In The Bleak Mid Winter

YuleI’m an atheist. No two ways about it. All religions are based on unsupported assertions about what is “true” and can’t stand up to even the most cursory logical questioning.

I’m more-or-less third generation atheist at least. My paternal grandfather, whom I can very vaguely remember as a mute presence in the corner when I was very, very young, was said to be a quiet non-believer in a small North Irish village. Because sectarianism had caused people with Catholic and Protestant identities to separate into different areas, the narrow-minded of the time might have thought of my grandfather as a “Protestant Atheist”.

In fact, I’m told that the only Catholic family in the village were the next-door neighbours who ran the small village shop. Apart from the inevitable weddings and funerals, there was only one time when my grandfather would go to church. Every Christmas Eve, he accompanied his neighbours to Midnight Mass in the area’s only Catholic church. He didn’t believe in anything, but he liked the ceremony, and he liked that it was customary to share a glass of whisky, or several, afterwards.

So, Merry Christmas. When I was young, I made an effort to avoid the word “Christmas” for its religious implications. If anything, I’d deliberately refer to the pre-Christian names, say Saturnalia or Yule, to emphasise that Christians had merely appropriated a much older tradition of mid-Winter celebration.

But as I gained more maturity, I came to care less. Call it Christmas, call it Hanukkah or Dōngzhì; or Winterval if you must. As Frank Zappa said, it’s only words. It’s a very human impulse to cling tighter together in the cold and dark of mid-Winter, to re-affirm our family links, and to cherish the ones we love. Do it.


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