Christmas: tis the season to lash out on Santa-branded decorations, overindulge in high-sugar content foods, and throw around occasional holiday wishes of good will to distant relatives, shop assistants and bar tenders.
The annual silly season tis also the time where traditional phrases like ‘Merry Christmas’ comes under political correctness scrutiny, given the obvious religious meaning of 25 December: ‘Christ-mas’.
Christianity is certainly the nation’s most dominant faith. According to 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics data, Catholics are the country’s largest religious group, represented by over 25 per cent of the population. Anglicans come in third with 17 per cent representation.
But interestingly enough, the second biggest religious group was the ‘no religion’ population, accounting for over 22 per cent of the national population. The data is not detailed much further: only two per cent of this group went beyond ticking the 'no religion' box to add more information to specify whether they were an atheist or agnostic. Regardless, that's almost five million Aussies who technically don't subscribe to the religious underpinnings of Christmas.
So while Christian-dominated Australia appears to be busy celebrating up a storm in workplaces, homes, schools, and caroling destinations across the country, what are Aussie atheists doing this December?
“Funny enough, I believed in Santa as a child but never God or Jesus, which my parents taught me were make believe."
Sydney-based Tash Williams is an atheist, who was raised by two proud atheist parents.
She tells SBS that she’s always celebrated Christmas but the date has never been about God or formalised religion.
“Funny enough, I believed in Santa as a child but never God or Jesus, which my parents taught me were make believe,” says Williams.
“But they taught me that some people believed in God and that I shouldn’t be mean about it, as their belief was important to them."
Her family always had a tree and a big lunch on Christmas day but there were no religious elements to the celebrations.
“My school did the nativity thing and I was just taught to be respectful of my friend’s and teacher’s beliefs.”
Williams admits that one year she got to play an angel in the school’s annual Christmas production, “and I loved it”.
As an adult, she puts up a real Christmas tree in the house. And, just as most Christians would celebrate on December 25, she joins the rest of her family for a large get-together at lunchtime.
“It’s a time to be thankful for your friends and family, and to reflect on the year. We usually finish the day by watching Die Hard,” she jokes.
Williams insists that if she and her partner ever have kids, she will raise them in the same way.
“But I’ve been told that as an atheist I shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. That sometimes hurts: I love Christmas. I love being with my family, eating and drinking too much and decorating the house to look all pretty.
“I just don’t believe in the story that is being celebrated. And I obviously don’t believe in Santa anymore.”
"I say Merry Christmas to my neighbours across the fence and to all my friends who celebrate it.”
Haya Husseini, who lives in Melbourne, shares similar sentiments as Williams. Born in Palestine, but raised in Jordan and Spain, she’s spent much of her life surrounded by both Muslim and Christian friends.
Husseini’s parents are Muslim but she is “non-practising”.
“Culturally, I am a Muslim,” Hussieni tells SBS. “I am aware of myself as a Muslim and I identify as a Muslim but I don’t practice or subscribe to many of the beliefs in my religion.
“So we are secular towards all religions. And my home is completely secular. There are no decorations during either Muslim or Christian festivities."
Despite Husseini’s secular affiliation, the mother of two children is strongly against ‘Christmas’ political correctness. "We say ‘happy Christmas’ [not ‘seasons greetings’]. I say Merry Christmas to my neighbours across the fence and to all my friends who celebrate it.”
Husseini says she respects the Christian tradition and the people celebrating it. And if called upon to join in the festive joy, she will with a sense of seasonal delight.
“If someone invites me over to a Christmas party, I’m happy to go over and partake in the festivities. And we like eating, so if we can have a barbecue and turkey, we will.
“There is so much happiness around at Christmas, a sense of celebration. So for me, honestly, Christmas is about sharing that feeling with the community.
“People who are celebrating anything, no matter their religion, feel a sense of joy. The feeling is infectious and it becomes special to non-religious people too.
“Christmas is a nice day and it’s just nice to celebrate people’s love.”