For non believers, this time of year causes one to pause and reflect not only on the cultural traditions around us, but in how we should approach the religiosity of the events. This problem may be enhanced with the presence of children. Should we celebrate Christmas? If so, what aspects should be avoided or minimized? I'd like to share with you some of the thoughts I have on the matter for furthering the discussion.
Firstly, it is important to realize that many of our religious holidays have a complex history in terms of both their origins and their observance. Christmas is no exception here. It is roughly an amalgam of pagan Norse traditions, a traditional Winter Solstice celebration, a Roman festival and, of course, the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Historically, it was not always a popular holiday in terms of observance in the United States, even being outlawed in parts of the country with a heavy Puritan population. To make matters even more complicated, today we have a large layer of commercialization wrapped all around the holiday, so that watching football and buying toys has become an integral part of Christmas for most Americans.
All these things aside, Christmas remains the most culturally important holiday for most Americans. This being so, it is not practical, in my opinion, to try and avoid Christmas completely. Indeed, many of the themes, like 'Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men', fit nicely with a secular humanist outlook. Additionally, Christmas is closely associated with family reunion, community biulding, and charitable work. But since many of us have extended family that are theistic, some special considerations are needed.
We generally participate in the cultural trappings of Christmas. Here are some guidelines that we follow in our household. I hope they are useful to you:
- We put up a traditional tree and place presents underneath. We leave the top unadorned or with a simple star.
- We avoid ornaments, cards, and sentiments that are explicitly religious. So, no angels, crosses or creches.
- We participate, generally, in the Santa Clause myth. In my opinion, Santa and Jesus are on the same level of believability. We consider Santa acceptable, because it is not possible for our children to grow up and actually think Santa is real, as there is no worldwide organization to perpetuate that myth.
- We teach our children to be charitable at Christmas. I will write another post detailing some of the things we do at this time of year.
- When at another's house, we generally observe their traditions. The one exception I make is that I try not to voice affirmation to religious sentiment. As an example, if sitting down to dinner, and the host signals for grace. I will take my neighbors hand, and bow my head in silence. I will not, however, say 'amen' at the end. This may seem minor, but I think there are some principles one should keep, and this is a balance between being respectful and true to your belief (or lack thereof)