Atheism through the holidays, part 3: Family, generosity, and the true meaning of Christmas

Most Christians want Christmas to focus on the birth of their savior. Mass marketing, on the other hand, forwards the idea that Christmas is about getting stuff. Children come into contact with all sorts of ideas about holidays, but it is a child’s parents that set the tone for the holiday celebration at home. So as a parent, I ask myself, what do I want Christmas to be about for my children? What meaning for the holiday do I want to convey to them? I think that every parent should ask this question, and not just about Christmas, but about every holiday.

Rather than being about religion or runaway consumption, I want Christmas in my little family to be about family and generosity.


Let me point out what I am not saying. I’m well aware that most families that want Christmas to have a religious meaning for their children also want Christmas to be about family and generosity, and that probably just about every family, regardless of religious belief, shares these goals as well. I’m not saying that only atheists can make Christmas be about family and generosity – far from it.

It’s just that as an atheist parent I don’t have the regular fallback of a religious meaning for the season. I grew up hearing my parents tell me that Christmas was about celebrating Jesus’ birth, about recognizing God’s great sacrifice for humanity. Christmas was about many things, but at its heart, it was about Jesus. Now that I am no longer religious, I cannot simply echo the holidays of my youth with my children. Instead, I have to consciously construct new traditions and new meanings. For that reason, I think I think things like this through more than most people. And as I’ve thought through what I want Christmas to be for my children, two themes keep coming to the fore: family and generosity.

To some extent, every holiday is about family. Perhaps I’m just more conscious in thinking about this than most. Making Christmas cookies together, going on walks together after dark to see Christmas lights, singing together, decorating gingerbread houses together – all of these things involve family. Board games, reading aloud, and watching movies together also involve family, to varying extents. Christmas presents an opportunity to take time off from the busyness of life to slow down and just be together as a family. And in the years to come, with my little family, I intend to make the most of that opportunity.

It is often too easy for small children to see Christmas as about getting rather than giving. As a child, I remember looking forward to opening presents on Christmas day with the utmost anticipation. Today, as a parent, I now understand the great joys of giving, and that’s something I want to foster in my children. I plan to enlist Sally in planning for and purchasing presents for her daddy, and, eventually, for a future sibling or two. I will urge her to think about making presents for grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I want to make Christmas for Sally as much about giving as it is about getting – and I want to make that aspect fun, enjoyable, and natural.

More than that, though, I want Christmas to be about generosity to those outside of our family. As a child, that passage in Little Women where Jo and her sisters give their Christmas breakfast and firewood to a family literally suffering from starvation and cold made a big impression on me. I want to teach Sally similar lessons. Perhaps we’ll volunteer at local soup kitchens in the days surrounding Christmas, or purchase food to give to a local food bank. Perhaps we’ll pool some money and choose a charity to give to. Perhaps we’ll talk about starvation in Africa or simply study the simplicity in which most of the world’s population lives in order to place the richness of our life in America in its proper context. I don’t know what all we’ll do, but I do know that I want my daughter to grow up with a heart of generosity toward the world around her.

In many ways, being forced to think about how to celebrate Christmas without the constant religious undertones of my youth has been a great gift to me. It means I cannot simply proceed on autopilot but must instead consciously think about what I want Christmas to mean for my family, and for my daughter. And I think that is an extremely good thing.
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