“I really like Christmas. It’s sentimental, I know, but I just really like it.”
-Tim Minchin, White Wine in the Sun
Atheists aren’t my traditional go-to when it comes to Christmas, and with good reason. Consulting an atheist about Christmas is a little like consulting a nudist about fashion. They've heard of it, and they may even have friends who are into it. But it’s just not their thing.
I do make one exception. Self-avowed atheist Tim Minchin (also an accomplished Australian comedian, actor, and musician) wrote and recorded one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. And that song really hits home this year.
I’ll admit I’m not especially discerning when it comes to Christmas music. I'll listen to everything from religious carols to secular standards. The only songs I don’t much care for are those about having sex at Christmas, or more accurately, about not having sex on Christmas, which appears to be a problem of epidemic proportion among pop singers spanning generations.
Note: While I don't appreciate the “sexy Santa” genre, I’m inexplicably fond of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and I do mean the date-rape-y original. It’s horrible and cringey and I fully appreciate why it offends so many…but I just really like it.
Which is borrowing a phrase directly from Minchin’s song, which brings me back to the point at hand.
This Christmas will cap a spectacularly miserable year for many of us. I suppose there are some who will manage, despite all odds, to enjoy the holiday. Hurrah for them! But there will be a larger-than-usual number of us who feel depressed and anxious. Those who are tired, or sick, or missing loved ones. Those who’ve gained weight. Those who’ve lost faith.
This is our 2020 Christmas anthem. And here are just a few reasons why:
It has modest expectations.
Look, 2020 has already turned “lowering the bar” into an art form. If you’re concerned this holiday season won’t measure up to prior celebrations, Minchin’s lyrics will meet you right where you are. He isn’t expecting “big presents” or “a visit from Jesus.” I imagine some of my Christian friends might take offense to that idea: What’s the point of celebrating Christmas if you aren’t waiting for Christ? In response, I ask that you listen to any carol from the aforementioned Sexy Santa genre. If we're doling out points for reverence, this one goes to the atheist.
It’s full of humility.
It’s nice to be reminded that despite the talking heads on cable news and the blowhards on social media, there are still some human beings humble enough to admit they just don’t know. The key note of Minchin’s lyrics is intellectual humility. He offers a series of cynical observations about the commercialization of Christmas (most brilliant: that Jesus has been “press-ganged into selling PlayStations and beer”), but then follows each one of them with a sheepish and apologetic, “but…I still really like it.”
It’s the sort of thing human beings used to do in the old days: entertain two simultaneous and contradictory opinions, and wrestle in the frictional space between them. It’s a good and productive place to be. We’d do well to return to it.
It embraces the wait.
Minchin anticipates a cheerful reunion with his Australian family at Christmas. He imagines them waiting for his cross-continental arrival, and passing their time drinking white wine in the sun. It has to be the warmest, brightest, merriest Christmas image ever captured in words. This year, even as a global pandemic rages, I’m comforted by the idea that across continents and across towns (maybe even across the veil that separates the living from the dead), loved ones are collectively and selflessly waiting it out. The reunions will come, one day. But until then, we’ll raise our glasses and wait.
There’s a baby at the center of it all.
I won't ruin this moment for you. I’ll say only that the “jet-lagged infant daughter” wrecks me every time, in part because she recalls, to my mind, another infant at the center of another Christmas story. I’m not suggesting there’s an intentional (or unintentional) Christ-figure in Minchin’s lyrics; to do so would show blatant disrespect to his philosophy. I know only that the image of adoring adults passing around a baby “like a puppy at a primary school” is about as pure and reverential and awe-inspiring as any church lawn nativity I've ever seen. It lifts my spirit.
And that’s what I love most about my go-to atheist at Christmas, especially in this seemingly godforsaken year. He admits he’s “hardly religious,” but his words somehow reignite my own shaky faith. I suppose it has something to do with his unabashed confidence in the fundamental truth that “wherever we are and whatever we face,” there are people who love us and “make us feel safe in this world.”
That's what I want my family and friends to feel most this Christmas, of all Christmases. Well, that and maybe a little grateful that they took a few minutes to listen to Tim Minchin, the atheist, who really likes it.
And with good reason.