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.