About Me, Agnostic Humanist In The South

Christmas At Our House

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My son looked at this manger scene, something that was in my house growing up and I snagged after Dad died because I love it dearly, and said, “Oh! Is that me as a baby? With Nikki and E?”

Sometimes it’s very obvious we are not a Christian family.

My family does not practice any religion in any form. However, we celebrate Christmas, and some people struggle with that. How can an atheist participate in a holiday celebrating the birth of someone they don’t believe in? Simple!

First of all – we talk a lot about Jesus in this house. I often tell the kids about the teachings of Jesus because I want them to understand that he taught great things and there is nothing wrong with trying to be like him. However, I explain the difference in how other religions see him. Some see him as a prophet. Some as a teacher and a good man. And then some – most of their friends – see him as the Savior and the Son of God.

SO! That’s our basic religious background that we give the kids.

When it comes to Christmas I explain that there are religious elements that we don’t celebrate. We don’t go to church. We don’t set up a nativity scene (Although we do have some manger-type decorations that are gifts or sentimental). We don’t do an Advent Calendar. I do try to remind them about those religious elements (obviously not often enough thanks to the question about Wesley In The Manger) but I just describe them in the same way I do everything that is What Some People Do But Not Us.

But – there are elements of Christmas – like the Christmas Tree – that have roots in pagan celebrations of things like the Winter Solstice. Hell – for awhile the Puritans who colonized New England banned trees AND gifts because of their pagan origins. And Santa Claus? While he may have religious roots (Saint Nicholaus) most Catholics (I can’t remember what other religions have saints) don’t even really try to connect the Bishop/Saint with the guy at the North Pole. And if you go TOO far trying to explain Santa Claus to your kids, then it suddenly becomes “not real” so I just play dumb a lot of the time.

When they ask, and Nikki does often, I just point out that even the date – December 25th – was chosen to combine the Christian Celebration and Pagan celebrations honoring Saturn and Mithra, so that more people would participate. I remind her that while celebrating the Birth of Jesus does belong to the Christians, Christmas as we know it today belongs to anyone who wants to participate in whatever element they want. I even point out people we know who are Jewish and celebrate the same elements of Christmas we do (Trees, Santa, Food) but not the religious elements as they have their own religious celebration.

It’s tricky. Especially when you have friends at school constantly questioning you on your lack of knowledge or belief in their religion. Sometimes our talks go much deeper regarding religion…we discuss the afterlife and heaven and what I believe about it all. We discuss salvation and sinning. But at this age, a lot of it still just goes back to: Why Don’t We Go To Church? Which I always answer the same: Because church is for people who believe in what the church teaches. And Daddy and I don’t believe in those things. If you choose to believe them someday, I hope you find a church that supports you and the people you love.

Oh – and of course the newest holiday question – Is that me? Or Jesus?

12 thoughts on “Christmas At Our House”

  1. Off topic, but I love that you post every day! Gives me a boost and inspiration to someday take up some type of exercise . . .

  2. I have a 15 year old daughter started questioning me about why our family didn’t go to church when she was in about 3rd grade. At the time she was in a rural elementary school and most of her classmates were Christian and most of those were Baptists. I used to explain to her that we didn’t belong to a church because of our(my) beliefs. We would often talk about all different kinds of religions and why I felt the way I did because I wanted her to be informed and to feel it was okay to choose something other than what I believed (BTW Both husband and I were raised Catholic and definitely have abandoned that religion-although I can’t say I am atheist -still figuring that part out-but know that organized church/religion is not for me. I tend to relate to more pagan beliefs).

    She has definitely formed her own beliefs and I couldn’t be more proud of the young woman she has become. It was tough in those early years when developmentally kids are trying to fit in and find their identity. But she is now very self assured in her beliefs and can articulate why she believes in what she does.

    One of the main things I wanted to instill in my children as a parent is for them to come to their own conclusions about those big topics, be able to properly defend their beliefs but still be open to the idea that others may disagree with your beliefs and that is okay. In fact that is one of the common themes in our discussions about religion-that just because we believe one way does not invalidate or negate what others believe in. Sadly in my experience, there are some in organized religion who feel threatened when others have differing viewpoints and in my opinion the fear that comes along with that is why we have intolerance.

    Your daughter will come to terms with this and one day you will look back and realize the gifts you have given her by teaching her tolerance and acceptance were worth it.

  3. I have this same issue with my son. We live in the south and a large majority of the kids he goes to school with are baptist or devout christians. We, on the other hand, are not religious at all and do not go to church. I’ve tried to teach my son to learn as much as he can and come up with his own conclusions on religion and spirituality. He has gotten into debates with classmates who have told him that he is going to hell because he doesn’t believe. Luckily he handles it well and will debate them without putting them down or saying bad things about their beliefs. Funny story…..my son did go to a Sunday school class with one of his baptist friends because he spent the night at their house. The person leading the class was discussing how only christians can be your true friends. My son was not happy with the explanation and debated the youth leader since some of his closest friends and his cousins are Jewish. Needless to say he was not invited back to Sunday school 🙂

  4. Wow, thanks for this incredibly thoughtful perspective on how to explain to kids in a publicly religious environment how “we as a family” approach Christmas. I don’t have kids yet (but want to someday) so I think I’ll be filing away these lines for that future conversation. Thank you for this.

  5. I love this post, thank you for it. My daughter, just a few weeks ago when at the Radio City Music Hall CHristmas Spectacular yelled as the nativity portion began and the angel appeared to the shepherds… “HEY! I know this movie!! This is when the angel warns them about the baby!” So, yeah, I relate to the obvs not a christian family.

    Here’s what I always show people when they ask why our lil’ pagan family celebrates xmas. Thanks for sharing your story.

    http://mistybellstiers.blogspot.com/2006/12/christmastime_19.html

  6. Great post, and great comments! I don’t have kids yet but as someone posted above, that is a great way to explain things.

  7. This sounds pretty much like our house, except we live in the SF Bay Area, where we are all godless heathens. I don’t think my 7 year old daughter has had any church-going friends, except for one Mormon girl on her soccer team. I’m sure some of the kids she knows do go to church, but it just doesn’t come up in conversation around here. Both my girls went (and my youngest still goes) to a Muslim babysitter, so discussions about her family’s religious holidays were probably the first religious discussions we ever had.

    Having said that, my girls are down with Jesus. The older one has gone back and forth about whether she believes in God, but she has always liked Jesus. I think part of the appeal is being the celebrated baby of Christmas (Yes we celebrate Christmas! Christmas is awesome!). But more importantly, my super-sensitive daughter really needs the idea of an afterlife in order to cope with the concept of death, and Jesus is the guy who looks after everybody after they die. As a kid I was perfectly fine with the idea that nothing happens after death, but for my daughter that brings about screaming, sobbing hysterics. The sadness is just too much. So for her, Jesus is a light in the dark. For that, I am extremely thankful.

    I don’t know what my girls will grow up believing, and I don’t really care, as long as they are happy and kind.

  8. “[W]hile celebrating the Birth of Jesus does belong to the Christians, Christmas as we know it today belongs to anyone who wants to participate in whatever element they want.”

    Yes yes yes! I grew up Unitarian Universalist secular humanist agnostic etc. etc., so this has always been my experience of Christmas (and my parents’ experience as well). A Unitarian minister popularized the Christmas tree in the US, so it feels only natural for us to reclaim the tree for the solstice/other non-Christian aspects of the season. You are much braver than I am to live this position in such a conservative area (as opposed to us up here in the People’s Republic of Cambridge in the Heathen Northeast).

    My fiance also grew up UU, but we don’t go to church now (subway ride away + schoolwork for him + activities and travel = no regular Sunday morning routine). We will likely start going to our our local UU when we have kids, because we both liked having the church community growing up. Your family certainly has enough activities going on to make my head spin, but you might try checking out your local UU church if you or the kids are interested in trying a non-religious (or theism-optional) church experience.

    Happy Holidays!

  9. I grew up not really going to church, and used to tell people that we didn’t go because we had to have pancakes on Sunday morning. My parents clearly didn’t discuss much of the “big” pieces of it with me. Of course, I also remember telling a teacher in first grade that my parents had divorced because my dad got up too early in the morning.
    So.

  10. Coming from the other angle, as a church going bible reading Christian lol. Christmas arrived in our house today. We had our first Christmas dinner as my parents church have one (they have a congregation of about 20 and then gain an extra few on special occasions like today). We then came home and this evening put up the tree.

    Although St Nick was a saint, at one point the Catholic Church tried to un-saint him for one or another reasons – I’m never entirely sure but it’s mentioned in Miracle on 34th Street.

    We do have advent calendars – this year we have a Simpsons one! (Interesting…….)

    Then again you could step it up another notch – in Orthodox Catholic countries such as Greece and Russia they celebrate the conception too! It’s like serious TMI! Lol

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