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No faith necessary

Atheists share ideas for enjoying heavily religious season

Atheist activists Val Woelfel and her boyfriend, Bjorn Larsen decorate the Christmas tree at their home in St. Paul, Minn., on  Dec. 8. The pair like the tree tradition despite their rejection of religion.  (Associated Press)
Atheist activists Val Woelfel and her boyfriend, Bjorn Larsen decorate the Christmas tree at their home in St. Paul, Minn., on Dec. 8. The pair like the tree tradition despite their rejection of religion. (Associated Press)
Patrick Condon Associated Press

Angie O’Neill recently moved into a new Minneapolis 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.

She sought escape by joining a group of 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 and a charity drive.

It’s a chance to share coping techniques during the 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.

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.

“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.

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, 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,” she said.

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,” he said. “It’s about taking the good and leaving the bad.”

Pharmacist Nancy Ruhland 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 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.”

Marie Alena Castle, the 82-year-old founder of Atheists for Human Rights, 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.”

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