Holidays without the Holy: A Guide to Secular Celebration


Hey there, psst.

I’m going to tell you something that probably will put off people in both religious/spiritual and non-theist circles.  I like Christmas.  I keep Easter Bunnies around.  Halloween is, as the kids say, totes awesome.

Despite being a free thinker and atheist, I celebrate holidays.  And I’m not about to stop.  I was raised Roman Catholic, although the Church was in a softer mood than now.  So I lucked out in many ways, having more or less secular holidays as a kid (It also explains my bias in this post). 

However, I’m not alone here – marking the passing of seasons is a common human thing.  I’d hazard a guess and say this impulse is “universal”, but I’d need to check with an anthropologist, and I just don’t have the scratch to keep one on retainer.

Now, clearly I don’t do certain tenants of my culture, like keeping at least a partial foothold on religion.  But I do retain some connection to the holidays that mark passage of time.  It’s sentiment, largely, but I like my tree, my wreaths, and my jack’o’lanterns.  Little known fact: many atheists do indeed have soft, spongy centers, and we like warm-fuzzy times with family or friends.  We just do it a little differently. 

Now that October is upon us, and all manner of celebrations are coming round the bend, I’m glad to share some broad pointers on turning a skeptical but warm eye on holiday celebrations. 

These did me a world of good, and I suspect that they may do so for you, too. When it comes down to it, these ideas work for anyone, religious or not.  A little brainpower goes a long way into making life more meaningful and enjoyable!

Decide what is really important about the holiday

Holiday planning is something akin to cleaning a house.  Both activities require work and decision making.  If you try to keep too much in your house – or holiday – you run the risk of enjoying it less because you are more concerned with tangibles.  I was in the position years ago to say “I value X tradition and I’m keeping it” and “I never liked Y, ‘why’ am I doing it?!”  (yuk-yuk). 

This is a pretty privileged place to be in, and I understand not everyone can jettison everything about a holiday they dislike.  But if you are able to pick and choose how you celebrate, do so.  Question what is assumed about a given holiday.   As much as you can, decide what is really important to you, and what may be quietly laid aside.

Learn its history

For me, freethinking and research are one.  You owe it to yourself to at least know about what you are rejecting, or supporting.  In terms of holidays, why not learn about them more?   Why just accept that observation of this feast, event, or whatever it may be “just is”?  At the very least, you’ll have learned something new, and that’s just a good thing for your brain.  At most, maybe this enriched understanding of the holiday can change how you approach it.  And you’ll be making that decision based on knowledge, rather than social pressure.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Ok, you have decided what you like about whatever holiday, you’ve decided on the traditions you’ll keep, what you’ll do to participate in it.  Then the rest may go.  Take Christmas as an example.  There is no law, liturgical or legal, that says that you must line up at a store 3:00AM.  There is no law that you have to spend a certain amount on gifts.  There is also no law declaring that you must buy for absolutely everyone you come in contact with.  But there’s a lot of pressure to, for fear of not appearing generous or “spirited” enough. 

Can I get a “Humbug”? 

This is simply baggage placed on the existing holiday!  So, my next piece of advice would be to start saying “no”.  Learning and owning that tiny, terrifying, exhilarating word is part and parcel to freethought.  It’s also a powerful tool around any major event, right down to holidays. 

Get people involved

Start talking about your holidays with family and friends, from broad cultural traditions down to family idiosyncrasies.  Why do you do what you do?  That’s one of the first and most powerful lenses to apply to anything.  Analysis doesn’t have to be cold, either!  If you look at something critically, it doesn’t mean you hate it, devalue it, or necessarily want to get rid of it!  This may be a little shocking to older members of the family (or not, your wise elderage may vary), but It can be helpful to talk about traditions with others whenever possible, rather than pondering alone. 


I know holidays are touchy territory for many people, religious or not.  And I’m aware of the inherent privilege I have in blithely saying  “oh, laa-dee-da, just don’t do the thing you’re not into, mm-kay?”  As with any list of tips, take this all with a grain of salt, and modify anything you like to better suit your situation.  And enjoy yourself, no matter how you do your thing!



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