Do you know what I realized this year? The way I celebrate Christmas with my family today is really very little different from the way I celebrated Christmas in my family of origin growing up. Given that I grew up in a devout evangelical family but that my husband and I are not religious, this at first seems rather odd. In the end, though, I think it simply highlights just how secular Christmas is for most Americans, even those who are religious.
Growing up, Christmas meant music and cookies and decorations and presents. Some of the Christmas music we listened to was religious, but most was actually completely secular. The cookies, of course, had nothing to do with religion, and the only thing religious about our Christmas decorations, whether it be the tree or the house or lights outside, was the nativity scene that rested on a table in our hall. And the presents, well, those were wholly secular too.
The only overtly religious things we did as part of Christmas were attending Christmas Eve service at church and reading the Christmas story from the Bible on Christmas morning. However, neither of these things actually happened every year, as we frequently skipped the Christmas Eve service (getting that many kids in nice clothes and out the door was often more work than it was worth) and we usually forgot to read the Christmas story Christmas morning because everyone was clamoring to open presents. So really? My family’s celebration of Christmas was very secular.
It’s true that we often talked about how important it was to remember that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday, and that that was what really mattered. But honestly? We insisted Christmas was really and truly all about Jesus the same way some people insist that really, honest, they’re going to start an exercise regimen next week. It’s almost as though we were trying to reassure ourselves. Of course, we did enjoy the Christmas story. We children enjoyed arranging the nativity scene and sometimes even put on little Christmas plays. But in the end, the Christmas season as we celebrated it was more about holiday cheer than it was about Jesus.
And now, as an atheist adult and the mother of two children, I look around myself on this day after Christmas. The same tree, lights, and ornaments. The same scented candles and smells of gingerbread. The same cookies, the same old family recipes, the same songs in the background. The same greenery, the same scattered wrapping paper. The same stockings and fire in the fireplace. The same nativity scene, which Sally arranges and rearranges. It’s a storybook story with its own action figures, and she treats it the same way she would treat an Angelina Ballerina set.
The only thing that has changed, really, between how I celebrated Christmas as a child in a devout evangelical family and how I celebrate Christmas as an atheist with a family of my own today is the absence of church and the traditional Christmas Eve program and the increased place of the Santa story.
Growing up, we didn’t “do” Santa in our family, though Santa was still somehow present – in the stores, in the books we checked out from the library, and in the music. He was present, though, sort of guiltily. Mom and dad told us that the Santa mythology served to push Jesus out of the holiday (an ironic concern given the already limited focus on Jesus alongside the presents and cookies, and winter holiday decorations). Today, then, I no longer have to feel guilty about engaging in the Santa story, whether in books, songs, or decorations.
I’m not trying to say that Christmas is a holiday that doesn’t have Christian roots (it does). Similarly, I’m not trying to say that Christmas as it is celebrated in the United States today is “multicultural” or that its roots are not soundly Western, and even Anglo Saxon (they are). I personally enjoy celebrating Christmas in part because it is a way I can feel a historical and cultural connection with my ancestors. Further, I don’t mind the religious aspects that remain – the nativity scene, say – both because of the connection with the cultural celebrations of ancestors past and because I think we should be interested in learning about various cultures, traditions, and religious. I may be an atheist, but that doesn’t mean it I don’t see history or religion as things worth studying.
But to bring this back to where I started, the main point I wanted to make here was that Christmas as I celebrated it as an evangelical child was already more focused on presents, food, and seasonal decorations than it was on Jesus’ birth, and that that, quite simply, has made continuing to celebrate Christmas as an atheist adult remarkably easy. And I think that’s something worth pointing out.