It’s that time of the year

By Ken Perrott 22/12/2010

Book review: Christmas – Philosophy for Everyone: Better Than a Lump of Coal. Scott C. Lowe (Editor), Fritz Allhoff, Fritz Allhoff (Series Editor) Stephen Nissenbaum (Foreword)

Price: US$15.56
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (October 19, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 144433090X
ISBN-13: 978-1444330908

OK, this book is topical. Not only because of the timely subject. It’s also  appropriate to review now because it’s the sort of book one might consider giving or receiving as a present on Saturday. And it’s the sort of book one might enjoy reading next week.

Well, it’s obviously not your usual philosophy book — it’s far more approachable. It is, after all, part of the ’Philosophy for Everyone’ series. In fact, the philosophy is not obvious in some articles — it looks more like common sense. And the approach is slightly ‘tongue-in-cheek,’ especially with the essay titles and the notes on contributors (called ’Santa’s Elves’).

I though the philosophy sometimes seemed inappropriate, or at least inadequate. For example  discussions of the philosophical and ethical aspects of lying to children with the Santa Claus myth came across as a little shallow. Quoting Plato, Hume and Mills did not hit the mark. I would have liked to see some inclusion of sociology and the psychology of human development.

But, it is a collection of essays from 25 authors. One expects a range of suitabilities and different essays will appeal to different people.

The authors range from Professors, other academics and students of philosophy (mainly), history, ethics, English and theology. The book is divided into several themes.

We have the origins of Christmas. Both in Christian myths and real pagan origins.  The way we celebrate Christmas today — secular as well as religious celebrations – and how these have adjusted to today’s more diverse society.

The Santa myth is discussed in a bit of detail. And there are important sections on Christmas through eyes other than traditional European or Christian ones. Including discussion of the celebration by atheists and minority religions.

The book is readable, and humorous because the writers are more concerned with the Santa myth than the virgin birth myth of Christianity. Although the virgin birth gets a look-in with one essay from a supporter and another from a critic of the myth.

As always, a collection like this provides an opportunity for readers to select. So I have selected a couple which I particularly liked.

A multicultural Christmas

In ’The significance of Christmas for Liberal Multiculturalism’ Marc Mercer describes two approaches to the fact that in most western societies Christmas has evolved into a secular holiday. It is no longer an exclusively Christian celebration.

This enables different groups to do their own thing, for Christians to perform their own religious rituals and non-Christians (with many Christians) to have a common celebration empty of any religious ritual.

Mercer describes two approaches:

Communitarian multiculturalism which values diversity and cultural groups for the ways of life they represent. Therefore it insists on separateness of these groups (doing their own thing) and sees a common holiday as a threat to the integrity of some groups.

Liberal multiculturalism which is more concerned with flourishing of the individual. This does not oppose the idea of retention of specific holidays and events for specific groups. But it sees value in some holidays or celebrations which are common, public events.  ’These holidays would, of course, have to honour values important to most people in the country and to honour them in ways people from various cultures find congenial. Or else they would attract few participants. In this second sort of multicultural society, a few holidays, maybe only two or three a year, belong to all the people.’

In contrast ’for the communitarian multiculturalist . . .  a common holiday is a threat, a threat to the integrity of particular cultural groups.’

Mercer discusses why he thinks liberal multiculturalism has advantages for individuals, cultures and society in general. It’s interesting to apply his analysis to New Zealand, our diversity, our celebration of different cultures and the fact that we do have some holidays and celebrations which unite everyone.

Atheists at Christmas

In the section on ’Christmas through others’ eyes’ Ruth Tallman describes a common atheist approach to Christmas (’Holly Jolly Atheists: A naturalistic justification for Christmas.’). Simply put — they are all for it. ’This holiday is a wonderful occasion for engaging in a delightful assortment of classical sins — gluttony, greed, sloth — with none of the classical guilt.’

She argues that of course non-Christians should celebrate Christmas. ’First, given there’s no reason to think Christians have an exclusive right to it. Second, using the concept of religious naturalism we can understand what atheists are doing when they celebrate Christmas in the same way that we understand both naturalistic religious practices and participating in various rituals by those who do not accept the metaphysical underpinnings of the practice.’

She discusses the pre-Christian origins of Christmas — that is always worth a reminder given the common Christian chauvinism of claiming that everything of value originated from their dogma.

And what should Christmas mean to atheists? Obviously the meaning will differ from that derived by Christians. She understands the ’atheist mind-set’ in terms of naturalism. ’Naturalists come in many strips; some embrace a high level of spiritualism while others tend more to the ways of hard-nosed science. What unifies naturalists is the belief that all that there is to life, all hope, value, and order we might possibly glean, will have to be found  in the here and now — there is nothing else.’

This attitude is not hostile to Christian traditions. She quotes Richard Dawkins on this: ’I’m not one of those who want to purge our society of our Christian history. If there’s any threat to these sorts of things, I think you will find it comes from rival religions and not from atheists.’

The Santa Clause myth and lying to children

Finally, several essays debate the morality of the Santa Claus myth. After all this can involve parents lying to their children. And that does raise moral difficulties for some parents. David Kyle Johnson (’Against the Santa Claus lie: The Truth we Should Tell our Children) argues that it is morally wrong. Era Gavrielides argues that it is OK (’Lying to our Children About Santa: Why it’s Just Not Wrong.’)

I don’t remember that this was a huge difficulty in our family. Then again we never saw or used Santa Claus as a moral arbiter to coerce our children into being good.  I was surprised to find how often authors in the collection considered that a common and essential part of the myth. Maybe it is in the USA.


This is an easy read for a book on philosophy. Possibly because it is far more practical than the normal philosophy book. But also because it is slightly humorous.

As a collection it’s easy to find essays which will interest most readers. Others which can be ignored.

And as a collection it can be dipped into for a short period. Starting and finishing at arbitrary places throughout the book depending on one’s interest.

Probably just the book to read over the Christmas/New Year holidays.

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