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Why philosophers should celebrate Christmas

By Charles Foster

Christmas comes but once a year. But that is no reason to let down your philosophical guard. Here are four reasons why it might be philosophically justifiable to celebrate Christmas.
1. Pascal’s Wager
The Christian contentions might be true. You never know. It’s best to be on the safe side.
2. Enjoyment is good
Assume for the sake of argument that the celebration of Christmas (by which I mean the over-consumption of poultry and alcohol, the decoration and illumination of conifers, the forging of letters in Old Icelandic from non-existent bearded burglars, the creation of reindeer footprints in the mud, and the observation of children trying to hide their disappointment) is enjoyable in the sense that it produces a feeling of well-being greater than that which would pertain did it not occur. Then it can coherently be said, relying on lines of argument articulated by the Epicureans and adopted by everyone in the world apart (ironically) from religious extremists, that Christmas, being a net pleasure-giver, is a good, and therefore at least justifiable, if not mandatory.
3. Non-enjoyment is less analytically satisfactory than enjoyment
The argument in (2) above will be too strong for some. They will object that I am illegitimately deriving a normative statement (‘the celebration of Christmas is good’) from observations about the way the world is (for instance the sensation that mince pies produce in a bundle of neurones). But even those who will not accept that enjoyment is normatively good will be slow to argue that pain (or un-pleasure) is better than pleasure. Accordingly if Christmas gives subjective pleasure, then, even if to enjoy pleasure and act as if you think it is a good means that, philosophically, you are risking a plunge into the is-ought gap as vertiginous as Santa’s descent into a Christmas chimney, it is slightly more justifiable to celebrate Christmas than not to celebrate it.
4. Communitarianism
Regardless of its theological or metaphysical roots, lots of people, whether with sufficient analytic rigour or not, do celebrate it. To join them in doing so generates a solidarity with them – a social adhesive – which is a good in itself.

So: a rigorously happy and a happily rigorous Christmas to all. Or at least one that doesn’t offend any arguably correct principle.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. Quod Nimis Probat, Nihil Probat
    Philosophers should thus not waste a single opportunity to celebrate any religious festival (or, perhaps, any opportunity at all).  And there's no reason why non-philosophers should do any different.
    Season's greetings!

  2. Dear Professor Foster,

    Greetings from Middle Europe. The Czech Republic, more precisely, where the nation is currently mourning the passing of Vaclav Havel, known for his great commitment to practical ethics. As a secondary school teacher whose courses include ethics, I appreciate your writings, which I've recently come across online. I look forward to sharing some of them with my students in the coming year. I've just read your short entry on why philosophers should celebrate Christmas, and while I suspect the tone is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I think we ought to give some consideration to the truth as well.

    Was Jesus Born on December 25? According to tradition, Jesus’ birth took place on December 25 and is celebrated on that date. “Christmas,” says the Encyclopedia of Religion, means “‘Christ’s Mass,’ that is, the mass celebrating the feast of Christ’s nativity,” or birth. What are the roots of the custom? “The establishment of December 25 evolved not from biblical precedent,” says The Christmas Encyclopedia, “but from pagan Roman festivals held at year’s end,” about the time of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Those festivals included the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, god of agriculture, “and the combined festivals of two sun gods, the Roman Sol and the Persian Mithra,” says the same encyclopedia. Both birthdays were celebrated on December 25, the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar. Those pagan festivals began to be “Christianized” in the year 350, when Pope Julius I declared December 25 to be Christ’s birthday. “The Nativity gradually absorbed or supplanted all other solstice rites,” says the Encyclopedia of Religion. “Solar imagery came increasingly to be used to portray the risen Christ (who was also called Sol Invictus), and the old solar disk . . . became the halo of Christian saints.” Other symbols associated with Christmas, including the evergreen tree and Santa Claus, have similarly ancient pagan and/or non-biblical origins.

    Those who value the example of the individual upon whom the holiday claims to be based might think again, given that Jesus himself would condemn much of what tradition does in his name. And those for whom the historicity or authenticity of the Bible is a matter of skepticism might still reconsider their involvement in rituals -entertaining as they may be- that perpetuate historical falsehoods.

    At the risk of appearing too Scrooge-like, allow me to say: Spending meaningful time with family and friends, reflecting on the ways we can individually contribute to peace in an often violent world, surprising one another with thoughtful gifts, and generally making room for the practical ethical and philosophical questions of life are all worthwhile, even essential, activities; however, I personally believe these need not be connected to Christmas, nor limited to a few days on the calendar.

    Respectfully yours,

    Lawrence Hrubes

  3. Lawrence: many thanks for this, and for your kind words.
    I agree with much of what you say. The chance of Jesus having been born on 25 December was rather less than 1 in 365 – less because those shepherds would have been unlikely to have been abiding in the fields by night in the wretched cold of a Bethlehem winter. And no doubt Jesus, who appears to have been unusually interested, for a man of his background, in the truth of things, would have been outraged at all the lies peddled in his name throughout church history.
    But what you have articulated are arguable reasons not to celebrate Christmas. I didn't say that there were no such arguments. It's just that setting them out wasn't the task I'd set myself.
    Anyway: for good, bad, or no reason: a very happy Christmas.

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