What the Holidays Mean When Your Religious Beliefs Have Changed

I used to believe, but I don't think I do anymore

holiday decorations

When I was growing up, celebrating winter holidays was a decidedly Christian affair with many Midwestern and Nordic traditions. The fun started on December 1st when we would break out the decorations. My mother was very particular with how she decorated the tree, so the ornaments we had that weren’t in keeping with her theme were hung on garlands displayed over the kitchen windows.

My parents had the large bay window to showcase their expansive ornament collection, and my younger brother and I each had a standard size window to hang the ornaments my parents gifted to us on a yearly basis. During my parents’ first Christmas, they only had one ornament, which had been given to them as a wedding gift, and my mother described the tree as looking sad and bare and Charlie Brown-esque. To prevent this calamity when my brother and I celebrated our first Christmases out of the house, my mother made a point of buying us each an ornament every year for our stockings so that we would have a modest collection of decorations for our first trees.

the traditions didn’t stop there

In addition to decorating the windows of the house on the first, we would bring out the large vintage nativity that had been passed down from my maternal grandmother. We only placed out the animals and the shepherds; on Christmas Eve we would bring down Mary and Joseph, and on Christmas Day we would make a big show of bringing down Jesus and the angel. The three wise men would make a brief appearance on January 6th before we packed up the Christmas decorations for good. We had an advent calendar that one of my aunts had painstakingly sewn for us, and my brother and I would fight over who got to be in charge of placing the odd numbered knick knacks on the calendar’s tree, thus ensuring that on the twenty fifth the triumphant child placed the star on the top.

December 6th was one of my favorite days of the month. My mother was very adamant about keeping the Christ in Christmas, and so Santa Claus did not visit us on Christmas Day. Instead, he gave us our stockings on St. Nicholas Day, and we often skipped school to go see a holiday movie and enjoy a dinner out together. December 13th was the day that my mother paraded me out as St. Lucy; dressed in a white nightgown with a red sash while balancing a be-candled wreath on my head, I served the family “Lussekatter,” or Swedish saffron buns and tea. These minor winter holidays glowed on the calendar like pinpricks, keeping us busy until Christmas Eve. When that day finally arrived, we would gather together in the living room and my father would read to us the story of Mr. Skip, the little brownie who, along with his seagull friend, helped Santa Claus make sure all the children of Waldoboro were in bed and asleep.

The next day, we awoke to three presents under the tree—not from Santa Claus but from Jesus. Included in the festivities of the day was an ice cream cake and sparkling cider, traditional birthday fare in our house, and we would sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. Four days later the cake and cider would be broken out again, but this time instead of celebrating the birth of our savior we would direct the felicitations toward me, as it was my birthday. It was indeed a busy month, and one that was a foundation of many happy childhood memories.

i’m navigating religion with an agnostic by my side

Recreating these memories and traditions with my new fiancé has been a unique challenge. The older I get, the more disillusioned I become with Christianity, and celebrating the complex and decidedly Christ-oriented traditions of my childhood seems disingenuous. If only it were as simple as it is for my fiancé, an agnostic who celebrates the holiday without a tree or any of the accouterments of my youth.

I feel the need to have a spiritual outlet in my life, and so while I attend an open and affirming Christian church, I go through the motions of celebrating a holiday dedicated to the birth of Jesus. I’ve experimented with Neo-Paganism in the past, something that meshes well with Christian traditions since many of them borrow from ancient pagan roots, but I no longer feel the pull toward that faith that was so prevalent in my teen years. I feel a very strong calling toward Judaism, but a conversion is a difficult process for a young gay woman reliant on public transportation and engaged to a non-Jew. Certainly my fiancé’s perspective on the holidays lends well to an interfaith situation, yet I found myself pining (if you’ll pardon the pun) for a tree, something we didn’t end up having this year.

I recall being a student in high school and bringing up to the principal that I was uncomfortable with the Christmas decorations on display in the school. She dismissed my statements because I attended the same church she did; I didn’t have the heart to tell her that my parents forced my attendance and I didn’t really consider myself Catholic.

what role do religious beliefs play these days?

While studies and polls indicate the majority of American adults have some religious beliefs, it seemed to me that many of my peers were either atheists or raised in “Christmas/Easter” households that did not put any emphasis on faith and were, in fact, quite agnostic. It was then that it occurred to me that Christmas, much to my mother’s chagrin, had evolved from an important and holy holiday into something cultural and more family/gift focused. While in my house growing up, Christmas was an important religious holiday, in most other households in my area it had become something that people from a variety of backgrounds could partake in without compromising their beliefs.

In a perfect world, I would have had my life and my belief system figured out before I had met my fiancé. I would have gone into this relationship with concrete knowledge of what moral and spiritual systems work for me and we could have created new traditions that would balance our needs and desires relating to faith and to our cultures. But this is not a perfect world, and spirituality is nothing if not a journey.

we’ll keep growing—together

I believe wholeheartedly that there is something to be said for growing as individuals while growing as a couple, and certainly personal growth does not stop at age thirty once you have decided you are ready to settle down and have kids. Some things about me will grow and change through the decades, and other things will stay the same; in the meantime, I will be tethered to someone who will keep me in check and make sure that in spite of (and because of) all those changes I will stay true to myself.

We will form and break traditions as we begin this new life together, and as I begin a complicated spiritual journey, she will stand by me and offer me support.

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  • Lorraine

    I grew up as a Christian, but I am no longer a Christian.

    There is no Christian imagery in my holiday and I don’t find this problematic at all. If Christmas is more and more losing it’s emphasis on Christianity, then it’s returning to it’s roots. Many of the elements we associate with Christmas predated Christianity and were used during Saturnalia or the Solstice.

    The part of Christmas I identify with is a universal theme. It’s light in the darkness. It’s Hope. It’s “Peace on Earth”. It’s connection. It’s evergreens reminding us that life returns.

    So, my decorations reflect nature and light. I have lights, silver acorns, watery turquoise ornaments, animal ornaments, stars, greenery. berries. No Christian would be perplexed by my Christmas, and no agnostic would feel uncomfortable.

  • Saxyrunner

    My husband and I were both raised Catholic, but are now atheists. I love having a tree with a hodge podge of ornaments collected over the course of years, and the gift giving and family celebration.

  • MrsRalphWaldo

    My husband considers himself to be Atheist, and I’m Agnostic, yet Christmas is one of my favorite holidays. We celebrate it as a season of giving, of family, and of joy. We have a traditional Christmas tree, but I am filled with more joy from the aroma than from any potential religious ties. I actually did some research into the history of Christmas trees this year, and I find that it makes me even happier to have this symbol of life in my home.

    Even though we were both raised as Christians, my family’s only religious tradition was to read the bible story to us each year. Other than that it was very much how we celebrate today: laughter, food, and emphasis on sharing what you have with those around you.

    • Lorraine

      When I first read your comment, I read “Atheist” as “Atlantean”.

      Then I reread it. Damn. I wish your husband really was from Atlantis. Ha ha.

      • MrsRalphWaldo

        Me too Lorraine, me too. Lol

  • idkmybffjill

    While my family wasn’t this way, I went to a religious school with lots of kids whose families wouldn’t do the traditional Christmas decor as it was so pagan in history. As an agnostic I find it really comforting to celebrate Christmas in the traditional way and to acknowledge how much of the Traditional American Christmas has borrowed from non-Christian traditions. I mean… the date alone was designated to align with solstice celebrations.

  • revooca

    And here I thought my husband’s family was the only one that sang happy birthday to Jesus! They do it on Christmas Eve, though. They’re also Catholic. I was raised Catholic as well and went to Catholic school from kindergarten through 7th grade. We weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. We put on a “passion play” every year. We had to “keep the Christ in Christmas”.

    I lost my faith at age 9 when my friend (and her two younger siblings) was murdered by her mother. Part of my loss of faith came from the event itself, but a lot also came from the fact that my Catholic school/community tried to use the Catholic faith I no longer blindly trusted as an explanation for what happened. So when I said, “Why did this happen?”, they said, “God wanted her with him because he loves her.” That terrified me. “God” suddenly seemed more like a psychopathic enemy than the loving parent figure everyone around me seemed to revere.

    I called myself an atheist as a preteen, which then evolved to agnosticism. I’m pretty sure I developed PTSD, especially after another friend spent days in a coma after a near-fatal car accident. I’m only now beginning to deal with all this (and so, so much more) in therapy at age 31.

    I know this comment wasn’t so much about holiday traditions…but…I guess I needed to share that there are SO many ways to have a complicated relationship with faith, traditions, community, institutions, and family. Glad to know I’m not the only one still figuring it out.

    • MrsRalphWaldo

      I’m sorry that that happened to you. Losing your faith can be traumatic in itself, but especially through something like this.

    • cml

      I am so sorry that happened. :(
      As a Christian, I really don’tlike the way Christians tend to handle things like this. My biggest struggle is why God would allow bad things to happen, but personally I believe we live in a broken world in a battle between good and evil.
      To hear someone say things like, “God took her to live with him because he needed her in heaven” or, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” is really missing the mark and doing a huge disservice, in my opinion. Bad, evil, horrible things happen and I don’t think they are the work of a loving God, but rather an evil satan. Why they are allowed to happen is something I struggle with and don’t have a good answer on, but you’d think we could come up with better pithy phrases for people who are hurting. :/

  • archivist777

    I was raised in a rural Midwest Lutheran tradition. As an adult, I’ve become very disillusioned with a lot of things about Christianity, but Christmas is one of the parts I still like very much. It’s all hope, joy, love and peace, inclusive of all humanity and absent of judgement, and that’s a message I can get behind. The inspiration I feel from Christmas is what keeps me hanging on to Christianity and wondering if I still believe.

    • JP

      Longtime lurker here. First comment ever (!) so that I could respond to your thoughts and feelings. I love Christmas much more as an adult who has seriously examined my faith and recommitted to it. The spirits and intentions of Christmas that you describe (joy, inclusiveness, love, peace and hope) *are* the defining characteristics of Jesus as described in the gospels, and I hope and pray that you keep digging into how radical he and his message were, in loving all those rejected by the religious and social authorities at the time, and in affirming the value of each individual, no matter what. In addition to reading a good translation of the gospels, a great academic book that reveals many layers of Jesus’ message is “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” by Kenneth Bailey.
      Appropriately for Christmas, it starts with the story of his birth, and then delves into many other parts of the story. If you like cultural studies, poetry and literature, this book will offer a lot to chew on! Other very thoughtful studies are “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography” by John Dominic Crossan, and “Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally” by Marcus Borg.

      Tragically, some people who are Christians have exemplified just about the opposite of every bit of “good news” (gospel) that Jesus taught. They spread hate and fear, violence and despair, where Jesus teaches and practices love and joy, peace and hope. They spread divisiveness where Jesus warmly includes.

      Despite all this, you *can* find churches that are a welcoming communities, striving to follow Jesus’ teachings with faith in action, working for justice and loving all. The Advent and Christmas season is a great time to start some new explorations of old traditions and beliefs!

      • Argentum

        Thanks for these referrals, JP! After taking a look at “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” on Amazon, I am going to get it for my mom for Christmas this year. She has always epitomized the welcoming church community to me, but lately she has been struggling with some issues at her local parish. She loves cultural studies, poetry and literature – not to mention faith in action, working for justice and loving all – so this book sounds perfect!

  • Argentum

    From the tagline, I almost thought this was going to be about how to handle Christmas after you no longer believe in Santa :)

    Great essay! I relate strongly, and I really like the conclusions about growing together, creating traditions as a new family, and supporting each other.

    I consider myself a practicing Catholic, and my husband believes there is a higher power but isn’t a fan of religion. I am also half Jewish and grew up celebrating Jewish holidays, mostly as part of our cultural heritage – and yet for me, these always had a spiritual aspect, as well. In my childhood home, holidays were religious but inclusive. My mother also sought to keep Christ in Christmas, but for me and my brothers this meant not believing in Santa Claus, getting to open our presents the night before everyone else did, and being warned a lot about the subversive dangers of commercialization and the worship of corporate profits :) On Christmas Eve, we would read a bible excerpt about Jesus’s birth … but Catholic theology was always interpreted with a feminist hermeneutic in my mother’s house.

    I do not try to “convert” my husband into embracing religion, and I am grateful to have my parents’ model of one religious partner and one more-or-less agnostic partner respecting one another, challenging each other’s beliefs on occasion, celebrating holidays together as a family, and – perhaps most importantly – sharing the same essential values.

    • MrsRalphWaldo

      I definitely think the Santa spin would be an interesting one! I mean I’m assuming none of us believe in his current existence, but I mentioned to my mom and MIL over Thanksgiving that my husband and I don’t intend on doing Santa with our kids and I was shocked at the backlash that we got. Tips on how to handle that situation with friends and relatives would be much appreciated as well!

      • accidental_diva

        A friend does this (her parents didn’t tell her until HIGH SCHOOL that there was no Santa and she felt that they had her live a lie for her entire life). Mostly they just don’t talk about it – they explained to their older son (and to the younger one soon) that it is something that other families do but they don’t – worked until he was in school (public school) and then he started asking about the tooth fairy and why she wasn’t visiting him. So they had to go over EVERYTHING that they didn’t do (Santa, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, etc.). They also have to remind him (often) that its not something that he gets to tell other kids isn’t real.

        • Anon

          The not telling other kids thing is always my parents’ so-called ace in the hole on why we “have to” do Santa, but like…what about all the millions of non-Christmas celebrating kids who manage not to spill the beans each year?

          Also, maybe this makes me a horrible person, but sometimes kids find out that Santa isn’t real before the parents want that to happen. …Is it really the end of the world? Not saying that it’s good if a kid maliciously goes out of their way, but sometimes it happens and almost all kids move on from it, as far as I can tell.

          • Nell

            As a Jewish kid who knew Santa wasn’t real, but also knew enough not to call any of my friends on it when I was a kid . . . I think it really is fine to have your own traditions, and it’s an EXCELLENT opportunity to teach your kids how to respect the beliefs and traditions of other people.

          • Eh

            Good point about non-Christmas celebrating families. I think it’s a bit easier though when you don’t celebrate though. My brother’s family doesn’t celebrate and now that my niece and nephew are a bit older, people are talking to them about Santa. My brother/SIL just tell their kids that they don’t believe in Santa (because they believe something else) so it’s not an issue with them telling other kids that Santa isn’t real because it isn’t an issue of real or not, it’s an issue of believing or not.

          • GotMarried!

            You can absolutely teach your kids both that Santa isn’t real and how to respect other families beliefs. I teach a 5-6 year old class at my church and remember one year two students discussing what they’d requested Santa bring them. Another student whispered to me after class that Santa isn’t actually real. I think she was concerned that her teacher played along with the illusion for her classmates.

        • TeaforTwo

          This last bit baffles me. I mean, I get that social niceties require a lot of blind-eye-turning, but if he did tell the other kids that there’s no Santa Claus or tooth fairy…it’s not like he would be wrong.

      • Eh

        I’m interested in tips too! We still haven’t decided how to deal with Santa. If we decide that Santa will have a role it might just be stockings. I have a friend that tells her daughter Santa can only bring things that can be made in his very low tech toy shop (and the bigger ticket items are from the parents).

        • MrsRalphWaldo

          I find the challenge with that is that some kids will receive much more elaborate gifts from Santa than others. That’s one of the biggest reasons we want to steer clear altogether.

          • Eh

            That’s exactly what I am struggling with.

          • accidental_diva

            My mom & dad always told us anything that couldn’t be built in the toy shop (e.g. American Girl Dolls, video game systems, very specific toys) were ordered and they had to leave Santa a check for them. Also why we needed to help other families with toys through the giving tree at church or the mall, not everyone could afford Barbies & GI Joes.

        • E.

          I’m trying to remember how my parents explained who the presents were from. I think we knew the presents were from them, but it was elves who delivered them (because how could Santa get to everyone in one night?). We always left grass on the porch for the reindeer and cookies and satsumas for the elves inside. We would wake up to the grass tracked all through the house (because the reindeer decided to come inside) and a note in left handed writing from the elves thanking us for the treats. I always loved it and am definitely going to do something similar when I have kids.

    • Nell

      In my wife’s non-religious, Christmas-celebrating family, they didn’t really do Santa. The presents are usually “from” the dogs or from abstract concepts. For example, a new suitcase might be “from adventure” or a new spatula might be “from tasty dinners.” I hope we’ll keep this up with our kids, because it reminds me as I’m giving a gift that it’s not about the object, but about the experience that someone will have enjoying it.

      • Alice

        I LOVE the abstract concept idea! My parents always left the gift tags for kid presents blank if they didn’t want to specifically claim the gift as being from them, which lent an air of magic to the morning without being specifically Santa-oriented, but your way is so whimsical and fun!

        • Eh

          When we were little we got gifts from “Santa” but as we got older and we stopped believing we got gifts where the “from” was left blank. It highlighted to us that this was our “special” gift. We knew it was from our parents but it was in the spirit of Santa (just like how Santa still filled up our stockings).

  • emilyg25

    It took me a long time to admit that Christmas is my favorite holiday, even including the Jesus parts. I like going to the Advent service at our local church. We have a Nativity scene.

    I’ve been nonreligious for almost my whole life (raised loosely Protestant), first as a very loud, certain atheist, but gradually fading into agnosticism. But the teachings of Jesus mean a lot to me, even though I don’t think he’s the Christ. So now I’m able to pick and choose the parts I find meaningful. It’s complicated for sure, and I don’t ever think my faith journey will be done.

  • Eh

    Now having a daughter of my own I have been struggling with Santa and Christmas. I was raised in an agnostic house that “celebrated” Christmas and Easter. My husband was brought up in a protestant church and attended regularly for most of his childhood. He became disillusioned with the church and is now an atheist, and I grew up to be an atheist. For me, Christian holidays are a time to get together with family since we have the time off. My husband’s family (who we live near) is very big into Christmas. My nieces get tons of gifts and an extremely expensive gift from Santa. My in-laws make a big deal about asking them what they got from Santa. That’s not how I envision Christmas at our house and I am worried that my daughter will eventually realize that Santa gets her cousins better stuff.

    Building our own family traditions around Christmas was very important to me because it was my mom’s (who passed away) favourite holiday. Our traditions focus on spending time together as our family unit and spending time with extended family: we have Christmas Eve supper at our house (just our mini-family), we wake up Christmas morning in our house and open presents (very important since early in our marriage my MIL wanted us to go to their house Christmas Eve so we would wake up there), we call my family (as they live all over the country), and then we go visit my husband’s family for the afternoon and supper. My daughter is only 16 months so she doesn’t understand Santa. The last two years she has had pictures with Santa and this year while I was standing in line I was really questioning how Santa fits in with our holiday celebrations.

    • AGCourtney

      I went through the same struggle you’re describing when my daughter was about that age. The nice thing about kids that young is they have no idea! My now-husband and I discussed it, went over the pros and cons of each side and what was important to us, and decided that we wouldn’t do Santa. We still do presents; they’re just from us, instead. We don’t ban him from the house or anything; he’s a fictional character like Frosty the snowman. We had some pushback from our closest relatives, but other than that, we’re pretty quiet about it. I imagine it will generate some more discussion this year – she’s 5 now and having more conversations with grown-ups. But honestly, it hasn’t been too big of a deal and it just works really well for our family.

      Reading about your fears with your in-laws reminded me of a story my MIL told me – one year, the entire extended family stayed at the grandparents’ house for Christmas. In my husband’s family, Santa brought a single present for each family and left it unwrapped (because how would Santa have time to wrap all those presents?) As they learned Christmas morning, though, the cousins received multiple, expensive, carefully wrapped gifts from Santa. They had to do some fast talking to smooth that one over. They never got together for Christmas morning again, haha.

      • Eh

        Thanks! I can’t see banning Santa from our house; it’s very much around the way to frame him.
        My in-laws were marginally better off (and only had 2 kids) than one set of aunts/uncles (who had 4 kids) so my husband and his brother got better gifts than the cousins. The cousins were all close in age and spent a lot of time together (we still have Christmas with the family ever year). The cousins always wondered why my husband and his brother got better gifts. Their parents didn’t really handle it well, they told their kids that my husband and his brother were better behaved. The cousins were very jealous of my husband and BIL. I don’t want that for my daughter.

        My brother’s family does not celebrate Christmas (they are Messianic Jews so their example is not generalizable to our situation) and my niece and nephew are 3 and 5 (they don’t go to school or watch TV so they have limited exposure to Christmas). My SIL is very annoyed with people asking her kids what they want Santa to bring them for Christmas (her kids don’t know what to say since they don’t know who Santa is so my SIL has to explain to the adult that they don’t celebrate Christmas). Some people in my family think it’s a bit odd but my brother’s family comes to our family Christmas. When my brother converted (when they got married) they decided to outlaw all things Christmas but they quickly softened their tone when they realized that Christmas was a time to get together as a family and that they were missing out on spending time with the family if they didn’t go to Christmas.

        • GotMarried!

          I understand where your SIL is coming from to a certain degree. I cringed over thanksgiving to see the interaction between unrelated adults and kids on this issue. If you’re not the parents or intimately related to the child enough to KNOW how the parents are approaching this issue … I’d prefer you keep quiet. There has to be a better topic of conversation than either propagating or destroying childhood myths and traditions as fun as they can be.

      • Rebecca

        My sister, who lives in Dublin, tells me that her son’s school sent out letters to all the parents explaining to them that kids talk to one another, and if they’re going to give their children presents from ‘Santa’, could they please make it a relatively small and inexpensive one so that the children from less prosperous families don’t think they aren’t as loved by Santa.

      • rg223

        I appreciate this comment a lot. Your “santa plan” is very similar to the one I have with my husband and our one year old son. My husband and I have discussed it a bunch of times and know it’s right for our family, but I sometimes struggle with feeling like I’m denying my son something by not doing Santa like my parents did (aka fully committed to making me believe he was real and came to our house). My husband points out that he never had Santa and he turned out okay (he is Buddhist, one of the many reasons we don’t really want to “do” Santa). So hearing that it’s basically a non-issue at your house makes me feel a lot better – I’m glad it’s working well for your family!

      • As someone who grew up not believing in father christmas – not deliberately, but my parents’ weren’t good at keeping up the level of pretence needed not to give it away – and I never minded. My sister and I still got stockings, and we intuited not to say anything when some gifts were in the them labelled from our parents instead, and to not tell other kids who did believe. He slotted into the same headspace as fairies and mermaids and the Greek pantheon (and God, tbh – my parents’ attitude to religion was similar, and it never really occurred to me that I was meant to believe in Bible stories in a way I wasn’t the greek myths)

  • Anna

    I’m culturally Jewish but not particularly religious; fiance has had basically no interaction with any religion at all (mother Jewish at about the same level as me, father vaguely Protestant of some kind, they’d do Christmas tree/stockings/presents and latkes and that’s about it). None of the important Jewish holidays are this time of year, which is useful, because fiance feels VERY strongly about his family’s Christmas traditions even though they’re not rooted in religion (which I totally get, as someone who attaches deep significance to my own family tradition of eating apple pie for breakfast the morning after Thanksgiving…).

    This is interesting to me mostly not from the perspective of navigating Christmas, since that’s pretty cut-and-dried and not especially religion-centered for us, but thinking about how to handle Jewish holidays in our house (especially once we have children). I have very strong cultural associations around a lot of the ritual of Judaism; Passover was always one of my favorite celebrations, I love that if I meet another Jew from anywhere else in the world we have all these prayers in common, and going to my cousins’ B’nai Mitzvah services (and them attending mine) was when we all got to know each other really well despite living several states apart. My extended family (second, third, fourth cousins) is huge and tight-knit and wonderful and a lot of my experience of Judaism is tied up in my relationships with them. I can’t imagine not introducing any child of mine to all that joyful context. But I haven’t gone to services even for the High Holy Days since early college, and my fiance is pretty ambivalent about the idea of raising our children Jewish (or in any sort of organized religion). There are definitely Jewish holidays I would like to celebrate more than we currently do, and even more so once we have children, but without active religious observance it’s much easier to just let all that fall by the wayside. Which makes me sad, but it’s difficult to make it a priority when there are only so many vacation days and it’s been so long since these were things I regularly actively participated in.

    • MrsRalphWaldo

      If it’s important to you, you don’t have to prove it by hitting certain metrics. So what if you don’t seem to be as passionate about religion as you used to be? You still have the right to celebrate and pass down the traditions that have meaning to you.

    • Amy March

      I think that’s kinda the thing. If you want your kids to believe religion is important, you have to make it important or it does fall away.

    • Danielle

      I’m in a similar-ish situation: Jewish by culture but quite skeptical of religion. My husband was raised Christian, is currently atheist and has a negative view of religion due to personal experiences. I want to pass my culture on to my children — not necessarily the fear of religion (so much of what I don’t like is the judging g-d we should fear), but holidays and food and songs and games. Also, the Jewish sense of humor and sensibility towards justice/complaining that I grew up with, which is much more slippery to define but so important to me. I was raised in NYC in a very Jewish context but now live in the Midwest, where I have to make much more of an effort to meet other Jews and it’s much less ubiquitous than the way I grew up.

  • S

    I really struggle with balancing the holidays and faith, to be honest. I identify as pagan, though I don’t speak about it much, because people seem to think it’s mostly just a phase teens go through (touched on a little in this piece), but it holds great meaning to me and I consider it my religion. This should actually make things fairly simple – most of the things I love about the holidays are rooted in pagan tradition. Except that I live in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, and obviously Paganism is an Earth-based religion. Pretty much all our country’s holiday carols, traditions, decorations, etc are either about Christianity or winter. Almost nobody I know is a practicing Christian (I can count on one hand the people I know who MIGHT go to church on Christmas Eve, and that’s thinking about everyone I’ve ever been friends or family acquaintances with in my entire life) and obviously it’s the dead of summer over here. Likewise, we celebrate Halloween in October because America does and it’s in all the movies, but as a pagan seeing all the autumn motifs in spring and all the spring Easter motifs in autumn feels really alienating and confusing and depressing. I feel lost listening to people singing Oh Holy Night and Baby It’s Cold Outside all around me. It feels confusing and meaningless. Worse, I don’t know any other pagans, and I grew up with Christmas and really love it. I genuinely don’t know how to celebrate in a way that feels honest and authentic. I celebrate Yule in winter in a very small way, but I just feel in December and like I’m meant to just shut my mouth, enjoy the things I grew up with even though they don’t mean anything to me (or, really, to anyone in my family or friend group) and not take away anyone else’s fun. Obviously it’s a time for family and peace and love, and that’s always important, so I just try to focus on that to get me through.

    • lady brett

      as an atheist, not pagan, i feel like the earth-based holidays are so important. and as much as i struggle with the how of that, the dissonance of northern european celebrations in the southern hemisphere sounds *hard*. so, mostly, good luck. but also, if your people are game, maybe you could host some (parallel, not competing) summer solstice, etc. type shindig. like, not winter and gifts, just “fuck yeah, longest day of the year!”

  • JC

    Whew, this topic brings up…feelings. I’m a devout Christian, and my boyfriend is a steadfast atheist. We both have a fascination with theology, religion, and spirituality, and a firm rejection of fundamentalism. He rejects both fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist atheism, which results in a kind of cultural Christianity and uncertain but curious spirituality. I reject both fundamentalist views, and that has caused me to redouble my commitment to my faith community. I would say that 99% of the time, we live in comfortable parallelism, not exactly on the same track but definitely moving in the same direction. The 1% of the time is Christmas. He, and to a larger extent his family, will sneer at my “religious stuff,” don’t understand why I would want to go to church on Christmas Eve. To them, my Christian language surrounding the holiday feels dogmatic; to me, their secular language around the holiday feels watered down. We’re definitely “form[ing] and break[ing] traditions” together, as the author says, and I really appreciate that.

    • Amy March

      Sneering is just never good. Sorry this is a struggle.

      • JC

        No, never. Thanks, Amy.

  • Rebecca

    It’s a bit funny reading all this as an Australian – I was brought up agnostic and am now atheist, and growing up all my friends were brought up either agnostic or atheist. I think we are just a less religious country. It’s only now as an adult that I have any religious friends, and I can count them on one hand (there are four).
    And yet we still do Christmas! Stockings, presents, pine trees covered in tinsel and ornaments and (sometimes) fake snow, Christmas crackers at the table, etc. Obviously some things are different – it’s usually way too hot for a roast dinner so the ham is served cold, and we do big plates of cooked prawns alongside big salads and bowls of cold chicken drumsticks. Some people do a BBQ. People with pools are the favourites for Christmas lunch.
    My fiance is also atheist, but we’re planning on making Christmas a fun thing for our future kids that includes choosing and decorating the tree, a few presents, Christmas carols and gingerbread, and visiting grandparents. Here, where religion is not the norm, it’s pretty widely accepted that Christmas is now a cultural event, not only a religious one, and that therefore non-religious people can take part. For us it’s going to be part of a larger ‘let’s embrace the celebrations’ movement we want to take part in for the sake of our future kids, because celebrations and their anticipation are one of the best parts of being a child (or, from my own experience, an aunt), and we want them to have that joy in their lives wherever it’s available.
    Basically, we try to seize the joy in life, be that in good food, taking our dog to the river or traditionally religious cultural celebrations of family, friends, food and, in this country, the arrival of summer.

    • Leah

      As another Australian, I feel you on this! Neither of my parents are religious and yet Christmas is a wonderful holiday for our family. My mum decks the family house out in lights and loves that children in the neighbourhood marvel at it. Christmas with an emphasis on family celebration is really wonderful. Like you, I’m really excited to have traditions surrounding the holiday with our future children!

  • lindsay

    Thanks for this – I was raised Christian and after many years of studying religion academically, am not anymore. For me, Christmas is fine – the cultural piece of it has been fully integrated into Western society and I like celebrating in the winter. Whatever, I can deal.

    I have a HUGE problem with celebrating Easter with people who are nonreligious, however. It comes from when I was getting my master’s in religion and surrounded by people for whom Easter was A. Big. Deal. (more theologically significant than Christmas, redemption of humanity, etc etc etc). I have begged out of Easter with my spouse’s family on several occasions and it offends me significantly when non-Christians celebrate Easter. The immense meaning it has for Christians makes it all the more out-of-place for non-Christians to celebrate it, and I feel really strongly about this. My spouse sorta gets it/sorta doesn’t get it – his family is culturally Catholic but none of them are really religious. It’s cultural appropriation, honestly, and it really, really bothers me.

    • lady brett

      this is interesting to me, because there are interesting complexities around the cultural appropriation aspect when the culture in question is the dominant one (in my sphere, at least). my personal experience with miming christianity is more one of fear and closeting than appropriation. that is, the majority of the religious trappings i did/do adopt are in an effort *not* to offend religious people i know and love (who, in my experience, are much more uncomfortable with my atheism than my lying about things sacred). clearly, that is not universal, and it may not make adopting religious customs the correct thing to do, but it affects the landscape.

    • Amy March

      Wait, if they are culturally Catholic how are they culturally appropriating? I don’t think it’s fair to define Easter as something only fervently religious people get to celebrate. Even people who never attend church sometimes feel called to connect with the faith on major holidays, even if it is just with Easter eggs and a ham. I don’t see an issue with that, and I don’t think adopting inescapable majority customs is appropriation either.

    • Eh

      How are they celebrating Easter? What are they doing that bothers you?

      Just as with Christmas, many of the traditions around Easter have pagan origins (even the name Easter has pagan origins – and in many other languages the origins for the name of the holiday comes from Passover). Bunnies, chocolate eggs and ham have nothing to do with the religious aspect of the holiday, however, those traditions are now ingrained into western culture. I am not religious and I am very careful about being disrespectful to people who are religious (I refused to get married in a church because I do not believe what they believe even though my MIL wanted us to get married in their church) so I am careful about how I celebrate holidays with religious origins. The way I see Christmas and Easter is that it’s time to spend with family since they are statutory holidays (so we have the time off to spend together). There are cultural traditions around that but most of those traditions are not directly related to the Christian meaning of the holiday. It’s much like traditions that people have on national holidays (e.g., Fourth of July, thanksgiving, etc.) – they get together with family and eat food (which might be specific to the holiday) and maybe do an activity (e.g., saying what they are thankful for, or setting off fireworks).

  • Emily C

    We’re going through religious-based drama in our family right now, though it’s slightly different. Meg, I may even email you for advice, since you may be going through something similar!

    My husband is Jewish, and way, way before we were married or had kids, we’d decided any kids we had would be Jewish, too. (I was raised Episcopalian and we went to church semi-regularly, but I haven’t felt a connection with it since high school. I haven’t converted to Judaism, and am not sure that I will, but have thought about it). Flash forward to having a 1 and 3 year old, and I’m facing Christmas pressure from my mother, who feels excluded and upset about not getting to have Santa bring presents to the kids. We have agreed to go to Christmas with my family, and plan to keep going to celebrate with them, but now are finding we have to qualify it it so much (Grandma and Grandpa are sharing Christmas with us this year, isn’t that nice! We will celebrate Hanukkah at their house this year, it’s so fun!) But Christmas trees are popping up around us, and lights on neighbors’ houses, and kids are talking Christmas at daycare, and my daughter is getting so excited about it.

    Any advice about navigating Christmas when you are raising two little Jewish kids?

    • Laura

      can’t you do christmas – lite? ie – their father is jewish (and maybe they are too?), but introduce the idea that their grandmother celebrates christmas, and since holidays are a time to celebrate with those you love, your lucky little kids get to go to a special christmas dinner at grandma’s and you thiiiiiink that grandma asked santa to bring her favourite two littles a present each!

      it could become a really fun tradition in your family, particularly between your mother and your children. and it’s a great way to recognize that many people celebrate different holidays, and that even those who don’t believe are welcome to celebrate. you could simply ask that your mother get them one present each, or whatever, so that it doesn’t dominate the season. or perhaps if your concerned about the present aspect, your mother could teach them her favourite carols, bake a favourite treat together, read a special story, etc. plenty of carols and stories relate to things other than religion. ‘the polar express’ is a favourite, many carols are really winter carols and never mention jesus.

      my husband is jewish, i am not (nor do i consider myself a christian), but we will always celebrate both traditions. for me, christmas is about family, food and time together.

  • This is a good blog to read.

  • MissouriGirl

    I was raised Southern Baptist and now am agnostic. I still love Christmastime – decorating the tree, hanging lights and wreaths, baking up a storm, giving gifts to my loved ones, and feeding everyone. Unlike my parents, I don’t have any imagery of crosses, angels, Nativity, or scripture. It’s all just winter-themed. I like the idea that we feast on the darkest day of the year as a reminder that life will return in the spring. (I do watch A Christmas Carol at the live theatre every year, though. Scrooge’s redemption is amazing for Christmas spirit.)