Christmas traditions don't need religion

Why Nietzsche and the church are both wrong

Christmas tree

Christmas is supposed to be a religious festival. And yet millions of people around the world who aren’t Christian or religious celebrate it. The church sees it as a sign of our decadent times, while Nietzsche saw it as evidence that religion still has its grip on the secular world. They are both wrong. Tradition and ritual are more important to us than religion. In a world that changes with ever-increasing speed, we need the repetition of rituals and traditions to give us a sense of identity and stability. Instead of lamenting the loss of connection with religion, we should celebrate the survival of these traditions whose contemporary meaning is quite independent of any original religious connotations, writes Alexis Papazoglou.

 

Most people that will be celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December are not practicing Christians. In the US, the percentage of the population that said it will be celebrating in some manner was 93% in 2019. Amongst those who said religion is not at all important to them, the percentage only dropped to 85%. [1]

There are those who lament the decoupling of Christmas from the observation of Christian religion, seeing it as a sign of our decadent times. The critique that what was once the sacred celebration of the birth of the son of God has been co-opted by consumerism is as old as Christmas carols, dating back to at least Oliver Cromwell. From the opposite direction, Nietzsche objected to the continuation of religious practices by those who identified as secular, seeing it as an unhealthy hangover from religion than needs getting rid of. But the human draw towards ritual, celebration, and the following of tradition transcends religion. The content and meaning of those traditions seem to matter less to us than the actual practices themselves. Instead of feeling uncomfortable about the decoupling of Christmas traditions from Christianity, or thinking that they should be abandoned altogether, along with religion, we should celebrate their survival in a world starved of ritual and seek more of them.  

The misguided lamentation of the loss of tradition

Chief Rabi Jonathan Sacks was one of the influential voices lamenting the loss of tradition: “A vision once guided us, one that we loosely call the Judaeo-Christian tradition … It did not answer all questions … But it gave us moral habits. It gave us a framework of virtue. It embodied ideals. It emphasized the value of institutions – the family, the school, the community – as vehicles through which one generation hands on its ideals to the next. In its broad outlines it was shared by rich and poor alike…That tradition has been comprehensively displaced.” [2]

But what this complaint fails to notice is that moral habits, the love of family, a reverence for institutions and community are not dependent on a Judaeo-Christian framework of thought. Those things existed long before these religions appeared and exist in many other cultures that practice other religions. Indeed, those values continue to live on in secular society, even if not with the absolute reverence that religious leaders would like.

Many of the traditions people practice during the Christmas season - bringing a tree into their home, decorating it with ornaments and placing gifts underneath it to exchange with their loved ones - have little to do with Christianity in the first place.

People make the same mistake when lamenting the decoupling of Christmas from Christianity. In fact, many of the traditions people practice during this season - bringing a tree into their home, decorating it with ornaments and placing gifts underneath it to exchange with their loved ones - have little to do with Christianity in the first place. Many of these are traditions stemming back to the pagan celebrations of Northern Europeans in connection with the winter solstice. Christianity simply adopted them and reinterpreted them as part of its own heritage.  Anthropologists and sociologists have also discovered that ritualistic gift exchange can be found across many different cultures and acts as a mechanism for enforcing social bonds. [3] What Sacks was right about, however, was the role that Enlightenment thought played in loosening the grip of religion and tradition on us, making it less something imposed and unquestionable, to something open to criticism and individual choice.[

The Enlightenment critique of tradition

Socrates can already be seen articulating philosophy’s inherent scepticism towards tradition.  If we are to believe Plato’s dialogues, part of what Socrates was doing when questioning his interlocutors in the Athenian agora about what virtue is, or what justice is, was questioning people’s adherence to custom and tradition. Instead, Socrates encouraged his interlocutors to see the faults in the received wisdom that was passed on to them (the ready answers they gave him) and think for themselves.

A central streak running through Enlightenment thought is a similar scepticism towards tradition and authority, and an encouragement to rely on our own reason instead. Kant’s famous definition of the Enlightenment encapsulates this attitude:

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!" -- that is the motto of enlightenment. [4]

This emphasis on the individual and the reliance on reason rather than external authority, be it the church or one’s cultural tradition, is seen by people like Sacks as responsible for our contemporary predicament of rampant individualism and moral relativism.

But the Enlightenment didn’t really end up leaving behind what Sacks refers to as the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in many ways it simply tried to give it a different foundation: human reason. Kant’s morality ends up being all too similar to that of Christianity, and Hegel, another fervent supporter of the Enlightenment, offered a rationalist justification of the institutions of the modern Prussian state. So while the Enlightenment sought justifications for the practices and values inherited by the Judeo-Christian tradition, it did not do away with them – it simply tried to ground them in something other than mere tradition or a belief in God.

What Nietzsche would say to those who continue to celebrate Christmas today, even though they claim to be non-religious or even to be atheists, would be that they are worshipping the shadow of a dead God.

Nietzsche’s critique of our religious hangover

Nietzsche was suspicious of the Enlightenment project for that very reason. He saw Kant’s philosophy in particular, and his appeal to reason, simply as an attempt to prolong the life of Christian morality by rationalizing it post-hoc, even as the metaphysics on which it relied on was crumbling. In book three of the Gay Science, Nietzsche opens with an image that captures much of his attitude towards religion’s survival, even after the death of God:

New Battles – After Buddha was dead, they still showed his shadow in a cave for centuries – a tremendous and gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which they show his shadow. – And we – we must still defeat his shadow as well! [5]

What Nietzsche would say to those who continue to celebrate Christmas today, even though they claim to be non-religious or even to be atheists, would be that they are worshipping the shadow of a dead God.  They are still suffering from the hangover of the death of God, pretending that they can continue as before, celebrating the birth of his son Jesus, even though they no longer believe in either. In a strange way, Nietzsche agrees with the religious leaders who lament the secularisation of Christmas: once religious faith has lapsed, the continuation of the religious traditions is meaningless, or even a kind of sickness. Only Nietzsche prefers a different remedy – the complete severance from our Christian past, doing away not only with empty rituals, but with the moral code that we inherited from Christianity.

A defence of tradition’s independence from religion

Both Nietzsche’s as well as Sack’s critique of the decoupling between religion and tradition share a common assumption: that religion births tradition. That tradition is somehow derivative from religion, and therefore is untenable without it.  I think that assumption is wrong.

To begin with, there are many traditions that aren’t connected to religion at all. In the US Thanksgiving is as powerful a tradition as any, binding the nation together in a myth about its origin, and observed across the country, including some very similar trappings with Christmas: a national holiday, big family gatherings and a feast involving a large bird. In the UK, the workings of parliament are steeped in tradition, with pageantry and ritual fit for the Pope. 

Traditions give us a sense of identity, connecting us to our past, and offering a framework through which to interpret our lives and the passage of time.

Traditions also don’t have to be communal to this extent. Family traditions, little rituals and practices that individual families observe as a way of passing down to other generations a sense of identity and continuation, are free from any religious meaning. They can also be totally arbitrary, like cooking a certain meal on certain days of the week, going to a particular restaurant for celebrating special occasions, or having a family photo taken on the same day each year.

Traditions give us a sense of identity, connecting us to our past, and offering a framework through which to interpret our lives and the passage of time. What’s important about them seems to be repetition, the same thing happening on the same day each year or each month, or each week. This repeating offers us a sense of stability in a world that keeps changing at an ever-faster pace, but also a chance to check in with ourselves and our loved ones.

The philosopher Alistair McIntire also points out that our sense of identity is intimately tied with the traditions we inherit and pass down: “What I am … is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to some degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition.”[v] Once again though, this link of identity with tradition does not have to come with any religious baggage – the two can exist quite apart from one another.

Among the many things the pandemic made clear is how much we crave rituals and traditions like those associated with Christmas, and how upsetting and disorienting it can be when they are disrupted. And while it’s true that many of our Western traditions have religious origins, their contemporary meaning has been transformed.  Just as Christianity adopted pagan traditions and incorporated them into its own story, non-believers today can do the same. What matters to many of us is the continuation of practices and rituals we have inherited, rather than their original meaning.

What is also true, however, is that the secular world hasn’t been able to create its own traditions and rituals to replace the ones that have failed to be transformed, shedding their religious connotations (say going to church once a week). Perhaps one of the reasons for that is the misplaced belief that tradition is intimately linked to religion and needs it in order to give it meaning. But as I’ve argued that belief is mistaken. Tradition and ritual transcend religion, they can exist quite happily without it and have no need for religion to provide them with meaning. Their significance lies in their very existence: the sense identity, belonging and framework for dealing with change and the passage of time that their repetition offers us.



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References

[1] https://news.gallup.com/poll/272357/percentage-americans-celebrate-christmas.aspx

[2] Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Hope (London: Jonathan Cape 1997)

[3] https://theconversation.com/an-anthropologist-explains-why-we-love-holiday-rituals-and-traditions-88462

[4] Immanuel Kant, What is Enightenment? http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, book 3

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king ali 3 January 2022

Thanks for the great update and sharing with us new ideas

Roy Frank 23 December 2021

It's a site I visit often. you're great, man, go ahead.