A Sun Bear receives a Christmas treat at Taronga Zoo in Sydney. The humanist version of Christmas is going from strength to strength.

A Sun Bear receives a Christmas treat at Taronga Zoo in Sydney. The humanist version of Christmas is going from strength to strength. Photo: Getty Images

Iwas raised on a hippie commune.

This may be the first time in the history of The Centre for Independent Studies - a classical liberal think-tank - that one of their researchers can make that claim.

Let us dispel a couple of misconceptions: No, I do not have seven mothers, and no, my middle name is not Rainbow.

That said, the prevailing values of my hippie commune were - as one might expect - progressive and counter-cultural.

Whether in the form of anti-consumerism or lived environmentalism, hippies in some way eschew the mainstream in favour of a progressive counter-cultural way of life.

A humanist hippie commune Christmas will therefore largely lack religious iconography and there are unlikely to be any references whatsoever to Jesus Christ, much less Christian theology.

Despite this, Christians should look to the hippie commune to find the recipe for Christmas' survival in an increasingly irreligious and non-Christian Australia.

Indeed, with its inevitable overeating at gatherings of family and friends, Christmas on the hippie commune reveals the enduring value of this once inextricably religious celebration in a secular age.

Taking time out of the grind of routine to eat and drink too much, reconnect with family from whom we often drift far away, and seek refuge from our invasive professional lives for at least one day, has an appeal far wider than the Christian tradition.

It can speak to radical Christian conservatives and radical hippie progressives, as well as almost everyone in between.

The call to bring family and friends together is at home in many different religious and cultural traditions: it has analogues in Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and many others.

The family and community focus of Christmas is also a helpful corrective in an increasingly atomised age in which the traditional cultural, religious and familial ties binding individuals have started to fray.

The best - and also sometimes the worst - thing about Christmas is that it pushes a motley crew of family and friends together who might otherwise never see each other.

Some Christians will object that the humanist version of Christmas is a travesty: What was once a thoroughly Christian celebration seems to have been distorted - almost beyond recognition - into an insipid and soppy feel-good imitation.

Christmas was certainly a Christian celebration in its original form, and for many Christians it remains deeply religious.

It would be misleading - not to mention unfair - to ignore the religious form that Christmas takes for many.

However, Christmas' potentially religious meaning should not overshadow the powerful gravitational pull of its humanist incarnation.

In fact, whether the advocates of a religious Christmas love or loath it, the humanist version is going from strength to strength.

This is because it is perfectly suited to an Australia that is increasingly irreligious and non-Christian.

The percentage of Australians without a religion continues to rise: In 1996, 16 per cent of Australians identified as non-religious, but it had risen to 22 per cent by last year.

At the same time, the percentage of Australians who are Christian continues to fall: In 1996, 70 per cent of Australians identified as Christian, but it had fallen to 61 per cent by last year.

Christmas in the new irreligious and non-Christian Australia will need to drift from its traditional religious moorings to remain relevant.

Although this secularisation means breaking with tradition, Christians should not look askance at Christmas without Christ.

To be sure, the humanist version of Christmas is free of specifically Christian content.

Nevertheless, with its core messages of family and community, it will remain meaningful to a majority of Australians, thereby ensuring one key element of Australia's Christian past lives on - albeit in a modified form.

Although the hippie commune is home to progressive counter-cultural values, its humanist version of Christmas gives a traditionally religious celebration the best chance of survival in an increasingly irreligious Australia.

Thanks to certain immutable facts about the human condition - a tendency to gluttony and the power of familial and communal bonds - Christmas time shows us there are some things even progressive counter-cultural hippies and conservative Christians can agree on.

Benjamin Herscovitch is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.