Culturally Christian

I grew up in a nominally Christian household. My Grandmother was a committed Christian and went to church on most Sundays. When my brother and I stayed at her house we knew we’d be going to Sunday School in the morning, and perhaps visiting Vacation Bible Camp in the summer (don’t worry it was only three or fours in the afternoon one week a year, and usually it was fun). I think church was important to her, but she also allowed my Grandpa to skip out and play golf nearly every Sunday morning, so it couldn’t have been that important.

My father was always extremely un-religious. Away from my grandparents’ house church was a choice and we could either go or not go. He couldn’t be bothered to drive us there either, if we went to church it was on the “church bus” run by a local Church of God (that’s a denomination). The CoG was a long way from the Methodism of my grandmother, but as a kid it all looked pretty much the same. Jesus, candy, kids to hang out with, I learned some Bible stories but it felt less like indoctrination and more like something to do since there were no soccer games to play or cartoons on Sunday mornings.

I became more serous about religion in high school, and was President of my (Methodist) Church Youth Group my senior year of high school. I put great importance on religion personally, but that was my own choice. My father wasn’t a church go-er, my step-mother was one on occasion, but we weren’t a religious family. We didn’t “pray as a family” or have family Bible study, or really pay a whole lot of lip-service to Jesus or faith in general. In a lot of ways we were simply culturally Christian; people expected us to be Christians (I did live outside of Nashville in high school) and celebrate Christian holidays. So that’s how we lived.

Long-time readers know that I post a lot about “Christian holidays,” and that’s sometimes met with irritation or bewilderment. “You’re a Pagan, how can you celebrate Easter!?!” I can celebrate Christmas and Easter without a second thought because they aren’t religious holidays to me, and never really were in my family. While my Grandmother went to church a lot, the one day she didn’t really bother with it was Easter, because she was far too busy hiding Easter Eggs and cooking up a huge dinner. Easter was a holiday for my family, but it was a family holiday, an excuse to get together and have some fun. We didn’t end the day with a toast of “To Jesus for our sins!” We were far more likely to say “Thank you Easter Bunny!” (Thinking of those Easters really makes me miss the old “Leggs Eggs” pantyhose containers, those giant eggs contained the best stuff!)

I have so many good memories associated with Christmas that I can’t throw the day out. Like Easter it was a day for family and good feelings. By the time I converted to Paganism it already had eighteen years or so of magical memories behind it. Yes, sometimes there were Nativity scenes up at various households, and in my high school years we went to Christmas Eve candle-light services (never, ever on Christmas Day), but we didn’t put decorations on the tree with father reading from the family Bible saying “that ornament is for the blessed Virgin.” It was simply a holiday, and holidays don’t have to necessarily be religious in nature.

There are three days a year when I talk to every member of my immediate family: Christmas, Super Bowl Sunday, and Easter. None of those phone calls end with “Praise Jesus!” or anything of that nature. They are simply holidays we associate with family. I can’t turn off Easter anymore than I can divorce my father. In my family it’s expected that I’m going to be doing something during those “Christian holidays” because my family has always done things on those days. None of those family things were ever associated with religion.

Those “Christian holidays” are a part of my family and by extension a part of me. I’m not participating in a faith outside my own by celebrating, I’m participating in a family ritual. Not everything we do in our lives is for ourselves, sometimes we do things for friends or family. Skipping out on Christmas would be like raising a giant middle finger at my entire childhood and by extension my father, a man who has loved me and supported me my entire life (even when I didn’t deserve it). I’m not going to turn my back on family because someone thinks I’m failing the Pagan purity test.

If you didn’t grow up in a culturally Christian family it’s easy to live a life without those holidays. You don’t have the sentiment, the feelings, or the memories attached to those days. If those holidays were overtly religious in your household maybe that makes them easier to throw out too. If Easter was about suffering through Catholic Mass four times in three days I’d probably want to forget about it too. My wife grew up Catholic (which can be some hard programming to overcome) which means there are just days on the calendar when you expect something to happen. That doesn’t mean she’s still a secret Catholic or anything, it’s just how she was raised. If something is a big deal for over half of your life it can be kind of hard to turn off sometimes.

My family is Culturally Christian, but that doesn’t make me any less of a Pagan. As a dutiful son I observe the holidays I grew up with, all in the knowledge that it brings me closer to the people I care about. No one has any sinister motives, no one is trying to lure me back to Jesus through some sort of backdoor. The Lady said “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals,” the rituals of my family are steeped in love, not doctrine, and I will continue to celebrate them with a full heart.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Sunweaver

    It’s a little weird sometimes that my girls are being raised a degree farther away from Christianity than I was. I have to explain things that are givens if you were raised in that context. Still, non-religious Christmas and Easter remain a small part of our family celebrations.

  • Kenneth

    For millions of Americans, these religious holidays are not religiously observed. They are convenient placeholders, days when most people have the cultural and legal cover to get the day off and clear their schedules for family get togethers. Christmas and Easter are just days our family uses as rare times blocked out for each other. Guy Fawkes day would do just as well.

    • Brian Michael Shea

      Actually, to many people they are days that are not any different from any other day of the year. Many people work, to serve the people who are off, who are shopping. Just like any other day of the year.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    My excuse for not celebrating the Christian cultural festivals is that my stepfather is a CofE priest (rural dean, these days). To celebrate with family means to celebrate in a Christian context.

    I avoid those occasions out of respect for their beliefs, and ask that they return the favour by letting me do so without a fuss.

  • Samson Holbrook

    but I find this article to just be another bs excuse for those who want
    their proverbial cake and eat it too. We kindly refer to this cultural
    phenom in our area as Christ-wiccianism. I spent MANY years soul searching and
    trying to find what was right for me,
    spiritually and in my heart! I made a decision and pay for it daily! I
    have had bosses jump me about my religion (in the middle of that mess
    right now actually) and have lost friends over my faith! I have had to
    defend myself to friends, strangers and even family. To “excuse” your
    practice of Christian holidays as merely a cultural event is nothing
    less than a shear kick to the groin of those of us who have paid our
    dues to believe as we do. People who want to “appease” their Christian
    family and friends are nothing more than what Peter denying Christ
    would be to those they want to “keep close”. Go eat your cake you bunch
    of posers!

    • Nicole Youngman

      Thbbbbbbbbbbbbbbt. :) Jason’s nailed it here. I have precisely zero
      problem celebrating xmas and Easter (and who is the later named after?
      Hmmm? Anyone? Anyone at all?). Both are a mix of Pagan and Christian (so
      I’d actually take issue with the idea of them–or people who celebrate
      them–as “culturally Christian” per se) and as Jason said, they
      aren’t particularly religious holidays for a lot of people. Christmas
      means I get to have a big lit-up tree in the house and we celebrate
      colorful-light-things and exchange presents; Easter is all about the
      chocolate (and seriously–bunnies with eggs? That’s where in the Bible,
      precisely? Big-ass fertility festival, that’s what it is). Purer Than
      Thou Pagans can of course skip out on the fun if they wish, but don’t be
      obnoxious to the rest of us.

      • Brian Michael Shea

        I totally agree, and very nicely put!

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      A touch harsh.

      Do you not think that it would be better to respectfully disagree with his stance but respect his right to have it?

      • Nicole Youngman

        My goodness, I never said he didn’t have a right to his stance. I said “don’t be obnoxious.” Hardly the same thing. I have precisely zero patience for purity tests like “if you do/don’t do X then you’re not a real Pagan” (which is a symptom of that “fundamentalist turn” Sabina M. and others have been talking about so much lately).

        • Jason Mankey

          I don’t think the response was directed at you Nicole, I think it was meant for the other comment. :)

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          You may notice that I was responding to Samson Holbrook. ;)

          I said something very similar to yourself, merely more succinctly.

    • Dizzy Lizzy

      Yum. cake!

    • Kilmrnock

      Excuse me ………… one said we celebrate these as Christian holidays , most of the so called secular parts of the afore mentioned holidays are pagan anyway , eggs , and chicks rebirth , renewal… bunnies , and shagging all springtime stuff . The Christmas tree , yule tree actualy pagan as are mistletoe and bringing in the green , holly , pine wreaths etc . even Santa , not St Nick, are pagan in origons . From all i’ve read Easter as a Xtian tradition is at about the correct time altho the way the holiday is fixed is a bit hoaky , But christmas near the soltice is an entirely stolen pagan holiday . More than likly Jesus was born in the spring , have heard others say in the fall possibly but not on Dec 25th . but the name for the Easter holiday is taken from a pagan Godess. All any of us are doing is sharing the secular parts of these holidays as family gatherings with our kinfolk . We all pay for our dicision to become pagan in one way or another , and live with it . Most of us cheerfully b/c pagan is what we are and living hidden not true to ourselves is unacceptable .

  • C Jah

    You have beautifully expressed a reality of life. Let the “purists” moan and groan while you enjoy your family. Holidays mark turning points in the great circle of the year. We can change the names to reflect the absence of Christ, call it Yule and Eostre instead of Christmas and Easter–we are celebrating the ever-changing, ever-renewed life of the earth that sustains us. Names matter less than truths.

  • GearoidMacConfhiaclaigh

    Not to disagree, because I understand the general theme of culturally Christian (though I think it also applies to most “soft” polytheism in the United States).

    But shouldn’t the aim and goals of a pagan be not to ignore these days, but to create new ones within our own culture rather than simply continue others? Why is it we need to be indistinguishable from anyone else except on certain days or at festivals? (when unfortunately pagans are usually represented by rather….eccentric people that may or may not create poor impressions with little connection to actual practices/beliefs).

    This to me is the failing of much of the neo-pagan community. People are too comfortable throwing some often nebulous beliefs over a core of Juedo-Christian culture and assumptions, then claiming they are suddenly new. A repainted house is still the same house, the effort to truly change it is greater, but it might better reflect the wishes of the occupants.

    It should be our goal to strengthen our distinct culture. That doesn’t mean we need to ignore these days, or disrespect our families, etc. But it means we shouldn’t passively accept an overly Christianized status quo either. Maybe a time when both Christmas and (insert path-specific holiday here) can be seen as a family event. I guess I just don’t like the feeling that the vast majority are content to simply settle.

    • meg

      Most people get Christian holidays off from work and school, though, making them the ideal dates for family gatherings. My family also celebrates Christian holidays in a secular manner because of this.

      • Marc

        I’d definitely be a lot more of a pain in the ass if I actually held religious observance of my own practices.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          I’d like to have key dates off for religious observation, but I am not allowed. (Can’t have the vernal equinox off because that inconveniently falls during stocktake and can’t have the winter solstice off because that is during the December holiday embargo. Serves me right for working as the stockroom guy in a national clothing chain outlet.)

  • Soliwo

    I have my own religious festivals and I celebrate Sinterklaas en Christmas in a secular way. This means: writing verses, gift-giving and the setting up of a tree. I still call them Sinterklaas and Christmas though, the absence of Jesus doesn’t mean, that the family celebration is suddenly Yule/ Jul/ miwinter. especially Christmas does happen around midwinter and it therefore is connected to my own pagan practice, but again, I do not see the need to change it’s name. Sinterklaas is not longer a Christian feast of any sort, so this does not form any problem.

    Celebrate whatever you want to celebrate. Fellow pagans may be offended, the gods do not. Personally, I would never sing along at mass, and attending a baptism would be highly uncomfortable. Funerals of loved ones I always attend, but as a witness to their lives, I would not participator in any church ritual. I generally prefer visiting churches when they are empty. ;)

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Why not use a more appropriate term, then? If you take Christ out of the day, why not the name, too?

      • Soliwo

        It would make more sense, yes. It’s because I visit my family, and they think they are celebrating Christmas, even if they have taken out Christ (they are mostly agnostic/atheistic, I am not the one who took out Christ). It feels weird to suddenly start calling their traditions by a new name. I do not really think of it as Christmas, they know that, but it seems it is not for me to rename it. I think only about 10% of Dutchmen attend church regularly, yet they all celebrate ‘kerstmis’.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Anything for a life, eh?

          What you have just described bugs me on a fundamental level. I dislike tradition for the sake of tradition. Actions should have clear reasoning. Even if that reasoning is ‘it is fun’.

          I just can’t get the “Well, it is how we have always done it” argument.

          • Soliwo

            I understand your dislike. But I am not celebrating it just because it is tradition. I visit my parents who celebrate Christmas in a secular away and who still call it Christmas. And it feels odd to rename it for them, as it is not really my festival any longer. It is me who has changed, not them or the festival itself. Yes there is meaning to me as it connects to my other midwinter festivities, and because it is fun.

            I call the thing my parents do Christmas because that is how they have always called it and still do, but I do not celebrate it with them merely for tradition’s sake.

            I feel I am not expressing myself clearly here. I agree with your reply, I just do not think it contradicts with my practice. I would never attend Christmas mass again. I do not sing the overtly Christian songs. I come over and help them decorate a tree (which is their Christmas tree), and I eat, and enjoy the atmosphere.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I didn’t suggest you were. I suggested that a large number of people do.

            Ask your family (or any other non-religious individual) why they celebrate Christmas.

          • Soliwo

            I did not mean to suggest that you suggested it ;) But it is something that I am mindful of, so understand your sentiment. And I will ask my family members next year …

            A friend of mine has a non-Christian boyfriend who wants to send their future kids to church school (Sunday school) for tradition’s sake. She, rightly so, doesn’t understand or accept this. It is a good thing to know our true motivations, even if they are quite shallow. We do need to know why we continue our traditions.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            My boys go to a Christian school. It is the closest school to us and is one of the best in the area. Just a shame about the not-so-subtle attempts at indoctrination. But I accept that as part of them being a Christian school. I just get the boys to ask awkward questions.

  • Eric Devries

    Christmas is the only one we celebrate ourselves but we might visit family for Thanksgiving or another holiday. I just have a lot of trouble seeing what Holidays ones household celebrates as being a big deal. I left a Christian faith with a lot of baggage, I got over it and now I incorporate all kinds of Christian elements into my daily practice. I certainly don’t seek to define myself by opposition to something and as you stated at some point these customs/traditions/holidays stop being tied to Christianity(or whatever) and start being tied to our families and by extension ourselves. Most of these Holidays are a mesh of Pagan and Christian traditions to begin with, just celebrate already, who cares what you call it, if it brings your family closer, if it helps you connect with your Deities, if you get whatever it is your looking for out of it that’s awesome.

  • MrsBs Confessions

    I’m married to a man who was raised Catholic and live very near to his Catholic family. My kids have been raised celebrating the best of both worlds (Pagan holidays are “home” holidays, Catholic holidays are “Grammy’s house” holidays). We get to celebrate most everything twice, and they certainly haven’t been harmed by seeing different faiths coming together in love and acceptance.

  • Melissa Cohen

    Exactly! I’m not a Pagan, I’m a Jewish convert, but still celebrate Christmas and Easter because they were never religious holidays for me, they’re family holidays.

  • Chanel Hilliard

    Thank you…. I wished I could have put these words together. You did a good job.

  • Marc

    I wonder if it is ‘Culturally Christian’ or, rather, ‘Culturally Protestant’. I’m talking on the whole of the country here, not just in various denominations.

    When I was in a Russian history course, early on in the semester my professor threw out a very random term while we were talking about early Muscovite religious ritual and the Saint’s Lives of Russia. Turns out, hagiography is a pretty useful historic tool to track things like diseases, something that I hadn’t considered before.

    Specifically, while in group session, a couple people in the class couldn’t understand the idea of Russians (and other Medieval Christians, particularly Latins) so vested in their cults. And then the idea of pilgrimages came up, of these elaborate circuits of religiously-inspired travels, and again, many in the class couldn’t understand why, or the desire, even the nominally “religious”.

    And the professor got on to talking about how some people (and she threw out a scholarly reference, but damned if I know it) put forth that America has a “protestantizing effect” on religion, and that even immigrant groups of non-Protestant religions in the main-stream find themselves less of that religious dedication. American Catholics, for instance, are on a whole less-likely than European Catholics to have the same attitudes towards the superstitions/miracles/etc of that faith.

    I know this isn’t across the board, I’m talking in larger trends. I’m aware of periods of resurgence in American spiritualism and religiosity, and the lamentable rise of various evangelical groups that would put their faith ahead of temporal concerns. But sometimes I really wonder if the lack of emphasis on the ‘high ritual’ in the American culture is based more on the same lack of emphasis found in Protestantism. And the statement that America had a protestantizing effect on other religions was a tantalizing idea that I can’t seem to track down anywhere in reasonable scholarship. I’d love to see comparative studies of this effect on non-Christian groups, specifically, if it exists at all.

    I’m not sure.

    In my personal life, I don’t refer to Christmas as such. I call it Giftmas, because frankly, that’s what it is about to me. It is one half materialistic, and one half a celebration of family, where we get together and have a large group meal with the few family members that are in the area. Easter is largely the same feel in my family house as Thanksgiving. They simply are all the same feast day with different dishes, and different amounts of stress. So yeah, they’re family holidays, most definitely. I wonder if we’ll ever see it (Christmas) get to the point that it is at in Japan across the spectrum.

    But then again, in my personal life, I don’t necessarily have a set schedule for religious observance. I’m bad at observing holidays because it is a routine I feel uncomfortable in. I’m not very comfortable in ritual because I’m not used to it, and my family has never been really religious. My father, who was raised as a hardcore Boston-area Catholic, divorced my mother and left when I was 6. So I guess I’ve never had the experience of being connected to any specific religious observance, which secularizes these supposedly religious holidays for me.

    • Brian Michael Shea

      I’m sure there is a connection. America has a very strong Protestant background(heck people were freaking out when Kennedy, a GASP , Catholic became president). I also think scientism, atheism/agnosticism, and secularism have had their influence too. Perhaps capitalism as well.

      • Marc

        Most definitely, all very good points. I’d be interested to see the level of “religiosity” in Northern Europe’s Protestant influenced secular states in comparison to Southern Europe’s Catholic influences, and see which brand of secularism gives itself more license to the religiosity that I’m thinking of.

  • Conor O’Bryan Warren

    You know, I grew up Pentecostal, yet we never placed a bunch of emphasis on Easter. Christmas, well, that is another story, but I’m lucky to have a means to celebrate that time (but not that holiday specifically) within my faith. It is quite hard to “give up” those holidays, I know just from the year or so that I’ve been observing the Deipnon and Noumenia, the thought of doing neither of them any longer is quite uncomfortable. Why? Because, I’m already forming good feelings and memories regarding them, and they happen every month so they quickly became a part of my life. A childhood and adolescence observing those things, I don’t understand how someone could just “forget it” and pretend it doesn’t occur. and anyone expecting you to do just that is well. . .a tad silly.

  • Kilmrnock

    I agree and sympathathise[sp?] is the same with my family , altho in my houshold we celebrate the Solstice/Yule i wouldn’t think of not going the my mothers and celebrating christmas with them . Like yours atho my mother is a church goer , my father never was and christmas in particular was always more a family gathering , the same w/ easter morning breakfast . Altho i am a CR , my family like most in the US is culturaly Christian and i am still a part of that family. Actualy my Clan means alot to me , always will

  • Mariah Windrider

    Wow. One thing this illuminates to me is how people reacted about 17-18 hundred years ago when the Christian religions were growing and even when they became legal, then finally the Roman Empire State Religion. Amazing! Slowly but surely our children and grandchildren will spend more time thinking about Yule or Beltane or the Equinox and wonder what that Christmas stuff was all about. “Oh, Christmas? that was from the old days when they had to wait a few days to make sure the Sun had come back”.

  • + Yvonne Aburrow

    I celebrate Christmas as well as Yule. But I celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday (with emphasis on the Pagan trappings) and Yule as a Pagan holiday. I used to be much keener on not referring to it as Christmas, and sending Yule cards that don’t mention Christmas, but I am more relaxed about it these days.

    As for Easter… mmm chocolate. I see Jesus as just another Middle eastern dying and resurrecting fertility deity, so in that sense, I can happily go along to a Tenebrae service (and have led one myself, complete with a reading of Thunder, Perfect Mind, the Gnostic text which begins “I am the honoured one and the scorned one”).

    But the UK is much less religiously observant than the USA, so it’s less of a big deal.