Christmas as Humanist festival and practice: Ritual and rites de passage in new existential movements

Lois Lee, Anna Harriet Block Strhan, Rachael Shillitoe

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Scholars increasingly regard non-traditional and non-religious existential movements and traditions as analogous to religious ones. At the same time, they observe differences, including the dissociation of nonreligious worldviews with centralised institutions, and the distillation of diverse ritual practices seen in religious traditions to just a handful of non-religious alternatives, particularly associated with death and dying and to a lesser extent with romantic partnership and childbirth. This paper presents findings from ‘Becoming Non-believers: Explaining Atheism in Childhood’, a research project examining the formation of non-religious worldviews in childhood based on interviews with children and their parents and teachers in England. Our research identifies Christmas as a festival involving forms of ritual practice through which parents, schools and local and national communities may work together to cultivate one particular non-religious orientation, liberal humanism, in children. We show also that people participate in Christmas rituals differently according to age, and that childhood itself is separated into immature and mature modes of engagement. Contrary to an anxiety expressed by some humanists about permitting or encouraging children’s beliefs in supernatural beings including Father Christmas, we argue that changing orientations towards such beings provides a process through which humanism’s evidentialist episteme is developed and celebrated. In this way, Christmas functions as a significant rite de passage in the formation of humanism. We argue that these findings could sensitise researchers to the existential dimension of diverse cultural practices that have not previously been understood in these terms, to better understand new, often individualised or decentralised existential movements.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 7 Jul 2023
EventBSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Annual Conference 2023: Religion and Power - University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom
Duration: 5 Jul 20237 Jul 2023


ConferenceBSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Annual Conference 2023
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom

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