7 Christmas Traditions

Tevye doesn’t appreciate headlining this post

— 1 —

Hullo all and Merry Christmas!  I’m home with my family, looking forward to Chinese food and a movie.  It seemed like a fun time to share some traditions of my atheist family Christmas.

— 2 —

On Christmas Eve, some folks read “Twas the Night before Christmas” aloud as a family.  At my parents’ house, we read David Sedaris’s Santaland Diaries (his essay about his job as an elf in Macy’s Christmas wonderland).  We pass the book along in turns, or when someone is laughing too hard to keep reading.

The full text of that essay isn’t online, so let me link you instead to “Six to Eight Black Men” which is also by Sedaris.  Here’s part of what he learns about Amsterdam’s Christmas lore:

I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as “six to eight black men.” I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always “six to eight,” which seems strange, seeing as they’ve had hundreds of years to get a decent count.

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”

“A switch?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. They’d kick him and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they’d put him in a sack and take him back to Spain.”

— 3 —

We have two traditional Christmas movies (besides the one in a movie theatre on Christmas day).  The first is Muppet Christmas Carol.  And I couldn’t bring myself to pick only one song, so I’ve embedded the number that introduces Scrooge and the one that features Statler and Waldorf as the Marley brothers delivering their dread warning.



— 4 —

The second is Mrs. Santa Claus, which stars Angela Lansbury.  In this one, Santa’s wife takes a visit to turn of the century New York City and ends up stranded for a few weeks.  While she’s there, she gets involved in a slowdown in a factory using child labor and marches in a sufragette protest.  Ah, liberal Christmas!  Here’s the villainous owner of the factory:



— 5 —

But the best part of the Christmas season at my house is cookie making.  The trouble is, after many years of this tradition, some of the standards (stockings, ornaments, etc) feel a little hackneyed.  So then I branch out into things like a single-celled organism:

with nucleus, mitochondria, rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum, and lysosomes!

Or a giraffe that has smallpox (and is sad about it):

Or a zombie moose:

Or this:

— 6 —

And on to a slightly more traditional tradition: my favorite Christmas carol is hands down “O Holy Night.”  I like that it sounds like what it is; I like belting the “Fall to your knees” chorus.  It’s got much more feeling than all the Rudolphs or general winter songs.

— 7 —

Finally, this isn’t strictly speaking a Christmas tradition, but it should be one for everyone.  If you’ve not seen the ever-hilarious Hyperbole and a Half, check out the seasonally appropriate “The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas” in which a family Christmas pageant goes awry:

Keep reading at Hyperbole and a Half and have a holly jolly etc!

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  • Joe

    I love “O Holy Night” as well. Did you make it to Mass at all?

    • leahlibresco

      No, I was at my parents’ house.

  • Joe

    I pray that next year you’ll be keeping the baby Jesus warm in your heart Chistmas morning

    • leahlibresco

      You were right!

  • The section on carols pretty much sums up my experience, too…

    • Oh, and I like the cookies. You put way more effort into yours than I usually put into mine…

      I have a question for you, though perhaps you haven’t given it much thought (or have given it lots of thought but have difficulty answering and/or think it’s so obvious that you haven’t bothered to answer and/or have answered it in a blog post that I missed somehow): What does tradition mean to you, in this context? This isn’t quite to ask /why/ you have atheist Christmas traditions, but I suppose answering one might answer the other. I’m wondering what purpose there is to an atheist tradition. Is something like what your family does (as a strictly household tradition) appeal to you more than, say, Newtonmas, with its attempts to make its traditions universally practicable and relevant?

      • leahlibresco

        It definitely means more to me because it’s my family’s tradition (and that of much of NY), not because Chinese food is an intrinsic good. Tradition (like fairy tales) can be a way to encode lessons, but, aside from family time, there’s not much of a takeaway from ours. I think the good of tradition even when it’s not linked to a value is that it helps create a community vernacular, which reinforces ties. Festivus could serve as well for this purpose. And the reason it’s linked to Christmas is because that’s when we get time off.

  • deiseach

    I’m too late now, but Belated Happy Chinese-and-a-movie Day, Leah!

    Um – any strong feelings for or against Epiphany? I might be organised enough to wish you a happy day then! Or not, if that’s your preference.

  • Brett

    Merry season, cousin. I suppose I should correct you (as your mother once did me) to note that at the time they preferred to be called “suffragists” and not the more derogatory “suffragettes”.