Skip to main content

Dealing with religious holidays

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)

How about Winter Solstice?

My better half and I are trying to build a tradition for our family of celebrating Winter Solstice. Like those who celebrate their own winter holidays around the same time, this lets us take part in the excitement of the event without reaffirming Christianity or Christmas.

Winter Solstice is the recognition of the shortest day of the year, when the Earth has tipped as far on its axis from the Sun as it will in its yearly revolution. In pagan traditions, it was recognized with lights and decorations of the evergreen tree as symbols of the return of the light and the growing season.

Those symbols were coopted by Christianity in an effort to make their religion more appealing to pagans. (After all, how many evergreens grow in Jerusalem?) The date of Jesus' birth was moved to more closely align with the Solstice-- which is December 21st this year-- again to make Christianity more appealing to pagans.

So, yes, put up a tree. Decorate it with lights. Tell people it represents the Winter Solstice and the cycle of seasons, the return of the light as the Earth spins back toward the Sun. Give presents and tell people they represent the bounty of the harvest that we need to remember in the darkest time of the year.

Certainly wish people a "Merry Christmas" if you know they are Christian.
Ask them to wish you a "Happy Winter Solstice" in return.

This holiday belonged to us non-believers before it was adapted to Christianity.

See also:

We've started doing that.

Last year, we had all of the neighbors in for Solstice. I made little signs and put them around the house - lots of them - exploring the shortest day/longest night beliefs and customs of different cultures through the ages and around the world. We observed some traditional Winter Solstice customs. Had a bonfire. Chose a Solstice king and queen (king gave a toast and queen helped pass out sweets).

It was a complete BLAST. Everyone had a great time. Lots of merriment and a surprising amount of meaning, as well.

This year, the neighbors at the other end of the block are hosting. I hope it's going to become a neighborhood tradition for years to come.

Solstice Party

We are going to our first Solstice party this year. We'd like to host next year.

I'm not really a pagan, but I've always had affinity for solar holidays, because they hit a few interests of mine: astronomy and geometry.

There is a really cool fountain on the campus of the University of Illinois that doubles as a solar calendar, a compass, and a Sun dial. Hanging around that fountain really got me interested in Solar holidays.


Those are great ideas, thanks for sharing. We are attending a winter solstice party this year.

Largely agree

I largely agree, with one exception - I bow to no man or god. I'll shut up while they wish to their imaginary friend, but I won't accord it the respect of bowing my head. Same goes for when I'm dragged to church e.g. recent funeral of a friend.

Don't bow

I must agree wholeheartedly.