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December 12, 2009

Do you have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas?


A couple years ago, I was helping at the holiday party for my son’s fourth-grade class. One of son’s classmates came up to me and asked me why our family celebrated Christmas. He said my son had told other classmates that we’re not Christian.

I was speechless for the 5 seconds it took before that boy was distracted by the opportunity to go slather green frosting on some Christmas tree-shaped cookies.

To be honest, I didn’t have an answer for him, other than to admit that, yeah, our family is not religious, we don’t go to church, and we have not incorporated the teachings of Jesus Christ into a spiritual tradition that any of us follow individually or as a family. Therefore, you could say we are not Christian.

(But I do have a fondness for those gorgeous Medieval and early Renaissance paintings that tended to focus on Christian themes, including the nativity and the crucifixion, including the one above, from the 1480s by Domenico Ghirlandaio.)

And why do we celebrate Christmas? I guess because we, like many other Americans who are or who are not religious, like all the festivities associated with the holiday: trimming the tree, hearing the carols, getting together with family, eating gingerbread, and watching those hokey but uplifting Christmas movies.

All this was a bit too much to get into with a fourth-grader at a school holiday party. I didn’t mind the question, and it has prompted certain discussions in our family about religion and faith. For others, such a question about the “meaning of Christmas” and who should or can celebrate it will also raise long-standing complaints about how the holiday has become overly commercial, with Black Friday stampedes and kids growing up to worry only about what they are going to get, get, get on Christmas morning.

Culturally, I would be defined as a WASP (white anglo-saxon Protestant), but I have never regularly attended any church services in my life, Protestant or otherwise. My mother was raised Presbyterian, but in a manner she found restrictive and judgmental. Early in her marriage, she desperately looked for a church to belong to and to which to take my older siblings. She never found that church, and gave up by the time I came along. It’s too bad for her that she never found her church, because she always seemed to have that longing to have something spiritual in her life.

I’ve never really had that longing, but, oddly, one of the things that originally attracted me to my husband was that he was a practicing, though not strict—because he was dating me—Catholic. He attended mass on a regular basis and took communion. His faith intrigued me. It struck me as mysterious and romantic, and I accompanied him to mass, though I never could have embraced it for myself. And he never expected me to. That other people have faith intrigues me, probably because in some people, I see how it inspires them to act with amazing grace and courage in their lives. I saw that this was true with my husband.

My husband’s attachment to Catholicism waned, in part because he grew disgusted with the Church’s handling of its clergy molestation scandal. But, he also found that Catholicism did not help him in dealing with his mental illness. He’s Mr. Buddhism now.

It should come as no surprise that we did not raise our son in any religion, which to some might make us derelict parents. In any event, my son has been a skeptic since he was 3 or 4 when he declared that Santa Claus was not real.

We did not raise our son telling him that there was no Santa Claus—or that there was no God, either. But I never talked to him as if I believed God existed, because, honestly, I don’t know.
Recently our son said to us, “No one has ever scientifically proven there is a God.”

I responded: “No one has ever proven there is not.”
I offered the idea that perhaps faith is an act of love. You love someone or some thing, or you don’t. You have faith, or you don’t.

I hear that Americans are overwhelmingly religious and Christian, but maybe that’s not entirely the case. “The American population self-identifies as predominantly Christian but Americans are slowly becoming less Christian,” according to the American Religious Identification Survey 2009, prepared by Trinity College in Connecticut. “Eighty-six percent of American adults identified as Christians in 1990 and 76 percent in 2008.”

And then there are the “Nones.” The "Nones" are those with no stated religious preference, or who call themselves atheist or agnostic. This category continues “to grow,” from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. "The rise of the 'Nones' has been one of the most important trends on the American religious scene since 1990," the study says.

"The overall rate of growth of those expressing no religious preference slowed after 2001 but the numbers offering a specific self-identification as agnostic or atheist rose markedly from over a million in 1990 to about 2 million in 2001 to about 3.6 million today," the study continues.

If that’s the case, I wonder how much of these other “Nones” also put up Christmas trees, eat gingerbread and drink eggnog in the days leading up to December 25, and get together on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with family and friends to eat, enjoy one another's company and to exchange presents.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

richard dawkins, arguably the most famous modern day atheist admits to non-religiously celebrating christmas because it is a part of the culture he is a part of.

Anonymous said...

I know a wide variety of people who celebrate Christmas: believers, non-believers, kinda-believers. The only folks I know that don't celebrate Christmas are Jehovah's Witnesses. Christmas has become as much a cultural holiday as it ever was a religious holiday. I figure that you don't need to believe in Jesus because Christmas gives us all the opportunity to open our eyes to what's happening in our communities and help. I know we shouldn't wait until the holidays to give to the needy in our community, but the fact is that we all do get wrapped up in our lives during the year.

Anonymous said...

Read the Gospel of Luke in the Bible. Then decide for yourself. The account of Jesus' life and the claims he made about himself are astonishing. The Bible is the most influential book in western civilization. It's amazing how many people have never read any of it.

Anonymous said...

Let's keep Christ in Christmas, please. So if you're not Christian, it's kind of silly to celebrate it, unless you celebrate it like you do Halloween, Valentine's day etc, in which case it's understandable, if not simply succumbing to the great American marketing machine which pumps up all those other holidays.

Anonymous said...

The biggest atheist I know had the most Christmas decorations of anyone I know and states that she celebrates Christmas as "the pagan holiday that it is"

Since her attitude is always materially oriented, I would contend her goal is to extract as much wealth out of her relatives as possible via Christmas gifts, and has implied something like this so...

people have lots of motives for celebrating Christmas

Soccer Mom said...

My lapsed Catholic husband always thought it was weird that our family, at least when we first started going out, would celebrate Easter. Basically, it would provide another occasion for the siblings, spouses, and kids to get together with our parents, for a picnic. My sisters are big on decorating eggs and preparing Easter baskets, and they still do it for their now adult kids.
The family get-together tradition has waned, and my husband, son and I don't do anything special on Easter. For a while, I felt bad not getting all into the egg decorating or Easter basket preparation. But whatever.
Meanwhile, we've got our tree up. I love this time of year and all the symbols go with it. Actually, back when my husband was still a practicing Catholic, we did attend Christmas morning mass together in a local parish church in our San Francisco neighborhood. It was a lovely way to begin the day.

A faithful reader... said...

I had some Christian upbringing. Everyone can celebrate Christmas regardless of faith. That is just silly. My husband's family are non-Christians and they celebrate most Christian Holidays.

I have met more blasphemeous Christians than any other faith. I have been reluctant to bring my own child to any church because of the clickishness of the members.

I recently met a Children's Pastor at a "Christian" church who was absolutely appalling in self-serving behavior and disingenuous actions. She could use a refresher course in some Bible Verses.

Talk about a turn-off to the Christian Faith. I would rather my child remain free from the burdens of socialized religion.

Celebrate Soccer Mom. Enjoy. Embrace our world of freedom. Freedom to be whatever we shall be.

Merry Christmas.

Anonymous said...

10:23, Let's keep the pagan in christmas.

'Christmas began over 4000 years ago, as the festival which renewed the world for another year. The 12 days of Christmas, the bright fires and probably the yule log; the giving of presents; the carnivals with their floats; their merry makings and clowning; the mummers who sing and play from house to house, the feasting; the church processions with their lights and song —all these and more began three centuries before Christ was born. And they celebrated the arrival of a new year.' E.W.Count. The 4000 Years of Christmas.

Anonymous said...

We are a Christian and Jewish household. Someone recently said to me "Happy Christukkah". I loved it and only wish I had heard this before I printed our "Holiday" cards. My Jewish husband goes around saying "Merry Christmas". We are fine with any saying at this time of year. We celebrate being together as a family, that is what this season means to us.

Anonymous said...

This is so insulting. To sum Christmas up to a holiday like Martin Luther King, Jr. day or Halloween (just a national holiday for "fun") is so beyond naive and frustrating. Christmas is for Christians. Hence the "Christ" in the name.

Imagine if I went up to Native Americans and decided to build a long-house and camp out in a tee pee because I enjoyed watching "the rain-dances of those dark skinned people and look at their pretty little houses!!!!! omg!". That is how you make me feel when you talk about how you like the tree, and the carols, etc.

I feel nauseous. This is such a sacred time for people who believe in Christ. SACRED. Please keep that in mind.

More power to the little boy who had the courage and smarts to ask the million dollar question!

Lenora said...

This will not actually have success, I consider this way.