Christmas is a tough time of year for an atheist.
MINNEAPOLIS — Angie O'Neill recently moved into a new apartment complex for seniors and she's trying to make new friends. But Christmas is a tough time of year for an atheist.
"All the planned activities at this time of year revolve around the church," said O'Neill, a retiree and an atheist for decades.
O'Neill sought an escape this week, joining a group of her fellow nonbelievers for a weekly "Atheist Happy Hour" at a suburban Mexican restaurant. The group, Atheists for Human Rights, is active year-round but takes it up a notch this time of year with a Winter Solstice party, a charity drive and good attendance for the weekly gathering at Ol' Mexico.
For one thing, it's a chance to share coping techniques during this most religious time of year. They range from the simple, like warning about certain stores that blare religious Christmas songs, to tougher tasks like how to avoid certain topics with certain family members. These atheists describe adjusting some customs to make them their own, like Nancy Ruhland, a pharmacist who sends out Christmas cards to friends and loved ones — but makes sure to find ones without a Christian message or subtext.
Even as they chafe at the omnipresence of Christmas, many of the atheists here are quick to stress their belief in the pagan roots of a yearly celebration near the winter solstice. Before Christianity and other organized religions, many cultures would mark the point where days started getting longer again with a "festival of light" that included parties, gift exchanges, even placing trees in homes. Some of those rituals were religious, but usually in a polytheistic way.
"What we're celebrating this year is the promise of the sun returning. That's S-U-N, not S-O-N," said Bill Weir, a retired marketing executive from Plymouth.
"Then the Christians stole it," added Marie Elena Castle of Minneapolis, the 82-year-old founder of Atheists for Human Rights and an atheist activist for two decades. It's a season of celebration for the Jewish faith as well, with Hanukkah.
Still, none of the atheists interviewed for this story expressed a wish to be left out of Christmas entirely.
"Food, we like. Presents, we like. Seeing family, we like," said Val Woelfel of St. Paul, an aspiring archaeologist. Woelfel, 47, and her boyfriend, Bjorn Larsen, 32, planned to erect a tree in their living room: "Sacred trees are an ancient custom. It's pretty, it smells nice and it's pagan," Woelfel said.
Some of the atheist attitudes toward Christmas seem the result of well-practiced defense mechanisms. Castle, for instance, gets just as irritated when people tell her "Merry Christmas" as some Christians do when people tell them "Happy Holidays." O'Neill, who declines to give her age, said she wished parents would tell their kids there is no God at the same time they pass along certain information about Santa Claus.
But a number of the atheists who have issues with Christmas said their feelings come in part from years of discrimination.
Larsen, a mechanic, said his ex-wife suggested his atheism was a character flaw in court filings during a contentious divorce with the custody of their children in dispute (he lost custody). Another man at the Atheist Happy Hour declined to reveal his last name, saying his employer is a conservative Catholic who would not tolerate a committed atheist on the payroll.
Still, most participate to some degree in Christmas celebrations, particularly those from Christian families. Larsen said he and Woelfel would join dozens of his relatives for a Christmas brunch at his parents' house on Dec. 24. But he would likely stay behind when most head to church afterward.
"It's the biggest family event of the year, and for me it's about seeing the family," said Larsen, an auto mechanic. "It's about taking the good and leaving the bad."
Ruhland, the pharmacist, said she "came out" as an atheist eight years ago to her family, most of whom are active and traditional Catholics. She still spends time with them at Christmas, and said most have learned to avoid the topic of religion when she's around. "I just sit in the back while they pray, and keep my mouth shut," she said.
For some atheists, the proximity to believers is even closer. Jim Wright, a retired merchandiser, lives with his 92-year-old mother in St. Paul. She "believes all that crap," he said.
"She wants me to come back to God, but I can't because he never existed," Wright said. This Christmas, he said, "I told her if she wants lights on the side of the house that she needs to do it. She's long since given up on the tree."
Castle, the veteran activist, said people shouldn't cave in to the notion that Christmas belongs to Christians.
"Baby Jesus is just an excuse for a lot of people to party, anyway," Castle said. "Enjoy your friends. Eat, drink and be merry."