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The Trouble with Christmas for Atheists with Tom Flynn

December 24, 2020

Christmas in 2020 will be unlike any other in recent history due to COVID 19. Nevertheless, Christians around the world will be finding ways to celebrate the birth of Christ.

On this episode of Point of Inquiry, Jim speaks to Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine and author of The Trouble With Christmas. Affectionately known as the Anti-Claus, Tom gives some insight to when Jesus may actually have been born, the origins of the Christmas holiday, how traditions have changed over the centuries, modern-day customs surrounding the event, and the alleged “War on Christmas”, real and imagined.

Happy just another day everyone!

We are proud to announce that this episode of Point of Inquiry was sponsored by the Wadsworth-Sheng Fund. Our friends, Spike Wadsworth and Sherry Sheng, are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to thought-provoking content that addresses the big questions in science, religion, politics, and culture. We are grateful for their support. If you would like to learn more about how to support Point of Inquiry or the work of its umbrella organization, the Center for Inquiry, please contact our Director of Development, Connie Skingel, at


This Week’s Music

“Bon Journée” by Chad Crouch / CC BY-NC 3.0
“Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0
“Small Hours” by Chad Crouch / CC BY-NC 3.0

[00:00:07] Hello again, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Point of Inquiry. I’m your host Jim Underdown Christmas 20 20 is going to be unusual, to say the least, for most people in the world. [00:00:23][15.5]

[00:00:23] I would venture to say the more intelligent members of our species will not be meeting in large gatherings in close quarters inside due to covid-19. But celebrations of the birth of Jesus will go on one way or another. I wanted to explore Christmas from a secular point of view on today’s show. And who better to do that with an Tom Flynn? Tom Flynn is the longtime editor of Free Inquiry magazine, is the author of a number of books, most notably for today’s conversation. The trouble with Christmas time typically works on Christmas Day every year and has done so for many, many years and has a very secular and unusual way, most people would say, of looking at the Christmas holiday. Tom knows more about the Christmas holiday, probably the most Christians around the world, but I thought I would talk with him about the so-called war on Christmas Christmas traditions and what other people in the United States and in the world are doing in mid to late December. Personally, I like just about any excuse to get together, although, again, it’s not going to happen with covid, but I like any excuse to get together and whip it up and turn on some lights and have some fun with people that I care about. I don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, but I was happy to spend time with friends and family over Christmas just for that sake alone. Here is the anti Claus himself, Tom Flynn. [00:02:07][103.4]

[00:02:25] Tom Flynn, welcome to a point of inquiry. Hey, Jim, good to be with you. [00:02:30][4.2]

[00:02:30] Of course, you’re the perfect person in our secular world to talk about everything, Christmas or maybe the other side of Christmas. [00:02:43][12.8]

[00:02:47] You are known, affectionately known as Auntie Claus all over secular, dumb, and are also kind of famous, I think, for working on Christmas Day every year. When did you start doing that? [00:03:02][15.0]

[00:03:03] Oh, I started doing that about thirty six years ago, was in nineteen eighty four, I had become an atheist and a humanist a few years before that ultimately just didn’t see the reason to continue celebrating the birthday of someone I no longer believed in. So in nineteen eighty four, I went cold turkey and had four or five very, very quiet decs. [00:03:36][32.8]

[00:03:37] And then I made the tragic mistake of writing an article in the Secular Humanist Bulletin about how I didn’t celebrate Christmas and the media went nuts. I woke up one morning to hear my own voice coming out of the clock radio in a CBS radio newscast. Top of the hour. [00:03:57][19.3]

[00:03:58] Next thing I know, I got a contract for Prometheus Books to deliver my very first book in about five months and pretty much ever since. I spend a fair amount of time each December explaining to the bee enthusiast and to the critics why I prefer to say ho, ho, ho, no, no, no, at holiday time. [00:04:20][21.5]

[00:04:21] And didn’t we set up some kind of a webcam one time just to see you to prove that you are actually at work on that? They. [00:04:28][7.3]

[00:04:29] Oh, we’ve done that, we’ve done that a couple of times in twenty seventeen, in twenty eighteen, I did live webcast from my office that doubled as the fundraisers for security rescue and actually we raised twenty or thirty thousand dollars each time. Then last year we re juggled offices and I was about to drop back the part time and so we weren’t able to do the podcast last year and well we all know what’s going on this year. [00:05:00][30.8]

[00:05:01] Yeah, well, we should talk about doing it again. Maybe from your house you can. Well you already had the beard, but you know. [00:05:09][8.2]

[00:05:11] Oh, I’ve got the beard. I have I have a black Santa hat this year. I have a black Christmas tree each year. Some of my supporters around the country send me more props. It’s it’s kind of cool, you know. [00:05:25][14.2]

[00:05:25] Now, that’s a coincidence because in nineteen eighty three, I was living in Los Angeles for a while and I also had a black Christmas tree. We made it out of this and it looked like, kind of like we call it the gorilla fur. [00:05:42][17.4]

[00:05:43] It was a throw for a bed and we hung it over a hat rack and turned it into a fir tree. If you are tree pretty clever. [00:05:53][9.7]

[00:05:53] Of course, there is at least two Christmas trees in history in the world. [00:05:59][6.0]

[00:06:00] That may be enough. I don’t know. [00:06:01][1.6]

[00:06:04] I loved it. I mean, you could just you can pen things like weepin sweat socks to it. [00:06:10][6.1]

[00:06:10] And it had a lot of possibilities. [00:06:12][1.8]

[00:06:14] I, I can just imagine and I’m glad I was not downwind. [00:06:17][3.1]

[00:06:19] Yeah. Believe me. Be thankful. Let’s talk about just because no one really talks about this in public much. But let’s talk about the actual Christmas, what people believe to be the actual Christmas is there. And by the way, I always imagined Jesus’s driver’s license as twelve twenty five zero zero zero zero. [00:06:46][27.5]

[00:06:50] What kind of actual evidence do you think is acceptable for Jesus actually being born on December twenty fifth, the year zero or thereabouts? [00:07:00][9.6]

[00:07:02] Well, as far as the date is concerned, we are almost completely certain that if the birth even occurred, it did not occur on December twenty fifth. Now, scripture never mentions the date for the Nativity, but there some evidence in the text for the birth occurring in the spring. Remember those shepherds with their flocks by night, even in Judah was seldom that warm in December two thousand years ago. So historians tell us the flocks were probably supervised by night, only in spring when the Jews were burying their young. And actually there all kinds of traditions that early Christians reached for to fill in the vacuum because there was no hard evidence of the date of Jesus’s birth. So for whatever it’s worth, early Christian communities celebrated the holiday on December twenty fifth, which was already popular because it was the birth date of the then very popular pagan Mithras. They also celebrated on January 6th, which the Christian communities now observe as epiphany. Also February 2nd, March twenty fourth, April 19th, May 20th and November 17th. And there were a few other dates so that we have no idea what day was what date was Jesus born. The odds are one in three. [00:08:27][84.8]

[00:08:27] Sixty five now is the year of. [00:08:31][3.3]

[00:08:32] That’s that’s a whole other kettle of fish, basically the gospels of Matthew and Luke offer incompatible clues as to what was going on in Rome at the time of the Nativity. And on that basis, the birth is usually ascribed to either for C or seven C in either case, there were some historical factors that have not yet been counted when the years of the calendar were set. And so we have the we have the year one, which was supposedly the year that Jesus was born. But then come the Middle Ages, a very enterprising monk named Denis Exiguous, literally Denis the short we find the calculations that he thought it had to have been for because they say other people with seven B.C., but that we have no idea what the date was. We’re pretty sure it was either four or seven B.C. There really is no year zero. So we had to win one ad, but it wasn’t. So, yeah, it’s legend and lore. [00:09:45][73.1]

[00:09:46] And while the guesses all the way down, well, there are some evidence two of the Christians were some of the existing. [00:09:55][9.4]

[00:09:57] Ancient people celebrated the solstice and other things like that. So it’s sort of convenient for early Christians to piggy back on existing celebrations? [00:10:10][12.2]

[00:10:11] Oh, very much so. In fact, really, everything that is traditional in Christianity in connection with Christmas, with the exception of the midnight mass, everything is borrowed. [00:10:25][14.0]

[00:10:27] So things Christians were actually the first to have this idea of, hey, let’s celebrate this birthday right at midnight. [00:10:31][4.8]

[00:10:32] Other than that, everything was borrowed. The whole idea of a God man who came to Earth, died, was resurrected, has numerous precursors in Greek and Roman legend. [00:10:51][19.1]

[00:10:53] It was not a particularly Jewish concept. So this is a this is an idea of who Jesus was and what he was up to. We see taking form among the Christians of Gentile origins, not so much among the Jews now, the Jewish tradition, of course, and Jesus as the descendant of David and as the Messiah, the king who was going to restore the Jewish people to their their rightful place in the world. [00:11:21][28.2]

[00:11:22] And these two ideas are. Grossly incompatible. I mean, we see this we see this most strongly in the whole idea of, you know, the resurrection. What was it for? What was it about? [00:11:41][18.9]

[00:11:42] And the idea of Jesus as a Jewish messiah is totally incompatible with this idea of Jesus as a polemic style demigod destined to be resurrected. And yet we see the two traditions being combined because they both had strong partizans in the early church. And even though they didn’t make any sense relative to each other, it was never politically possible to get rid of either of them. So Christianity just kind of had to wrap its arms around them both and rush forward. And now we see it all in this gauzy light of tradition. And it all seems to make sense because we’re all used to it. But it doesn’t make sense at all. And it reflects it reflects conflicts that split the early church going back to its beginnings. [00:12:34][52.2]

[00:12:36] And even didn’t the Council of Nicaea seek to figure out some of those incompatibilities and make sense of them? [00:12:47][11.5]

[00:12:49] Oh, yeah, yeah, there was this there were centuries of debate and debates, too weak a word. People like hired mercenaries and lay in ambush and killed each other over this stuff, over the exact relationship of Jesus to his father, the purpose of his war, of the mission and so on. And actually, there were several ecclesiastical councils in the three hundreds and for hundreds who wound up setting in stone some of the characteristics that we now associate with Chris Mooney, including the Council of Nicaea, if I remember correctly, endorsed the date of December twenty fifth, which was the first time that the church really committed itself to that date. [00:13:32][43.4]

[00:13:33] And of course, the Christian churches have agreed on everything since let’s move forward from Jesus is a legit birth for centuries. It’s it’s a fairly would you call it a low key celebration at least compared to what we see today, his birthday? [00:13:56][22.3]

[00:13:57] Yes and no in the early days. And I mean, here we’re talking here. We’re talking four thousand or twelve hundred and. The best couple that we now know as Christmas was really kind of like Halloween and Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Year’s all rolled into one. It was the harvest festival. It was the festival of acknowledging the dead. It was the time of casting fortunes to see what the New Year would bring. And it was time to get together and do a little drinking and carousing and what have you. And so by the scale on which those societies operated on Christmas, quote unquote, was probably almost as big a deal as it was today. Well, what happens over the last seven or eight hundred years is Christmas begins to split and become specialized and Thanksgiving gets a different date and Halloween gets a different date and New Year’s gets a different date. [00:15:02][65.1]

[00:15:04] So in that way. [00:15:05][1.0]

[00:15:07] The holiday lost a little bit of emphasis, but the interesting thing is, particularly when we look at it in the English speaking world, Christmas had a near-death experience in the early 18th century. Basically medieval English Christmas had been aimed at adults. It was not centered in the home. It was a holiday in which adults would gather in the great hall and eat and drink and carouse. It was not family centered. It was not commercial. People didn’t go out and buy things because it was Christmas. It was enough to celebrate that there was enough to eat. [00:15:45][37.5]

[00:15:46] So this holiday. [00:15:47][0.9]

[00:15:50] Eaters out, peters out, peters out until by the late 17 hundred eighteen hundreds, there’s almost nothing left of it is kind of a forgotten festival. Now, what happens in England and America in the 30 in the early to middle 19th century is Christmas gets reborn as resurrected. It’s, you might say, reanimated as a family centered holiday, which it wasn’t before, as a child centered holiday, which it wasn’t before. And as you get into the later 19th century, it becomes commercial in nature and you have department stores and whole retail sector springing up to exploit this desire to give gifts and what have you. And by the time you get to the turn of the 20th century, Christmas is pretty well established as this commercial behemoth that it’s become. This kind of rides roughshod over everybody today. [00:16:57][66.7]

[00:16:58] But it is an interesting thing to see in medieval times. [00:17:02][4.7]

[00:17:03] Christmas was a community celebration for the adults. It was not something everyone did in their own home. [00:17:09][5.1]

[00:17:10] It almost died out and then came back in a very different form. [00:17:15][5.4]

[00:17:16] And actually, in my book, I give credit or blame, if you will, to six conspicuous the British and American Victorians, people like cartoonist Thomas Nast and Charles Dickens and Victoria. Actually, you can really narrow it down to these six individuals who purposely or accidentally made contributions that gave the holiday its current form. And if it wasn’t for them, we’d probably be doing something this time of year. But it wouldn’t be exactly like the Christmas we know. [00:17:50][34.2]

[00:17:52] Yeah, I mean, there’s you can see how especially well, it’s so obvious now because we’re bombarded with the idea of getting your wallet out during Christmas and going and buying everybody, you know, a present. There’s gobs of money to be made. But it’s more surprising to hear that someone like Queen Victoria might have had a hand in sending things in that direction. What do you remember what she did specifically? [00:18:22][29.9]

[00:18:23] Yeah, she I mean, during that period, the the British monarchs were wedding were marrying nobles from Germany. And of course, the Christmas tree had its cultural origins in Germany. So young Queen Victoria, she and Prince Edward had a storybook marriage. [00:18:44][21.0]

[00:18:45] It was kind of a Charles and Di kind of thing and people people on both sides of the Atlantic, come on. Everything they did. And one year they had a scraggly little Christmas tree on a table in Buckingham Palace and a British women’s magazine published a picture of it. And it just. [00:19:05][20.2]

[00:19:06] That fire and the basically the next year, millions of English households had put up little Christmas trees that had never considered doing it before. And a couple of years later, a Society magazine in the United States, Goatees latest book of a Distant Ancestor of Ladies Home Journal reprinted that same engraving. But they removed the royal sashes and didn’t say who the people were. So you didn’t know it was Elizabeth and Edward. You might think it was just some Park Avenue society types, but it worked the same way and people started putting up Christmas trees in huge numbers. So the funny thing is in the United States, even though we had a lot of German immigrants and especially the Pennsylvania Dutch, of course, we’re really Germans had a big Christmas tree celebration. The Christmas tree entered American life through the misattributed picture of Queen Victoria. And bless their hearts, the Pennsylvania Dutch kind of looked around one year and it was like, wow, why is everyone doing what we’re doing? [00:20:16][69.8]

[00:20:35] Hello and thank you for listening to point of inquiry. We are taking a short break to announce that this episode was made possible through the Wadsworth Schang Fund. The fund was started by supporters of the show Spike Wadsworth and cherishing, we’re both committed to science, critical thinking and making accessible thought-Provoking content that addresses the big questions in science, religion, politics and culture. [00:20:57][22.2]

[00:20:58] We are grateful for their generous support. A point of inquiry and its umbrella organization, the Center for Inquiry, critically examines and advocates against pseudoscience the dangers of alternative medicine and analyzes the intersection of religion and science in our society. This educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential now than ever before, and your support is more essential than ever. Point of Inquiry is a listener supported show, which means continuing this work is only possible because of the financial support of listeners like you. Visit Center for Inquiry Agapito I to make a donation today and ensure that point of inquiry can continue. If you would like to learn more about how you can support the show, or for more information about the Watch Worth Sharing Fund, please email Center for Inquiries. Director of Development Connie Shingle at Development at the Center for Inquiry Dadaji. Thank you. [00:21:54][56.6]

[00:22:00] So that’s that’s the tree and you could kind of see that and maybe Nordic or Scandinavian cultures being centered around a tree like that, a pine tree. [00:22:12][11.5]

[00:22:13] What about stuff like Santa Claus? One of Santa Claus enter into the scene has been integral with Christmas. [00:22:21][7.7]

[00:22:24] Well, Santana, as you mentioned, with the Christmas tree, there’s various European precursors and the whole tradition of the mystical visitor who comes to the household to see if everything’s being done right. The Norse had a tradition. The Italians had a tradition all over Europe. They were these different traditions. The thing to keep in mind is that the 19th century reinvention of Christmas was very much an Anglo American phenomenon. So we can look back at the roots and say, oh, yes, this is like this is like Nordic traditions about old or this is like a certain northern Italian traditions. This is some things that people did in France, but it didn’t make it into the Christmas celebration that took over the world until it was reinterpreted by these influential Americans and Britons. It’s kind of a very, very narrow bottleneck that everything goes through at this point. And so all these traditions from all over the world become very Americanized. Now, of course, in England, the tradition is primarily a father Christmas, Santa Claus. Really everything we think we know about Santa Claus starts with Washington Irving, who wrote a satire about what the original Dutch settlers of New York City did at holiday time. And he was poking fun of them and making like they were obsessed with Saint Nicholas. And it was the whole purpose of December in their community. And it was all a joke. It would be like if somebody found a recording of a Daily Show one hundred years from now and tried to reconstruct American history through it. [00:24:09][105.2]

[00:24:09] But this got into the old West, Sinterklaas and the New Amsterdam. Yes, that was a great thing. And that’s where Santa Claus comes from. Well, not quite. It comes through Washington Irving writing a satire. [00:24:21][11.5]

[00:24:23] Then you have the night before Christmas, also known as a visit from St. Nicholas, which started where Washington Irving left off the flight. A lot more additional details became a bestseller. All these illustrated editions came out. Thomas Nast, cartoonist for Harper’s magazine. Nast was hugely influential. He invented the Democratic Party gunky. He invented the Republican Party elephant. He gave us those crosshairs images of people like Boss Tweed. You’re pretty much whenever you see nineteenth century America in a documentary, you’re probably looking at cartoons that will mask each holiday season, would do a Santa Claus cartoon. And so he further refined Santurce appearance. It gave us the first look at the North Pole workshop at DANTAS Telephone back when that was new and high tech. This sort of and these things just, you know, all kind of concatenating together and ultimately became Santa Claus, as we know. And today. And here in Saint Nicholas is in there and in lots of lots of traditions are in there. Of course, you’ve got certain countries where Santa Claus is an evil sidekick and Santa hands off the presents and the evil sidekick administers the switches or gives the kids a lump of coal that German traditions like the Krampus along that line, the Dutch tradition of black peat, which, of course, there’s a lot of debate over the political correctness of calling a black, although it doesn’t have coal. It’s an interesting, interesting set of circumstances. But yes, Santa Claus, again, many, many roots all put through this Anglo American filter and suddenly set out into the world with a huge commercial budget. [00:26:20][117.3]

[00:26:21] Yeah. So a little culture hangs on to their little tidbits while then adopting the bigger overriding Santa idea in our family. We had Christmas Eve we were supposed to have. I think it was seven fish is you supposed to have seven different fishes and Christmas Eve, which eventually got boiled down to Popeye’s Shrimp one, so they hang on to their little parts of it and then adopt Santa because it’s a fun idea, right? I mean, it’s like any other meme that takes hold in the world. It’s it’s it’s kind of fun. And kids ate it up. [00:27:04][43.0]

[00:27:06] Kids, kids eat it up, it’s fun, but it’s also it’s also irresistible. I mean, it’s got so much cultural power and so much economic power behind it. [00:27:16][9.9]

[00:27:17] I think it’s I think it’s sometimes too benign to say that this or that group just adopt the mainstream Christmas. It’s like, what choice do they have? Santa Claus is the language we have to use. [00:27:30][12.6]

[00:27:31] We’ve got to talk about Christmas trees. We’ve got to talk about these particular songs because we don’t get a choice. It all gets dropped on us. And certainly some Americans, Jewish Americans, Americans who are nonreligious can find it and find it. Pretty impressive is there, where the Christians have their birthday party on December twenty fifth, they shut down the whole country. And what’s anybody else going to do that day? Now, of course, this year it’s a little bit again, I don’t have to work too hard on the war on Christmas this year because I got Anthony Fauci and he’s out there and everybody this year as well should. [00:28:10][39.7]

[00:28:12] Yeah, well, you talk about how it’s it’s sort of overwhelming nature of Christmas that all these other traditions, probably it snowed under, no pun intended. I was just talking to my my wife and sister in law, I think would both call themselves secular Jews for the most part. But they were kind of shocked to come to America from South Africa and find that people were giving Hanukkah gifts in great numbers is something like that. Do you see that as a as in being influenced by the Christian juggernaut? [00:28:52][40.1]

[00:28:53] Oh, absolutely, absolutely within the American Jewish community. Monica was in an effort to fight back against this overwhelming Christian juggernaut. Hanukkah was a originally Hanukkah was a fairly minor celebration. It was definitely on the Jewish calendar, but not a great deal was made of it until a significant Jewish community came to America. And, yeah, they had to. What do we do? Our our kids are are embracing all of this stuff about Santa Claus. How do we respond? And so Hanukkah fell around about the same time of the year and the cultural importance of the holiday was greatly expanded. [00:29:39][45.7]

[00:29:40] The the commercial aspect of it was greatly expanded. The Hanukkah there was a tradition of giving children little gifts for Hanukkah. But the tradition of Hanukkah gift giving and especially the emphasis on eight days of Hanukkah gift giving just kept expanding because it was a way it was a way to fight back against the influence of Christmas, though. Absolutely. Hanukkah is what it is today in America because it was a response to Christmas. Yeah, absolutely. The American Jewish community, early 20th century felt they were in a life or death battle or the loyalty of their children. [00:30:26][46.1]

[00:30:27] Yeah. Against this cultural juggernaut of the Christian Christmas. [00:30:30][3.0]

[00:30:31] Oh, yeah. How are you going to possibly fight a kid asking you how come my neighbor, the Christian neighbor, got a bike for Christmas and all kinds of other loot and I got latkes or whatever? [00:30:44][12.8]

[00:30:45] Exactly, exactly. And there’s it’s interesting. This is another one of these cases where the exception proves the rule, because there were a very small number of communities, mostly Christian communities, that did successfully resist Christmas and still do to this day. [00:31:03][17.8]

[00:31:04] Seventh Day Adventists don’t celebrate the holiday and they haven’t taken the Hanukkah stratagem. They’re very open about teaching their children what Christmas is and why they think it’s wrong and extra biblical and why it’s a good thing that we don’t do it. [00:31:24][20.1]

[00:31:25] And that is when the book came out in nineteen ninety three, there were still a lot of local TV shows and Buffalo and Cleveland and I did a whole mess of those. And for some reason, there are a couple of Adventist colleges that we’re putting out a lot of radio and television majors back then. So whenever I would do one of these local shows, several of the camera people, the stage manager, what have you, would be Adventists, and they’d come up to me afterwards. And I never heard one of them saying, oh, I used to be Adventist and I gave it up. And now I really hate that I didn’t have Christmas when I was a kid. They didn’t feel deprived. They were OK with it. [00:32:09][43.2]

[00:32:10] And some of them grew up and changed their religion and started celebrating Christmas, and we’re cool with that, but I had so many of them come glomming on to me because I was a non Adventist who had the holiday. And you didn’t hear the angst that you would think you have. These kids did not grow up feeling deprived. [00:32:34][23.5]

[00:32:35] So I guess the the moral of that story is if parents and communities are transparent and sincere about not wanting to do Christmas, the children don’t necessarily burn the house down. This is this might be something interesting for sociologists to explore in greater length. [00:32:55][19.9]

[00:32:56] Are there any other areas where it’s a less typical ways to start here? [00:33:04][7.5]

[00:33:04] Well, a lot of it. [00:33:05][1.2]

[00:33:06] And this this, of course, comes from multiple traditions. Of course, Christmas Christmas was positioned where it was on the calendar because that was where the Romans had their great celebration, which was sun based and tied to the winter solstice. And even today, there are countless alternative traditions that are tied to the winter solstice. And the idea that the days have been getting shorter and they’re going to get the lighter. And although the the worst of winter is still ahead of us, we’ll know that the days are getting longer. So we know there’s better things ahead. There is even in recent years, there’s been a humanist tradition called human light that’s based on the solstice that I’ve never been terribly attached to that. [00:33:56][49.3]

[00:33:57] And for one thing, the solstice made a lot more sense. [00:34:03][5.4]

[00:34:03] I think that a lot more resonance for ancient peoples who were more tied to the Earth and more directly influenced by what was going on outdoors. We have we have cars, we have homes. We have central heating. The fact that it’s getting a little chillier isn’t that big a deal is blessed with climate change, is getting less chilly every year. But to me, for me, for atheists or humanists who make a big deal out of the winter solstice. [00:34:33][30.1]

[00:34:36] It’s kind of. [00:34:36][0.9]

[00:34:38] Undignified, I mean, we know how the solar system works, we know why the days get daughter and why they’ll get longer, we have central heating. Why are we making a big deal out of it? So, yes, some people in the community make a great big deal of the solstice, as do a lot of others. Me, I don’t see it. It seems it seems like yesterday’s news to me. [00:35:03][25.4]

[00:35:04] Well, it’s I think a lot of it is that people left these decisions and they’re they’re pining after some sort of. [00:35:14][9.6]

[00:35:15] Party to go to or something to celebrate on these darker, colder days, so you look at that as being just imitative of these more ancient ideas. [00:35:29][13.8]

[00:35:32] Well, yeah, yeah, I think in the sense that that that my way of thinking made a lot more sense when people spent more of their time living outdoors, when we had fewer technologies to resist the elements, what have you. [00:35:48][15.9]

[00:35:48] It just it it doesn’t seem like it ought to be that immediate a concern that would spark so much attention and so much celebration now. [00:35:57][9.8]

[00:35:58] Plus, big difference. A thousand years ago, people didn’t know why the days were getting shorter or why they would get longer. [00:36:07][9.3]

[00:36:09] There were there were religious traditions that claimed that you had to have certain rituals and eat certain foods and get together and sing certain songs to give the sun strength. Or this year, the days might never stop getting shorter. [00:36:24][15.3]

[00:36:26] That’s not going to happen. So what’s the point? [00:36:29][3.3]

[00:36:30] Well, they they knew they needed to control holiday and not do it one year to see if the sun, in fact, would not start making the days longer. I don’t think they ever did an experiment, did they? [00:36:44][13.7]

[00:36:44] I don’t think they ever did the experiment. But twenty, twenty is our chance. [00:36:48][3.7]

[00:36:49] All that sort of brings us around to I always call it the alleged war on Christmas. Is is is the war on Christmas Day something that Fox News manufactured or is there something to this? How do you look at that whole idea? [00:37:07][17.8]

[00:37:08] Well, I have two things to say about that. First, Fox News didn’t invent the war on Christmas. [00:37:12][4.1]

[00:37:12] I did. And I wrote a guidebook book in nineteen ninety three. [00:37:16][3.6]

[00:37:17] Now, what Fox News started doing a few years after that is is basically bunk. There’s no left wing conspiracy to force people to say happy holidays instead of Merry Christmas. And of course, I have my own viewpoint on that. I tend to say, well, what about the people who aren’t celebrating any holiday this year? If you go around yelling Happy Holidays, you’re really marginalizing the people who don’t celebrate anything this time of year. And there are communities that do that. And there’s a growing number of nonreligious people who don’t have a holiday to be happy about this time of year. So even the Fox News people are all up in arms about happy holidays. [00:37:59][41.9]

[00:37:59] But if you’re talking about being genuinely inclusive, even happy holidays doesn’t go far enough. [00:38:04][5.1]

[00:38:06] But it’s all academic because there is no organized war on Christmas. [00:38:10][4.7]

[00:38:11] Well, OK. But still, people are celebrating it and they say Merry Christmas. Now, it seems more pointedly when someone says Merry Christmas, it’s like they’re almost making a point of it now. But I mean, what goes through your head? How do you how do you react to that? [00:38:29][17.9]

[00:38:30] Well, I whenever anybody wishes me Merry Christmas, I just tell them I’m happy to use them every day. [00:38:35][4.8]

[00:38:36] But that I don’t, you know. [00:38:37][1.4]

[00:38:38] I’ve developed a thick skin, I mean, I’ve been I’ve been resistant Christmas professionally for almost 40 years. So it’s, you know, nothing much is going to get under my skin. But, yeah, it can be this can be something that is pretty oppressive power for people who genuinely don’t celebrate the holiday or celebrate some other holiday and feel vulnerable up about it if they belong to a marginalized group, for example. So, yes, the the Fox News viewing right wing American saying Merry Christmas is a lot like some other Fox News viewer ripping off his mask and saying, I’m going to breathe on you. It does come out of the same place. [00:39:24][45.8]

[00:39:25] And it’s it’s you know, it’s bigoted. [00:39:28][3.2]

[00:39:28] It’s very regrettable. And I think as a as a society, we need to outgrow that. But I think we have a more pressing need this year to outgrow this vaccine, skepticism and covid denial stuff that’s that’s bigger than Christmas that’s going to kill people. Of course, this year, Christmas is probably going to kill people. The same pressures to bring family groups together who have been living in separate households. And it’s it’s a suicide. [00:40:02][33.9]

[00:40:03] It’s damned stupid. And we can’t have it this year. [00:40:06][3.1]

[00:40:08] Are you OK with this notion of equal time and equal display in the town square, our you know, our mutual friend Margaret Downey puts up a tree of knowledge in her area and even even the Satanists put up their. [00:40:24][16.1]

[00:40:28] You got to love the church, you’re saying they have. One of you know, I would rather you know, it’s not realistic right now, certainly not with the current traditional understanding of the establishment clause, I would rather see nothing in the public square at this time of year. But being realistic. You know, when you’ve got groups like the Church of Satan who can come out there and say, well, if you’re going to insist on making your manger 14 feet tall, then we have this statue of Baphomet and we’ve got court precedence. The saying we can make you let us put that up, more power to the whatever whatever works to blunt what would otherwise be this kind of unthinking imposition of compulsory Christmas. And there are still plenty of American Christians who would love to do that and would love to do it because they think it’s their way of striking back against the war on Christmas. [00:41:33][65.2]

[00:41:34] Well, I mean, we’ve had some success out here. [00:41:36][2.2]

[00:41:36] I remember one year attending a town council meeting and seeing where they were about putting a bunch of classes. It was something really Christian on their light poles or the holidays. [00:41:53][17.0]

[00:41:54] And I spoke out at the public forum and said, can you put up candy canes or Frosty the Snowman or something like me, even though it’s L.A., you know. But can’t you put up something? [00:42:11][16.9]

[00:42:13] You do have a diverse community here. And something explicitly Christian doesn’t seem right. And they were pretty cool with that. They said, yeah, we can we can run with that. [00:42:26][12.7]

[00:42:28] Well, I think one of one of the things we’ve got to keep in mind, yes, the judicial system, the judicial review is incredibly hostile to a church state separation activism right now. [00:42:41][13.4]

[00:42:42] But even as that happens, yes, the country is becoming enormously more diverse in various non Christian religious groups that are growing very rapidly. And then you have the phenomenal growth of the religiously uncommitted community, the so-called nones, and they’ve gone from less than five percent of the population in the late nineteen eighties to thirty four percent today. Among among young people today, among twenty one and under nearly 50 percent tell pollsters that they have no religious preference. So it’s going to be fascinating to see how these sorts of conflicts over religion on public spaces that holiday time play out, because while the judicial situation is very much skewed toward imposing Christianity in a way we haven’t seen since the 1940s, the demography of the country is hugely different. And of course, we non-religious have a tendency not to organize very well. There’s all these stereotypes about herding cats with atheists and humanists and what have you. But when there are just so darn many of us. [00:44:06][83.9]

[00:44:07] Yeah, some some way that’s got to form a break against this otherwise tendency on the right to go back to the good old days with a Christian only interpretation of Christmas. [00:44:20][13.4]

[00:44:21] Tom, thank you so much for your point of inquiry every Christmas day. I think about you. [00:44:27][6.5]

[00:44:28] Well, Jim, happy just another day. Thanks so much for having me on. [00:44:32][3.7]

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Jim Underdown

Jim Underdown

Jim Underdown is executive director of Center for Inquiry–Los Angeles, and the founder of the Independent Investigations Group.