It's the most horrible time of the year

atheistbook11The Associated Press' Patrick Condon has a story with a great headline -- "Atheists at Christmas: Eat, drink and be wary." It's all about how uncomfortable the Christmas season is for some avid non-believers and is a good follow-up to Eric Gorski's recent piece on atheist groups on college campuses. Here's how the Atheists at Christmas story begins:

Angie O'Neill recently moved into a new apartment complex for seniors and she's trying to make new friends. But Christmas is a tough time of year for an atheist.

"All the planned activities at this time of year revolve around the church," said O'Neill, a retiree and an atheist for decades.

O'Neill sought an escape this week, joining a group of her fellow nonbelievers for a weekly "Atheist Happy Hour" at a suburban Mexican restaurant. The group, Atheists for Human Rights, is active year-round but takes it up a notch this time of year with a Winter Solstice party, a charity drive and good attendance for the weekly gathering at Ol' Mexico.

For one thing, it's a chance to share coping techniques during this most religious time of year. They range from the simple, like warning about certain stores that blare religious Christmas songs, to tougher tasks like how to avoid certain topics with certain family members. These atheists describe adjusting some customs to make them their own, like Nancy Ruhland, a pharmacist who sends out Christmas cards to friends and loved ones -- but makes sure to find ones without a Christian message or subtext.

As someone who observes Advent during the time when most Americans are in a Christmas frenzy, I am conscious of what songs are being played and how difficult it can be to explain to friends and family that we aren't on the same calendar as they are. And I find it mildly distressing that everyone else stops celebrating Christmas on the day when we start celebrating it. And I always find these odd-men-out stories interesting. Will we get coverage of how holidays can be utterly depressing for people who don't have families or homes to go to? Yes, we will!

The story paints a picture of a certain type of atheist who is "quick to stress belief in the pagan roots" of Christmas. And many say they want to celebrate Christmas in a Pagan manner. For instance:

"Food, we like. Presents, we like. Seeing family, we like," said Val Woelfel of St. Paul, an aspiring archaeologist. Woelfel, 47, and her boyfriend, Bjorn Larsen, 32, planned to erect a tree in their living room: "Sacred trees are an ancient custom. It's pretty, it smells nice and it's pagan," Woelfel said.

Some of the atheist attitudes toward Christmas seem the result of well-practiced defense mechanisms. [Marie Elena Castle of Minneapolis, the 82-year-old founder of Atheists for Human Rights and an atheist activist for two decades,] for instance, gets just as irritated when people tell her "Merry Christmas" as some Christians do when people tell them "Happy Holidays." O'Neill, who declines to give her age, said she wished parents would tell their kids there is no God at the same time they pass along certain information about Santa Claus.

So they're the ones who don't like the greeting "Merry Christmas!" I kid. Anyway, the big question I had after reading this story was why these atheists felt more comfortable celebrating the holiday in a Pagan manner than in a Christian manner. (Yes, I capitalize Pagan -- the AP Stylebook jury is still out.) I mean, I know there are people who self-identify as Pagan Atheists, just as there are those who self-identify as Christian Atheists or Jewish Atheists. Usually that means that the individual rejects belief in God or the gods of the religion while following other tenets of the belief system. Is that what we're talking about in this story? Or what's the deal?

Also, I have, unfortunately, the mouth of a sailor. But still, I was a bit surprised to see the story devolve into the scatological. An atheist retiree who lives with his 92-year-old mother is quoted as saying she "believes in all that c--p."

Now, that "c--p" is the Christian church's celebration of the Incarnation of Christ, the belief that God took on human flesh. To Christians, this is one of the most profound mysteries and blessings of our religion. I don't doubt that the retiree believes it to be rubbish, but I wonder if this couldn't have been handled a bit more respectfully. Also, when did I become an old fuddy-duddy?

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