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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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Merbie

    My friend pointed out this article on CNN's website last night. (I think it was front page at one point.) I thought it was very encouraging and well-done.

  • Tanit-Isis

    This is so interesting to read, as my mom must have gone through a similar thought process to you after she left her church. As a child growing up celebrating an explicitly secular Christmas, though, it simply felt natural. Looking back there are a few things we did differently—we never had an angel on top of the tree, and I didn't get an advent calendar, and I didn't have to go to church with my grandma Christmas day unless I wanted to (I think I did once or twice, just to see what it was like. It was boring.) Growing up with it, it was all about family, visiting, and spending time together. Presents were nice, but the people were the reason for the season.Have fun developing your own Christmas—I know your daughter will love it!

  • Erika Martin – Stampin’ Mama

    Getting vs. giving is something that we've taught our children since they were little. my kids are 11 and 12 and last year was the first year that we even did gifts as a family and we only did stockings for the kids with a $10 spending limit on each. Instead, since the kids were babies, we've put our Christmas money into charities and as the kids have gotten older, they've taken a big part in picking those charities out. One year, the kids bought gifts for children whose father was in jail and they were even able to deliver the presents to the kids and watch them open them. They never once complained or questioned why they weren't getting gifts of their own…'s simply how we've always done things. I wanted them to understand that Christmas is about family and love and seeing what we can do for those that are less fortunate than ourselves, along with being a good neighbor and friend to those around us. My daughter's teacher asked her the other day if it's bothered her that they didn't get presents at Christmas time. She told the teacher that it's okay to her because she likes giving and that she gets stuff on her birthday but this is a time that she can help others out. That made my "mama-heart" so proud! This year, though, we're on the end of those in need. It's been a tough financial year for us and even though we don't do a "traditional" Christmas like everyone else does, there are people in our area that saw our need and we were so touched by the generosity of others. This was the year our kids has presents to open and I'm so glad that, even though we're struggling financially, my kids could see the other end of the spectrum. To see what it's like to be on the receiving end when we truly needed it, so they know how much joy comes out of giving and receiving when in need. This was the first year that there were presents to open and we since we don't normally do gifts, we also don't do a tree. My daughter wanted to put the gifts they were given under a tree, so she created one out of cardboard and made all the ornaments for it and it turned out so beautiful….in such an innocent and child-like way. It's our best Christmas ever. :) Most everything that was given was practical (clothes that the kids desperately needed) but there were some fun things in there for the kids, too. It was so nice to see that the kids were so grateful beyond belief and didn't have an attitude of "commercial Christmas entitlement." This year, being on the receiving end was just as beautiful. Next year, I am hoping that we are once again in a position to be on the giving end.

  • Erika Martin – Stampin’ Mama

    Also, my daughter found creative and beautiful ways to be able to give gifts to her friends. She went through all of our craft stuff and created amazing little presents that she put her heart and soul into. I love that giving is one of her strengths. She has such a beautiful soul. :)