Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Christmas that is not Religious

The December holiday season is and always has been my favorite time of the year. This is true despite the fact that I often treat whole endeavor as if I were appearing before Emily Post in the Egyptian Underworld, where she will weigh my homemade rolls to see if my soul must be devoured. Even despite the lists and budgets with numbers climbing up and down, even despite the rushing about as if from one end of the Titanic to the next, I love the holidays. One reason: having grown up in a religiously eclectic family, I get more of them than you.

This year we will begin our celebrations with Hanukkah on December 8th. To do this right, I have been known to make latkes from scratch, pressing all of my children into service with cheese graters and the little knobs of russet potatoes that remain stubbornly un-shredded in my hands. I cook a whole chicken in the oven and the house is redolent with the smell of roasting fat. We buy doughnuts cooked in oil because the oil in the temple lasted eight days instead of one. We light the menorah, reciting the prayer in Hebrew that I was taught when I was too young to understand. Memorized in phonetics and unattached to our religious beliefs, we say it anyway. My kids argue about whose turn it is to pray and light. I read to them about the miracle and forget about the horror of war and oppression, pressing my mind instead against the truth that plenty often comes from very little, from what seems to be nothing at all. We pray because this is true. We pray also because our ancestors were taken away from their families and murdered like rats for being Jewish. We pray because all prayers change who we are. For eight days, we remember that we are Jewish, as well as many other things. We pray so that we might never forget.

Next comes Solstice. When my older children were very small, before the schools owned their mornings from before the break of dawn, I woke them in the dark and stuffed them wrapped in blankets into car seats, settling hot cocoas in their little hands. We lived in Northern California, and we drove a few miles out and up to where a green hill rose up above everything and an apple orchard stretched across the bottom of the sky. We waited in anticipation and glanced excitedly at the hills.

"I think I see it!"

"No, it's just a cloud."

"No, there! It's here! It's coming!"

Silly with cocoa and morning glee, we watched the sun rise. The baby sun, I explained to my youngest, is being born. The light is returning to the world. My children danced and sang and then chased one another through the wet grass until we took them home. We still celebrate Solstice most years at our church. To me, Solstice is the essence of the true religion of December. We meet the dark, it seems to encompass everything and then, in that nadir of blackness, new promise is reborn. This physical fact seems to me to hold the key to understanding our lives. It may be black as ink now. Yes, it is darkest, but just wait a minute and see...Wait one more minute and you will see.

Christmas itself will always and forever be the tradition of my Grandmother. She died the night before the solstice three years ago, at the age of 103. I found myself surprised that she didn't wait a few more days to partake in the roast beef. Grandma, being British, was good with the roast beef and served it with Yorkshire pudding. My grandmother was a Unitarian, the wife of a minister very important in his day, and she herself was a director of religious education involved lifelong in her church. On the occasion of her hundredth birthday, she was, in fact, named minister emeritus of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Deeply religious, she was not certain she believed in God and didn't seem to find the question important. Therefore, our Christmas growing up had very little of the story Christ and a great deal to do with the outpouring of love for one's family, the aesthetic beauty of a lovely meal and the importance of doing right by our fellow human beings. We continue to celebrate it this way.

My children don't make lists of things they want. Instead, I ask them to make lists of things they want to give. Whatever gift they receive, the idea is that they will be happy with it because it was given freely and with love. This year, none of them has asked me for anything. That is the way it usually goes. We plan our giving carefully, shepherding what resources we have and we often give things that are needed to our kids, rather than things that would simply be fun. This is not so much a matter of Puritan ethics as simple mathematics, but my children seem glad to have whatever gifts they get. The grandparents do better by them than we. The older boys save their allowance to buy one another gifts. I find myself very proud that our holiday is not about wanting things, but about thinking about others, finding some way to honor them with a token of your love.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are filled with little events that punctuate the lavish beauty of the idea contained in that word: "holiday." We will spend a day in the making of fudge and other goodies to give to teachers and coaches, co-workers and friends. We make gingerbread cookies from scratch, with royal icing and spend an afternoon decorating the finished cookies with Red Hots, raisins, coconut and chocolate chips. The ginger, the molasses and sugar, all of it makes the house smell like love. We sometimes cut a tree from the national forest, a straggly, thin-branched thing, something of which you can say, if you squint, "It has potential." We decorate it with ornaments that we have had for ages, silly oddments of child-crafted things and legacy handmade clothespin dolls. It is beautiful in the way second grade hallways are beautiful. The cat sleeps under it and drinks water from the stand, happy we have brought the forest to him again this year.

On Christmas morning, we open our gifts in turns from oldest to youngest and watch one another with pleasure as each enjoys what they have gotten. We bust open holiday crackers, eat lavish meals and tell one another stupid jokes. Holiday music plays.

Christmas itself for me is not religious, except in the sense that life is religious. I believe fervently in the birth of hope, in the potential for help that comes from nowhere when you need it most. I believe not only that these things are miracles, but that they are predictable enough to be celebrated on the cycle of a year. They are part of the very nature of life. More than anything, I believe in the need to create rituals, in the need to say that this day is special, to cook special foods, to gather together, to decorate our homes. All across the world, we do these things, whether we have little or plenty, whether we believe or not. It is part of what it means to be human, this setting aside of days.

"For so the children come
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way the come—
Born of the seed of man and woman.
No angels herald their beginnings
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show where the babe is that will save humankind
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs—feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
They ask where and how will the new life end—will it never end
Each night a child is born is a holy night—a time for singing
A time for wondering, a time for worshiping."

~Sophia Lyon Fahs

Note: This post is in response to the curiosity of some of my online friends as to how Christmas is celebrated in the house of people who call themselves atheists, meaning us. It's funny because I suppose it never occurred to me that I celebrate it any differently from most people I talk to, but perhaps I do.  It seemed like a very interesting topic to write on, anyway. Thanks for the suggestion, Margi and Jewels.


  1. Your traditions are steeped in love and your children will remember them as you do your childhood ones. How lucky are we to have that! Enjoy the holiday season!

  2. Thank you so very much for sharing your traditions. We too are a family with rituals and celebrations that focus on reflection and renewal without dogma. Happy holidays to you and your whole clan.

  3. I like your celebrations a lot, Tara. When our children were little, we started a tradition of going over to the ocean on Christmas Eve afternoon - the purpose being to get away from all the hype and simply take a walk on the beach (or if it was just too cold or wet, to sit in the car and admire the beach!). Even though my children are all grown up now, they still find time to put that into the Christmas Eve agenda.
    I am not a big fan of Christmas hype, I do enjoy the classical Christmas music, simple Christmas lights and baubles, and most especially, the warmth that seems to be present in the world on the 24th and 25th of December.

  4. This is the best post I've read since I started reading blogs a year ago! Tara, you embody what I call spiritual humanism better than anybody I've run into! My futuristic Mythmaker philosophy doesn't believe in the absolute gods of specific religious systems but it doesn't reject and in fact draws upon the myths that go with them! It's not really atheism at all.
    I love ritual, too; I was raised Catholic and I loved the Latin and the music and chanting and the color of the vestments and the scent of incense. When a lot of that started to change, that was part of my disillusionment. Puritanism doesn't appeal to me.
    I particularly enjoyed your comment about Emily Post in the Egyptian underworld - I can just see that!
    I'm going to tweet this post and put it on my Facebook page - it deserves to be read widely.

  5. I knew I wouldn't be disappointed.

    Your family celebrates the holidays better than many Christians. I am inspired by your focus on doing for others. Such a beautiful way to spend the season.

    I've never celebrated the Solstice, but what a lovely thing. I may have to take some hot chocolate out and watch the sunrise that day6. I love the idea of opening my arms and welcoming a new beginning. "Wait one more minute and you will see." I want to read that line every day.

  6. Thanks for all your thoughts! I have been a pretty crummy blogger this last while and failed to return all your thoughtful comments. It's nice to be able to be authentic about one's spirituality in public without fear of reprisal and to enjoy the love and respect of those who believe differently. It's one of the things I most love about the community of readers who come here. I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season—whatever holidays are yours.

  7. I loved hearing how you and yours mark these end-of-year holidays. We aren't a religious household by any means, but I am a bit of a nut for Christmas as a celebration of family and gratitude and magic and love. Thanks for taking the time to share your own experiences & thoughts with us.


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