December 18, 2008

Should Atheists Sing Christmas Carols?

Considering the seriousness of the GWoC (Global War on Christmas) should atheists give aid and comfort to the enemy and sing Christmas carols? Is it giving aid and comfort to the enemy?

This year, I have only heard the "War on Christmas" refereed to ironically, which is a good thing. Of course, I could just be watching the wrong TV shows. My introductory paragraph is a nod to some of the overheated rhetoric of the War on Christmas folks. But I guess this is my "anti-War on Christmas" post for the year (or the week).

To the main question: What's up with atheists singing Christmas carols? Don't they know those songs are about Jesus?

My (atheist) family (and 60-or-so of our closest friends of various faiths) gather yearly to entertain the neighbors with our hoarse renditions of ancient carols. Clearly, I believe that it IS OK. The carols mean something different to me than they do to my Christian friends.

I celebrate the humanist aspect of the season. Peace on Earth and goodwill toward others is something we can all get behind. And when the savior pops up, I'm OK with him being a metaphor.

Does that seem strange, or just plain wrong? If someone writes a song with a certain meaning, shouldn't that meaning be the meaning of the song?

You'd be surprised.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an American of some Protestant denomination. For years, you've been singing O Come All Ye Faithful (aka. Adeste Fideles) to celebrate your feelings about Jesus and Christmas time. It might surprise you to find out that "O Come All Ye Faithful is actually a birth ode to Bonnie Prince Charlie" - a focus for Jacobite Catholic rebels who sought to seat a Catholic as the ruler of England. According to experts "King of Angels" is actually code (or a pun), with Angels meaning "Anglorum" or the English. Born the King of England. Other clues reveal the "Him" referred to in the song to be Charles Edward Stewart. (Bennet Zon's research paper on this subject is available on JSTOR "The Origin of Adeste Fideles" you can hear him talk about it in this brief piece which aired on BBC News Hour.)

Protestants who sing it today are likely not singing it as a call to arms for Catholics to unseat the throne of England. So, there is certainly precedent for people choosing a meaning for their carols which is in line with their beliefs.

I recognize that they are ignorant to the original meaning, and that the origins are shrouded in mystery, but ignorance of the original meaning does not give their singing additional significance. You either accept that the original meaning sticks, or you don't. To sing metaphorically and to deliberately imbue your song with personal meaning is part of the reason for singing. Clearly, today's Protestants are singing this carol about Jesus. I can sing the same carol and give it my own humanist meaning.

But why would I want to? There is nostalgia in these songs. We grew up with them. They comfort us (your mileage may vary). I am under no obligation to surrender that to a lack of religious belief.

There is too little joy in the world. So, sing in joy. Choose to sing for what makes you joyful. If Protestants can sing "Adeste Fideles" without irony, then atheists certainly can as well.

Conservative voices mutter aloud about the erosion of the true meaning of this and that. But what has true meaning done for you lately? I suggest that sincere and heartfelt meaning trumps a handed-down true meaning any day, especially if it brings us together. I want to sing with my Christian friends; we have more in common than we have differences.

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Posted by James at December 18, 2008 12:05 PM
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I'm with you, Dr. M. The radio is rife with stations playing candidates for This Christmas Song Must Die. But we went to a choir concert this weekend where the audience got to stand together and sing our favorite carols. I loved it. Standing together and singing these well-known carols can remind us of the best aspects of our humanity, our community, and our shared history.

Posted by: pam at December 18, 2008 12:31 PM

I think GWOC should be "Global War on Clamboils". I hate those things.

I remember living in Bahrain that everybody - Christian, Muslim, etc. - said "Merry Christmas" at Christmas time. We all said "Ramadan Kareem" at Ramadan. And we were always more than happy to recognize/support/help each other in observing said holy periods. I found it really heartwarming, even as I steadily lost most of my own faith.

So yes. If I (an "infidel") can be invited into a Muslim's home to dine during Ramadan, then atheists - anyone who wants to, in fact - can sure as Hell sing Christmas carols.

Posted by: Bull at December 18, 2008 12:51 PM

Dude, that's awesome. That's the way it should be.

& Pam, your comment is right on.

Posted by: James at December 18, 2008 1:05 PM

When it comes down to it, a huge number of people's favorite hymn tunes were originally drinking songs - churches added religious lyrics to tunes people already knew. That doesn't mean when I'm singing a hymn in church that I'm really worshiping a tankard of ale, or wishing I was drinking wine. Well, not usually anyway.

Posted by: mjfrombuffalo at December 18, 2008 3:41 PM

Quite honestly, I've always wondered if Evangelical Christians get a little peeved when they hear those johnny-come-lately Mormons and their Tabernacle Choir each and every Christmas...

Posted by: bigsam27 at December 19, 2008 3:05 AM

Can I appreciate the Sistine Chapel, or The Birth of Venus? Art is art. You can appreciate it and participate in it as an observer. If somebody else is singing the carols for religious reasons, that is part of their enjoyment, but I can certainly enjoy them as a quaint relic of an historical religious past.

Posted by: Maggie at December 19, 2008 10:25 AM

As an atheist, I worry that if I sing anything with religious content, I will be condemned to hell for blasphemy.

Not really.

I like lots of fiction and folklore. I like lots of the art that celebrates these things, too. Singing about Christmas doesn't strike me as any more improper than singing about some other fantastic tradition.

I realize that religious people don't see it that way, but I'll let them decide whether they want to retaliate by observing atheist traditions.

Posted by: Julie at December 19, 2008 10:52 AM

LOL, Julie!

Posted by: James at December 19, 2008 11:48 AM

As an atheist, I have no problem singing holiday songs. I really do like Christmas music, in it's wide varieties.

I am originally from Maryland, so this tolerance of Christmas music and it's b-tardization and multiple meanings comes somewhat naturally to me. Maryland's state song is "Maryland, My Maryland" which was written to the tune of "Oh, Tannenbaum" (See,_My_Maryland). AKA, "Oh, Christmas Tree". And, we all know where the whole Christmas Tree thing got its start ... or at least the popular legends surrounding it.

Christmas and Easter may sound like Christian holidays, but they were actually usurped pagan holidays acknowledging important seasonal changes. Halloween has multiple roots as well.

Part of the reason I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church was the open mindedness and the overall willingness to celebrate joyful occasions in whatever guise they took.

So Happy Whatever! Where's the Wassail?

Posted by: Kitten Herder at December 19, 2008 5:17 PM

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