A Secular Appreciation of Christmas (for Gay Men and Others)
Conflicted About Christmas
The holiday season is many things for many people, because as a world culture, it’s the time of year when the peoples of many (but not all) nations unite around symbols, customs, and rituals that reflect observance of Christmas, in areas of the world that used to be called somewhat quaintly “Christendom”, or nations where Christianity is practiced as the dominant religion.
In addition to the season’s religious significance, it’s also a festive time of year that marks a new calendar year (although this is not the only world calendar). For Americans, the season is also rife with extremes of emotions – often celebratory, but in my role as a psychotherapist, I also see the other side of it, when emotions can include loneliness, frustration, and depression. For gay men like me (I’ve been a therapist who specializes in affirmative therapy for gay men and gay male couples for 24 years; see www.GayTherapyLA.com), it can also be a mixed time of year as we negotiate the season from the perspective of our Families of Origin, and also our Families of Choice – meaning other LGBT people (and our allies) who form our everyday social relationships, either in addition to – or in place of – the Family of Origin where we were raised.
Holidays that are primarily religious in nature can be times when gay men feel conflicted. We are products of our families of origin, which are often (but not always) led by heterosexual couples, and there are times when we are celebrating such holidays with our parents, siblings, and others, perhaps with an emphasis more on family events than the religious aspect itself. Gay men frequently are found to have a rather tenuous relationship with religious holidays because we have a tenuous relationship with religion itself, because certainly in the United States but also in many other countries, many religions (but particularly Islam and Christianity) literally have blood on their collective hands for the atrocities committed in the name of such religions against LGBT people, ranging from the denial of equal legal civil rights in government, to the encouragement or endorsement of job, housing, or public accommodation discrimination, to the “turn a blind eye” toward outright violent hate crimes, to government-sanctioned murder of LGBT citizens. Given the enormous global frequency of such instances, it can be no wonder that gay men learn to approach all things religious with caution and a reasonable, guarded suspicion toward religious institutions and to the holidays they endorse. Christmas is no exception.
Where the Religious Meets the Cultural/Social
In the United States, and where I am in a large, urban, progressive area like Los Angeles (and more specifically, the famously gay-affirmative City of West Hollywood), Christmas is not only “for” Christians celebrating the religious connotations of the birth of Jesus Christ, but it’s also a cultural holiday that gains at least some incidental observance from Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, and people of all faiths, or none. In general, people in Los Angeles are sensitive enough to say “Happy Holidays” not because of the “War of Christmas” narcissistic nonsense of aggressive and hostile “conservative Christians”, but from a much more positive and compassionate regard and respect for acknowledging the diversity of the religions (including none) of the people they encounter daily in the city, without taking the presumptuous and patriarchal stance of saying “Merry Christmas” when you don’t know if the person celebrates that as such. The phrase of “Happy Holidays” is not against anyone, but rather a social statement that respects the diversity of a pluralistic society like Los Angeles, home to people from hundreds of countries and countless languages. So it is this spirit of respect and celebration of diversity that creates the social climate of the season, and this can be found in other progressive, pluralistic geographic areas as well.
Since the religious and the social/cultural aspects of Christmas are intertwined, I got to thinking about how the non-religious can appreciate Christmas from a secular humanist point of view. Many histories go into the history of the observance of Christmas in great depth, but it’s safe to say that the current celebration as we know it has evolved in relatively recent history. The origins of images like Santa Claus can be traced to the late 19th Century, when the jolly chap we know today really got cultural traction. Some may disagree, but my thought about Santa Claus is that he represents a certain benevolent spirit of goodwill, generosity, and cooperation. He also reflects, in his legend, the age-old wisdom that humans have both a “nice” and “naughty” nature, and, like an omniscient God, Santa “sees all”. This examination of the duality of the Nature of Man can be seen in both the Santa Claus legend and in the more formal works of Swiss psychiatrist/author/theorist Carl Jung, who theorized that humans have a “shadow” side that we would do well to acknowledge, like the Eastern yin-yang symbol and concept. Even stories like Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” explore the nature of this duality of Man, as would our current spate of superhero movies that, like classical mythology, set up a duality of the hero versus villain, always in perennial conflict for some kind of control or domination – much like God and the Devil. But we tend to emphasize figures like Santa Claus as symbols of goodwill, that perhaps reflect the angels of the Bible heralding Christ’s birth with promises of a Savior who brings peace on earth, goodwill toward men. Our culture created Santa Claus to embody a sentiment that does – and should – permeate the season.
But goodwill toward men (I prefer “humankind”, to avoid patriarchal terminology and inherent sexism), is not limited to the Christian faith (much as some like to argue). On the contrary, for gay men, we in general tend to associate Christianity not with the “turn the other cheek” goodwill and infinite compassion of the (supposedly) original teachings of Jesus Christ, but instead feel the swift steel-toed boot kick in the ass that comes from modern conservative (Republican) politics, where major political figures, cloaked in euphemistic terms like “pro-family” or “(Christian) religious freedom” seek to strip American citizens of equal legal civil rights and protections under the Law and endorse outright social and legal oppression of LGBT citizens. Gay men and others from the LGBT community can be understood if they bristle, then, at the more religious aspects of Christmas, just as they reject (or at least apply critical thinking to) the entire religion of Christianity (the atrocities committed against human citizens from the world governments under Islam, especially toward LGBT humans, are a topic for another time, but still important).
Christmas Traditions and Gay Men
How, then, does Christmas remain “fun” for gay men? For some, despite the modern adulterations of the original basic Christian tenets such as profound compassion and forgiveness, they remain observant of their various denominations of a Christian faith, usually from their families of origin. For others, the religious observance of Christmas is de-emphasized, not necessarily in a hostile rejection (although this would be understandable from religious abuse victims/survivors, which basically means all gay men, some more than others – such as “reparative therapy” survivors) but in mere shift of attention and emphasis to the more cultural and social secular celebrations of Christmas – parties, gifts, conversations, sharing food (“breaking bread”, so to speak), drink, games, dancing, charity events, and even some athletic activities that are Christmas-themed), all of which contribute to a sense of gay community cohesion, celebration, mutual support, respect, and goodwill.
Christmas Traditions as Symbols
But beyond the social, there can be a secular humanist appreciation of Christmas not necessarily in a Christian or deist context, but an observance of certain concepts in Nature. In the Pagan spiritual traditions, such as Wicca, the time around Christmas coincides with the northern hemisphere’s Winter Equinox, when night and day have “equal time”, but then after a certain date each year in December, the days begin to get longer, until we have the sunny skies at 8 p.m. that we have by summertime. Many historians note how early Christianity “piggybacked” or “commandeered” the Pagan festive of Yule, already a time of social and cultural celebration, to coincide (and eventually eclipse) Yule in favor of Christmas. Some Pagan traditions such as the “Yule log”, a large log that burns a long time, representing light in the context of some of the darkest days of year, continue. Even the Christmas tree, a pine tree, has its properties of staying evergreen, at a time of year in winter when most trees are brown and barren. In the Pagan story, the God (represented by the Sun and gold) impregnates the Goddess (represented by the Moon and silver) in early Fall, who then gives birth to the new Sun all over again at Yule. Therefore, even Nature underscores the celebration of the “coming of the light”, where the “Birth of the Sun” becomes…the birth of the “Son”. In this way, the natural and the cultural are intertwined.
Are concepts like peace on earth, goodwill toward (humankind), love your neighbor, sacrifice to others, and practicing compassion (even when we don’t really want to) limited to Christianity? Of course not. The dominant world paradigm of Christian dogma, in its own narcissistic and self-righteous “superior” way, would have us believe so, up to and including eternal damnation in the fires of Hell if we don’t “believe” as they do, but it would be immature and short-sighted to say that that qualities of the better nature of humankind are limited to only one world dogma. So, therefore, can the qualities of the better nature of Man be celebrated not only by non-Christians, but even by people of other religions, or no religion at all, by Secular Humanists? Of course.
Take any Christmas tradition, such as gift-giving. We exchange gifts to reflect the biblical lore of the “three wise kings” who visited the Christ child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (the equivalent today of a Rolex, Chanel No. 5, and black truffles – although what a baby would do with those even today is beyond me). The story reflects how “even kings”, figures of great power and world influence, still deferred with respect to the anointed one, even as a newborn infant. The gift is a symbolic representation of how we humbly express affection, respect, validation, and honor to those we love. You don’t have to literally believe that in the history of our world, a human woman was impregnated by a god-like spirit to deliver a half-man, half-god being to “get” the concept of why the exchange of gifts can have profound cultural meaning appealing to our better natures.
Take the Christmas tree. By decorating an evergreen, we are expressing hope that while the trees outside can often look dry, bare, and brown, we respect Nature enough to know that Spring is coming. No matter what hardship we face, we have faith and hope that the world goes ‘round, and continues its endless circles around the Sun, and that our hardships are very likely to find resolution, given a change of season. The ornaments of the tree are symbolic (Carl Jung was big into symbols) of the history and nature of our lives – our cultural interests, travels, family heirlooms, gifts from people we knew, even cultural celebrations (I have lots of Hallmark “Wizard of Oz” and “superhero”-themed ornaments; my husband has a collection of laser-cut brass ornaments, that were annual gifts from his cherished, late great-aunt). Many would argue that the natural beauty of an evergreen tree is celebration enough, but perhaps our decorating the tree with ornaments represents the interaction of Man with Nature. Nature gives us the miracle of the evergreen tree, and Man adorns (burdens?) it with plastic and metal gobs just to show Nature who’s boss. But Nature has the last word, for maybe we don’t get picked up, dry and shorn, out at the curb later, but we do ultimately get buried into the same cold ground the tree grew from, or burned down into essence like the candles that illuminated Christmas trees historically.
The Christmas wreath represents the Circle of Life, which also reflects the story of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, over and over, like the seasons of Nature through the year, or like the succeeding generations. Even Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” (“Scrooge”) story is an analogy of the birth, “death” (of the miser),and rebirth (as a generous, kind individual – in this case, visited by the three ghosts of Past, Present, and Future; Christians would read this as the “born again” nature of embracing that faith). The 1946 movie classic, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” represents the birth, “death” (seeing his life if he had never been born, with the help of a heavenly “guardian angel”), and “rebirth” (learning to “live again”, as the character implores of God in the last scenes) of James Stewart’s “George Bailey” hero. Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is yet another death/rebirth tale, where in that case the transformation is realizing that people can have joy and celebration internally, even if externally there isn’t much seen to be joyous about. It is interesting to note that in each of these stories, the actual circumstances of Ebeneezer or George or Grinch do not actually change; they “awaken” with the same circumstances they were in before, but what has profoundly changed is their perspective of the current situation as a result of self-reflection and re-interpretation of the circumstances’ meaning. For a psychotherapist like me, this reflects the intervention of “cognitive re-framing”, where we might help a client to see a situation from a different point of view that allows for less distress, more empowerment, and enhanced self-efficacy to face life’s challenges head-on and resolve problems. (For more on the universality of the concept of “resurrection” and “rebirth”, see my previous article, “A Secular Appreciation of Easter”.)
Other Christmas stories like O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” vaguely reflect a Christian tenet of self-sacrifice in the name of love, where young lovers give up a thing they cherish in order to afford to give a gift to each other. The Christmas “myth” (although my use of that word is controversial) yields endless material for other symbolic stories that represent death and rebirth, including “Frosty the Snowman” (who melts (“dies”) and is reborn with a magic hat, which really represents the love of a child to a cherished friend), or “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (which, as written in the 1964 Rankin-Bass television special, is a celebration of diversity and a lesson to appreciate those who are “different”, a story that has become somewhat anthemic for the LGBT community!).
A Spirit That is Evergreen
Although it has tragically been lost in modern times, where “Christian” too often has been hijacked by those espousing Right-wing politics (which many would argue, in its miserliness, superiority, idolatry of money, and lack of compassion, represents nothing of “true” Christian values), the messages of Christmas would do well to expand beyond the “come, all ye faithful” and extend to all peoples, cultures, and faiths of the world, including those who espouse a different religion, or no religious dogma at all, but instead emphasize a secular stance of compassion toward all, free of any ecumenical content. Despite those who would violently rage otherwise, it is possible – even desirable. The qualities of the better nature of Humankind that we evoke and celebrate one time of year would do well to be “held dear in the heart” (as Dickens said), year-round.
(Ken Howard, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) in California who has specialized in helping gay men and gay male couples overcome setbacks, barriers, and losses for over 24 years. He is the founder and director of GayTherapyLA.com, and offers psychotherapy, counseling, and coaching in his office in Los Angeles (West Hollywood) and nationally/globally via phone or webcam. He is the author of the book, "Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!" and a popular speaker, in addition to serving as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, teaching courses in advanced clinical practice to graduate MSW students.)