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An Atheist Christmas: 'You can do Christmas even if you don't do god'

Christmas was originally a mid-winter solstice festival, writes atheist Ray Leonard.

Image: Shutterstock/Sofiaworld

“WELL IF THAT’S your attitude,” my mother said, “You can get out of this house.”

My father looked dismayed but the front door closed behind me and I found myself on the dark driveway at about 11pm on Christmas Eve, clad in my festive jumper and no feckin’ coat.

It was cold but not raining as I stood bewildered by the rapidity and unfairness of it all. If I’d known that saying I was not going to midnight mass was going to lead to a fuller exposition of my disbelief – and its consequences – I might have kept sthum.

Not yet an atheist

I can’t remember if I called myself an atheist back then, I think that word was in my future. But my disdain for religion was more that a good Irish mother could bear. That, however, is hindsight speaking – I was as bloody-minded as her; too alike they always said.

I wandered the streets, travelling from seething to self-pity until nearly 1am when my Dad found me (after they’d all been to mass) and brought me home. Injuncted to silence I ate the sausage rolls and smoked salmon in the bosom of my family and under Mam’s burning glare. A most uneasy peace.

Time changes everything

That was more than 30 years ago now and the years have changed us all. My mother passed away suddenly just as we were about to reach détente. Ah well. My family and I, my long-suffering (Roman Catholic) spouse and two children, grown themselves now, all do Christmas in my dad’s house, for the company and the craic.

Of the extended family only my wife and my dad go to mass anymore, and the “gruesome twosome”, as my two are called, are atheists as well. The same front door slams on the same driveway as they head out to church and one or the other will call, tongue in cheek, “We’ll light a candle for ye, ye’ll be needing all the help ye can get.”

Later, I might get a bit of slagging for my maternally inherited and somewhat trenchant opinions, but as I do all the cooking for this great celebration of family, marking the turning of the year from darkness to light, I’ll remind them that I also deploy the wooden spoon and the wine.

It’s really just about family

The irony of it is that it was always about family, and midnight mass was merely a seasonal rite to mark the liminal passage into the day. We may as well have watched the Queen’s speech for all its consequence (that never happened by the way).

And so the day passes in a blur of food and heat, of drink and contentment. The religiosity is as relevant as its origins as a mid-winter solstice festival. It’s as relevant as knowing Thursday is named for Thor or Friday for Freya.

For all of us, the thoughtfully atheistic, the unconcernedly irreligious, the still observant, the purpose of the day is family. It is the case that one of us most likely will not be here next year.

So why argue about the irrelevant when there’s precious time being used up?

Ray Leonard retired 2 years ago after a bizarre and peripatetic journey through Irish law enforcement (Revenue, CAB, Ansbacher, Competition Authority and GSOC). Now dedicated to to querulous iconoclasm, achieving domestic godhood and making life a little easier for the LW after her years of forbearance. 

A date for the blasphemy referendum still hasn’t been decided on>

Is there any point putting ‘Jedi’ down as your religion on the census?>

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