that much of a sacrifice. 

Let let me say first that I’m under no illusion that I’m going to say something really witty on this broadcast or wave my hands in just the right way. And suddenly everybody stopped celebrating Christmas. I think as the Christian dominance of the culture continues to decline, there’s going to be a little less emphasis on Christmas, a little more openness to the idea that some people are doing other things on December 25th. 

And if down the road we’ve got a little bit less emphasis on most people doing most of their retail spending between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. That that could actually be a net benefit for the society. I mean, one one thing that I always talk about when I speak, there are some huge inefficiencies built into the way many of our charities run, particularly like things like food pantries. The Salvation Army groups like this, because they need to have their capital base and their volunteer base and everything geared up to absorb the vast majority of their fundraising. If it’s food pantry, the vast majority of their receipts of nonperishable foods during the quote unquote, holiday season. Now, this has two effects. Number one, they’ve got to tie up more money in warehousing all this stuff because 70 percent or 80 percent of their whole year’s receipts of canned food all comes in at once. And secondly, particularly in northern cities, if you get a spade, a real cold weather near the end of February, beginning of March, frequently the cupboards are bare. And, you know, the donors have a bad case of donor fatigue compounded by they’re still paying off their holiday bills. And, you know, you keep hearing over and over and over from the food pantries that, you know, they’d really like to see the public giving be more even through the year. 

Likewise, if everybody wasn’t running out and doing all their maniacal shopping on Black Friday, we could probably all have all of America shopping malls have parking lots that were 20 percent smaller because there’s only that one little stretch of the year when they actually need all those spaces. 

But you know, this this brings me up in mind of something else, too, because it ties into what we were talking about before that the holiday, as we know it, is really less than 200 years old. And there’s a wonderful proof of that in Dickens Christmas Carol. Now, think back to the climax of the story. This is the really sad part, Ebenezer Scrooge has said his encounters with the ghost. He wakes up Christmas morning a changed man, and he wants to make sure Bob Cratchit has a turkey. So what does he do? He throws open his window on Christmas morning. He finds a little boy walking down the street who has nothing better to do than run an errand for a stranger. And he throws the kid a coin and says, go to the butcher and tell him to send a turkey or a goose or whatever it is to Bob Cratchit house. 

The butcher is open. 

Yeah, that’s right. I mean, the whole climax of the Christmas Carol would have come to a thundering halt if it had been set in like 1926 yea. Or 1989 or 2011. I mean, in Dickens’s own time, Christmas wasn’t that big a deal. It wasn’t you know, it wasn’t a distorting influence on the whole year of retail. And it’s because of the work of Dickens and his five other dynamics that this eventually built up. But so this this you know, this pie, this deer moving through the python phenomenon of the holiday shopping season being so incredibly important for retail is is an innovation from the late 19th century. It hasn’t been around that long in the great scheme of things. And if people begin emphasizing Christmas a little less as religious diversity continues to increase, as long as the change is gradual. Will adjust, people will find other things to spend their money on. And, you know, for a lot of reasons, it would actually make a lot more sense if both retail selling and individual gifts to charities could be on a more even keel through the whole year rather than so much of it being concentrated in November and December. 

This reminds me of something at Gordon Cornwell’s Seminario, which I attended so many years ago. They would have once a year. What I like to call Social Action Catharsis Week, all the drug drumbeating, Aboudi and all of our gospel social implications and so on and so on. 

Oh yeah. And but when the week’s over and the speakers are home, it’s back. The missionary stuff and study in the Bible. Oh boy. Well of course this isn’t the only holiday. I’ve asked about this before. I can never quite keep the name straight. You know, someone that does a similar thing with Thanksgiving is called blame laying or blame giving or what is that blame giving? 

I don’t know. I don’t know what degree it’s active, but. So is Norm Allen, who is the founder of African-Americans for Humanism. 

Yeah, I was worked here at Center for Inquiry until about two years ago, and he, I think, kind of has a kind of as a joke proposed that instead of Thanksgiving, we should have blame giving, which actually makes perfect sense, because if God is all knowing and all seeing and all powerful. Well, then if you had a rotten year, it’s kind of got to be God’s fault, you know? Why do we thank him for the good stuff? But. Yeah. Yeah. No, I mean, you’re it’s it’s, you know, 2011. Okay. You know, God. Thanks for you know, thanks for this and thanks for that. And thanks for your Aunt Betty getting over her cancer. Now about those floods in Thailand. 

Mm hmm. Yeah. Yeah. 

There’s a similar thing, a festival that Woody Allen mentions in his Hasidic tales, I think in the book getting even. He says that the that in one little Polish Jewish ghetto town, there’s a procession to the synagogue on the high holy day commemorating God’s reneging on all of his promises to Israel. 

That’s great. And a one minus is beside the point. But a woman in the crowd yells, Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork? And the sage stops for a second and says, we’re not. 


And then that would be Woody comments that some Talmud ists think that originally the Torah meant only to prohibit eating pork in certain restaurants down there. Well, this is totally unrelated, but I got to talk about a pilgrimage center for agnostic and humanist piety. What’s going on with the Ingersol home? How is that faring? All right. These days, I know you’ve been in charge of keeping it going. 

Oh, yes. Yes, we. For folks who might be hearing of it for the first time, the Council for Secular Humanism has operated North America’s only Freethought Museum at the birthplace of the 19th century. Or it or Robert Green Ingersoll. I’ve been the curator of it since it opened in 1993, and we just recently closed for the season where basically open through the summer and into the fall. And the last weekend in October is our wrap up and we’ll reopen again Memorial Day weekend. But if people want to know more about it, they can look on our Web site that secular humanism dot org slash Ingersol. And we’ve also got a site, Freethought Trail, Freethought Hyphen Trail dot org, which is an appreciation of a broad range of free thought and radical reform history in western and central New York, which it turns out there was a great deal of, partly due to the influence of the Erie Canal in the early and middle 19th century and even into the early 20th. 

Western and central New York served the country in much the same way that Southern California would during most of the 20th centuries. This is cauldron of social ferment and innovation. 

Now, is it true that you’re having you’re meeting with less success in having that area renamed the Ingar Lakes? 

Yeah, that that has not been particularly successful. We also we haven’t had too much luck. Getting formal recognition for the Freethought Trail there. But of course, it does. It does have one limitation. I mean, there’s there’s no sane way that you can actually drive around it in, you know, a straight line without retracing your steps. Something fierce spent. Of course, around the office we do sometimes called the museum the anger hut. But I digress. 

We mentioned a few times. You’re you’re utterly fascinating book. The Trouble with Christmas. I believe it’s still available from Prometheus and probably from Amazon and so forth. 

But it might not be for for long, in which case you your listeners might want to order a copy from you. You’ve got some. And I believe they correct me if I’m wrong, that it’s twenty three dollars postpaid. That’s 20 for the book, three for the shipping and handling. And yet one would need to pay with a personal check. And you could mail it to Tom Flyn at 175 North Street, Suite B, Dash one in Buffalo, New York. Fourteen to oh one or sorry, one four two oh one. 

There there are a lot of great books on the law and the history of Christmas. They’re fun to read. You should definitely read this one if you’re going to read those. 

It’s kind of equal time because most most of the other informative books about Christmas fundamentally like the holiday. 

Yeah, that’s that’s a that’s a shortcoming, which my book does not stuff. 

Oh, thank you so much, Tom, for being on. I’m going to have to get another pretext to have you on again. It’s only such fun talking with you. Maybe atheist science fiction novels. There’s a oh, what a concept. I’m working on my third one, by the way. I mentioned Galactic Rapture. What is the name of the second one? 

Nothing sacred. Oh, I’m going to forget that I won’t see an island. 

Well, thanks for being on. I’d love to have you on again as soon as possible. 

Oh, my pleasure, Bob. Always good to hear from you. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join the online discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winner Michael Palin. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Robert Bryce. 

Robert M. Price

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, Robert Price moved to New Jersey in 1965. At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary he took an MTS degree in New Testament (1978), then, at Drew University, a PhD in Systematic Theology (1981) and a second PhD in New Testament (1993). He has served as Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, North Carolina, pastor of First Baptist Church, Montclair, NJ, and Director of the Metro NY Center for Inquiry. He founded and edited the Journal of Higher Criticism and has authored scores of articles on the Bible and religion. His books include Beyond Born AgainThe Widow Traditions in Luke-ActsDeconstructing JesusThe Incredible Shrinking Son of ManThe Da Vinci FraudThe Reason-Driven LifeThe Pre-Nicene New TestamentJesus Is Dead, and The Paperback Apocalypse. Price is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He served as Professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary and Professor of Biblical Criticism for the Center for Inquiry Institute in Amherst, NY. He and his wife Carol and daughters Victoria and Veronica live in Selma, NC.