Navigating Christmas as a non-Christian person

Students and faculty discuss how Christmas is becoming a secular celebration.


Nick Cipolla didn’t celebrate Christmas growing up. He describes himself as a “nontheist” because of negative connotations surrounding atheism, the disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God. 

While 90 percent of Americans and 95 percent of Christians celebrate Christmas, only 46 percent say they celebrate Christmas primarily as a religious holiday rather than a cultural holiday, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. 

Cipolla, a senior English major, who grew up with a mother who is Jewish and a father who is atheist spends the holiday with his girlfriend and her family in college.

“We mostly just go because I like her family and we like to hang out,” he added. “My dad doesn’t feel like I’m abandoning him if I go to somebody else’s holiday because he doesn’t care one way or another.”

Celebrating Christmas in a more secular manner allows more people to participate in activities, instead of feeling excluded, Cipolla said.

“At its core, every holiday is just being with people that you like,” he added. “Either exchanging gifts [or] eating, I think that’s a very common human experience.”

Gayle O’Rourke, a senior English major, is agnostic, the view that the existence of God divine is unknown or unknowable, according to Merriam-Webster. She said she still celebrates Christmas in a secular manner.

“It’s gotten to the point that you don’t necessarily have to be a strong believer in the religion to celebrate the holiday because of the other humanitarian and familial aspects of it,” she said.

Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez, an associate religion professor, said the ideas we associate with Christmas are a product of market culture, a type of corporate culture that emphasizes competitiveness not only between organizations and its market competitors, but also between employees.

“The holidays have religious significance for religious communities, of course, but I think as we understand them, they’ve never been particularly religious to begin with,” Alvarez said.

The origins of Christmas come from indigenous and pagan religious traditions marking winter time, predating Christianity, Alvarez said. 

“Those celebrations were Christianized in order for them to continue to be significant cultural events for those communities but be incorporated into the dominant religion,” she added. “Christmas doesn’t really come out of Christianity so much as it comes out of the process of Christianizing other religious rituals.”

Of the 10 United States federal holidays, Christmas is the only one associated with a specific religion’s holy day — the birth of Christ, the Independent reported.

“Christianity is the majority religion in the U.S. and remains so,” Alvarez said. “I think it’s privileging European cultural traditions above other cultural traditions as well.”

Rebecca Alpert, a religion professor and the senior associate dean of academic affairs of the College of Liberal Arts, said in addition to atheists, people of other religious backgrounds might feel “overwhelmed” during the holiday season.

“It’s a fairly common feeling that they don’t quite belong because of the Christian origins, but when you really think about the way Christmas is celebrated, it’s celebrated much more like a holiday for capitalism,” Alpert said.

It can also be alienating for people who haven’t found their own traditions during the holiday season, Alpert said.

“I’m Jewish, and sometimes I find it a little alienating that everybody’s wishing me a ‘Merry Christmas’ and sometimes I really enjoy all the lights and festivities,” Alpert said. “It just kind of depends.”

Every year during the holiday season, Cipolla and his father order Chinese food, a tradition he said some atheist and Jewish people partake in.

“We don’t do it on Christmas because all the Chinese places are packed, so sometime that week, we have Chinese and we watch ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian,’” Cipolla said.

One year, Cipolla and his father participated in the secular tradition, Festivus. 

Celebrated on Dec. 23, Festivus, or the “Festival For the Rest of Us” was created in a 1997 episode of “Seinfeld,” in which George Costanza’s father decided he was staging a one-man war on Christmas, Time Magazine reported. The celebration is as an alternative to the pressures and commercialization surrounding Christmas.

Alpert said Festivus is her “favorite antidote to Christmas.”

“When ‘Seinfeld’ was popular, there were a lot of secular people and atheists sort of gravitating to the idea that they could name their own version of the holiday,” she added.

O’Rourke said she has many friends who are of different religious backgrounds that she spends the season with.

“We don’t all celebrate the same holidays, but around this time the same values are celebrated no matter whether you celebrate Christmas or not,” she said.

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