December 15, 2015

Dear Christans: What does Christmas mean to an atheist?

This time of year is fraught with a constant tension, a classically tedious ping-pong game where organizations dedicated to the separation of church and state and Christian citizens duke it out over the concept and future of Christmas.

This post isn't meant to share my feelings on why these battles are important (or if they are!) but rather to talk about a common objection that I see in various comment sections when these stories make local news: Why do you even celebrate Christmas if you are an atheist?

The answer to that is complicated, and I think that, while I'm by no means a perfect spokesperson for atheists at large, my experience is pretty generalizable, especially for "first generation" atheists coming out of religious families like me.

So Christmas. WHY?

Let me start by saying this: I LOVE CHRISTMAS. It's honestly my favorite holiday. Easily, by a mile. I love the pageantry. I love the decorating. I love the FOOD. I even really enjoy Christmas shopping (I'll even don my elf hat!)

Superfluous photo of me in said elf hat

This love of Christmas grows out of a very important part of my childhood--it's probably the single most compelling reason that I still celebrate Christmas: My family has always loved it.

When I was young, Christmas usually started either the day after Thanksgiving (if we weren't traveling to visit family for the weekend) or the very first weekend in December. My dad would cheerfully get the ladder out and start hanging lights. The display grew little by little every year--lights, inflatables, a giant inflatable semi-Nativity (in which Mary and Joseph are absent, having questionably left the young Messiah in the care of a donkey, a sheep, and a cow, that I don't trust--they are shady characters!).

My mom, sisters and I would lend a hand as necessary. We would also start to work on some of the interior decorating. There was hot chocolate, Elvis's "Blue Christmas", cookies...along with lots of laughter and fun. While the Christmases that my dad missed while deployed were more subdued, they were still special times. Some of my absolute favorite memories center around Christmas and the preparation for it.

On Christmas Eve, we would get new pajamas. We would watch Christmas movies--especially Nester the Long-Eared Donkey, my mom's favorite--and we'd read the Gospel story of Jesus's birth, first in a kid-friendly format and eventually from the scriptures themselves.

Christmas morning would see my father--unable to contain his excitement!--waking everyone up at the crack of dawn. He's always been amazing at picking the perfect gift, and he gets so much joy from seeing his success.

All in all, the season itself gives me joy too, and that's not something that changed when I left religion. Because Christmas now has a significant secular aspect also, it's the perfect holiday for us to celebrate as a family.

The second most compelling reason is pretty simple: My kids are already weird enough.

In our community, not going to church is weird. Most of our neighbors go. Most of their friends go. That they don't go is a source of difference at a time when they don't necessarily want to be different. Not celebrating a major holiday would be yet another source of difference. And to me, that matters. Since we have the secular aspect, it's an easy compromise to let them enjoy the fun of the holiday without having to worry about them being different from their classmates and friends in yet another way.

So why do I celebrate Christmas? Because I love it. What does it mean to me? A chance to maintain some traditions I grew up with. An opportunity to talk to my kids about altruistic subjects. And the smiles--the time with my family--so much more.

It's the most wonderful time of the year. :-)

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