Religion and the Holidays: Is it in Yours?


Rubber_Duck_Nativity.jpgDid you read Lisa Belkin’s post in her NY Times blog The Motherlode about choosing religion for your child? With the holidays upon us, it really got me thinking. I love Christmas. Absolutely love it. My tree goes up on December 1, I listen to Christmas carols as soon as the radio starts playing them, and It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie. But I don’t consider myself a Christian, so my kids celebrate a pretty secular Christmas.

Your head may be spinning around right now. You may be saying that I have no right to celebrate Christmas without celebrating the birth of Christ. My mother thinks the same thing, but I say celebrating Christmas for me means celebrating a time of love, compassion and generosity, even if I don’t believe in the story of its origin.

I’m not an athiest. I believe in God, I just don’t believe in any particular religion. After a strict upbringing by a Southern Baptist Born-Again Christian, I pushed away all religion because of its rigid rules. Up until last year, my children had never been to church. We did talk about God, but that was the extent of religion in our home. But, the need to bring a sense of community and a spirituality to my daughters’ lives was nagging me. I attended The Unitarian Universalist Congregation and felt like it was perfect fit for my family. We became members soon after.

My children are now learning about the world’s religions. They are learning, more importantly, about the universal message of compassion, love, honesty, generosity, etc. That is the message of Christmas that we talk about in our home during Christmas. Oh, and Santa is in there too.

Is religion in your Christmas?

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  1. Yes. My head is spinning.
    Christmas IS a religious holiday.
    To many this can boarder on offensive– in that how do you celebrate a religious holiday without mentioning the religious part of it?
    Arbor day without the trees?
    Thanksgiving without the Pilgrims and Native Americans?
    MLK day without segregation?
    Kinda like having Passover Seder claiming it is all about the Afikoman and Elijah (played by Jerry Seinfeld of course, if you saw that “SNL” episode).
    Holidays are about something. To take the something out of the holiday to only celebrate the part you like seems wrong.
    Otherwise, celebrate Festivus or Kwanzaa both non-religious holidays that fall around Christmas/Hanukkah.
    AND with Festivus you get the Festivus Pole, Feats of Strength, the Airing of Grievances and if you’re lucky, you might witness a Festivus Miracle!!!

  2. I’m a radical atheist who was raised Catholic. We do Christmas, but without any of the associated mythology (jesus, santa, etc.).
    It’s still fun to get together and exchange gifts with everyone we love.

  3. Mythology?
    Christmas is the Christian celebration of the Birth of Christ. Where’s the myth here?
    If you believe Jesus was a myth, why celebrate? (Because everyone else is?)
    And yes, I know we don’t know when Jesus was really born, but that doesn’t matter– December 25 is the date chosen to celebrate it.
    Seems to me that you want to be a part of the fun stuff– Santa!! Trees!! presents!!! without acknowledging WHY you’re having fun.
    Again, would you celebrate Passover without mention of the Jews (Hebrews) escape from enslavement?
    Ramadan without fasting, asking for forgiveness and all that other stuff that the “myth” requires?
    For me, the moment you suppose Christmas without Christ, and substitute another religion for Christianity it provides a very clear picture of just how offensive the “non-religious” celebration of Christmas is.

  4. You may be saying that I have no right to celebrate Christmas without celebrating the birth of Christ.
    That’s it in a nutshell. You are making a mockery out of a spiritual holiday.

  5. I think your argument is valid Prof, but people have different meanings when its comes to the term “celebrating Christmas”.
    Part of my family is Jewish and part is Protestant and we spend every Christmas Eve and Day at my Aunt and Uncle’s house. While I have never had an Xmas tree in my household and don’t reflect on the birth of Jesus, Christmas is arguably my favorite holiday of the year. This is because that I know on Christmas day, my entire family is going to gather for hours on ends, eating, drinking, and just hanging out and having fun. Christ has little to no place at our Christmas celebration and that is how it is at most Xmas get togethers.
    Most of us are not “celebrating” Christmas. Instead, beacuse of the way things have worked out over hundreds of years in regards to societal schedules, we are able to all come together on a certain day that just happens to be Christmas.

  6. I wouldn’t celebrate any of those other holidays because they wouldn’t be any fun to me. There are plenty of common Christian views that I find intensely offensive, but for the most part I suck it up and deal with it.
    It’s not like I’m going around peeing on your crosses and pooping in your pews, I’m getting together with my family for the sake of getting together with my family. It brings back a lot of the warm fuzzies from childhood.
    Oh sky cake… Why are you so delicious?

  7. King, yours is an appropriate, respectful position.
    You enjoy a day of togetherness without ANY of the “holiday” activities- trees, presents, Santa, Elves, Rudolph, etc.
    My problem is when you celebrate the religious holiday as a non-religious holiday and choose which parts of it you will enjoy– everything except the birth of Jesus.
    Is Easter is just a day a bunny comes around??
    How about a Passover Seder Plate with pizza, because we like the idea of a plate, but don’t like the religious part– and the kids LOVE PIZZA!!

  8. We celebrate Christmas. Religion is deeply personal. Whatever Georgette’s family decides to do is her choice. However I decide to celebrate it is mine.

  9. Is this a free country? Ridiculus religious pretention just frustrates me. I am a Christian, if you want to enjoy a Christian celebration -please do. have presents, sing carols, get together with family. Love, laugh and enjoy. Surely any true Christian would not deny anyone that?

  10. B-pet, Ah, how is it “Ridiculus religious pretention” to view a RELIGIOUS holiday as well, religious?
    All that “He is Risen” stuff at Easter must drive you nuts too. I mean we all know Easter is about BUNNIES!!
    And Kristen, you are wrong.
    Religious celebrations have specific meanings and commemorate specific events. It is not a pick and choose matter– that’s whole point of it, isn’t it?
    Again, will Jewish folk have no problem with my Pizza filled Seder Plate? I mean, it’s a free Country, right?
    And funny, my family chooses to celebrate Yom Kippur by EATING A FEAST!!! We hate the idea of fasting.
    Do what you want, right? It’s personal.
    It’s America!!
    (Again, if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you can be respectful and appropriate as King wrote above. But you don’t get to pick and choose the aspects of a Religious Holiday that fit your liking. You either believe. Or you don’t.)

  11. “But you don’t get to pick and choose the aspects of a Religious Holiday that fit your liking. You either believe. Or you don’t.”
    Do you follow all the Christian teachings to the book? I highly doubt it. I’m sure you pick and choose what works for you.
    And with all your horror about how I choose to celebrate my holiday, maybe you should follow Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 7:1 a bit more.

  12. Georgette,
    No horror here. You obviously expected this when you wrote, “Your head may be spinning around right now.”
    I disagree. That’s all.
    As for Matthew 7:1, I’m not judging. Just asking if you can square this circle.
    I don’t think you can.
    Again, this cannot be news to you as your post clearly suggested that you understand that some will not understand how you can have a non-religious Christmas.
    But know this: You are invited over to my house on Passover to share in our Pizza from our Seder Plate.

  13. Historically, not too long ago Great Britain made any celebration of Christmas illegal because it was all about drinkin’ and whorin’.
    That being said, culturally in America we celebrate both Jesus and Santa. Some of us celebrate one more than the other, but most of us try to balance it out.
    To completely ignore Jesus from Christmas is as silly as to completely ignore Santa and elves from Christmas.
    I’m grateful we live in this country where was can celebrate as we please, however that makes us feel and that although our neighbors may judge us, they can’t have us arrested, and may even stand up for us in defense if necessary.

  14. Good points Cari,
    However, you recognize that as a religious holiday, one can certainly celebrate the birth of Christ without Santa and Elves, right?
    (Though in modern times we understand Santa, the Elves as parts of the religious celebration.)
    Christmas IS the celebration of Jesus’ birthday– hence the name– CHRISTmas.
    So while it may be comforting to think that you are being “American” in thinking that one can separate the meaning of the holiday from, well the holiday, but you can’t.
    Sure you can do whatever you want– I don’t care. But you cannot offer untruths as truths. I’d prefer, like King above, that if you don’t want the religion, you see the day as one of togetherness- without ANY of the Christmas trappings.
    But the truth is that CHRISTmas is a religious holiday.
    No amount of Santa, elves, lights, or trees can change that.
    …. And since no one has told me I cannot offer my Passover Seder Pizza Plate. Or my Yom Kippur feast– you’re all welcome to my Palatial Estate in UPPER Montclair!!

  15. My money says “In God We Trust.”
    My president takes the oath of office on a Bible.
    People regularly tell me “God bless you” every time I sneeze.
    I am faced with by commercials, ads, decorations for Christmas everywhere I turn.
    But somehow it’s offensive to others if I choose to celebrate a non-religious Christmas?
    If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em (but only the good parts).

  16. Oh, and CariAnnV, check out The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum for a similar history of Christmas in the U.S.

  17. You know, prof, I know quite a few agnostic Jews who celebrate Passover and Yom Kippur (RELIGIOUS holidays, obviously) because of their heritage and tradition–the same reason some people celebrate Christmas.
    And what are the Christmas trappings that you prefer the non-religious forgo? The tree? The lights? The gifts? The food? The generosity and goodwill and wishes of joy and peace?

  18. It is well known that Christmas is a holiday which evolved to blend pagan traditions with Christian beliefs, themselves evolving over the thousand years or so it took Christianity to become the dominant western religion. The early Christians adapted various local traditions and pagan beliefs and wove in the message they wished to spread.
    Why shouldn’t the holiday continue to evolve?

  19. (I was waiting for someone to bring up the “pagan traditions.”– perhaps if we were Religious Studies Grad students sitting on the quad, I would entertain this. We’re not. So I won’t. But your idea that CHRISTmas as a RELIGIOUS holiday is evolving into a non-religous holiday is unfounded, untrue and silly.)
    I don’t know how many times and different ways I can say it: how do you celebrate a RELIGIOUS holiday without the RELIGION?
    You can “celebrate,” sure. Enjoy the goodwill, fellowship and all that, but to call it a Passover, Yom Kippur or Christmas celebration is a farce.
    So IAN,
    Call it HOLIDAY, or FESTIVUS, or KWANZZA or whatever but don’t call it by its religious name– that’s the offensive part– celebrating Christmas when you don’t believe in Christ.
    But in this Holiday Season, I again will welcome everyone to my Yom Kippur and Ramadan feast and my Seder Pizza Plate!

  20. Obviously Georgette is familiar with the Bible and the teachings of Jesus since she was raised Baptist. And she certainly has the right to still admire how Jesus lead his life. She can believe in his words and how he treated others whether she is a self-proclaimed non-Christian or a born-again.
    I’m not Jewish but I was moved and affected by the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner…am I not allowed to be because I’m not Jewish?
    Prof, why bother wasting any ATP on how others celebrate Christmas–how does it affect or take away how you and your family celebrate and what you believe? It shouldn’t. I don’t know, so many people celebrate Christmas in many different ways, what a waste to be so deeply offended. But that’s just you.

  21. For folks to be so understanding, you all don’t listen well. I never said it was a horror or so deeply offensive.
    I said, I don’t understand how you celebrate a Religious Holiday without the religion.
    My questions of Passover and Yom Kippur remain answered.
    Likewise, no one has attempted to answer this question (celebrating the Religious Holiday sans religion)- other than to remind me that this is “America,” and one is “free” to do what they like….
    I don’t care. Do what you like. But don’t be surprised when folks question you.
    Here, Georgette knowingly posted a provocative topic (one that has almost 20x the normal Baristakids comments– you go girl!), so let’s now not pretend that this was somehow intended to be seen as the opening of Mathnasium or something and all these evil posters showed up.
    By design, she got 20+ comments.
    Which is great. It spurred an great discussion.
    But even she said, “Your head may be spinning around right now” as she described her tortured manner of taking the CHRIST out of CHRISTmas.
    She’s a smart woman who knows what the arguments are– she presented them in her piece.
    So please with all the can’t we get along crap.
    We get along fine. We just disagree.
    Surely you have friends with whom you disagree. Or are you friends with folks who only think like you? — Sadly, around these parts, most would say yes.
    Not me.
    I admire folks I disagree with. So long as they can offer an reasonably intelligent argument for their position. And don’t get all huffy when I, or someone else disagrees.

  22. Prof, in all fairness, you did not just say you didn’t “understand” how one celebrates Christmas without religion, you suggested it was offensive (admittedly not “deeply offensive”).
    American society is incredibly contradictory on the issue of religion. Many find it offensive if I choose to not include the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegience – although since I view God as a myth, this detracts from the patriotic message. If this pretend acceptance to religion passes muster, how can celebrating Christmas without religion be construed as somehow offensive?
    And in fact if anything discourages me from celebrating Christmas at all, it is not the fear of offending Christians (which I actually have not enountered),it is the perpetuation of a Christian-dominated culture in America more generally. If anything, atheists not Christians should resist the celebration of Christmas without religion. (Wow, I almost talked myself out of celebrating Christmas, but here I choose to embrace American equivocation.)

  23. People who glibly state (as in the original post here) that they are celebrating Christmas without the religious aspect are taking it upon themselves to push Christ out of it. I’m sure if a Christian bragged about celebrating Passover without religious significance, it would not be met kindly…So why is it so acceptable for the secular world to do what they please with a significant Christian holiday?

  24. With all due respect, I am not trying to somehow demean Christmas by celebrating the joy, the good will, the family togetherness… I could be a radical atheist and object every time I encounter God in what should otherwise be a secular event. I politely say thank you when people say “God bless you” when I sneeze, tell me they’ll pray for me when I’m sick. I don’t demand the federal government remove references to God on my money. I watch the President swear on the Bible and then listen politely as he says “God Bless America.” I assume (generally) that intentions are good and ask for the same consideration as I celebrate a non-religious Christmas. The secular and the religious are inextricably linked in American society and to pretend there is not a secular aspect to Christmas or that there is not religion in secular life is ridiculous.
    And by the way, to attract additional scorn, my family has been known to play with a dreidel and eat latkes.

  25. Nellie makes the point.
    Ian, I did both. I’m still waiting for someone to explain how you square the celebration of a Religious Holiday without religion AND I believe the some (as I wrote) will certainly find this practice offensive.
    As Nellie said, if you substitute another religion and holiday it becomes clear how easy it is to find this offensive.
    But Ian, you are doing the same tortured reasoning that others have used here: “In God We Trust,” “Under God,” etc.
    Like it or not, our Founders were religious men. They recognized however, that the USA should not “establish” a religion (as England had), likewise, we can’t prohibit the free exercise of religion.
    They DID NOT ban religion (as our Pledge and coins prove). Moreover, they could have established the Country as a purely secular nation. But they did not.
    But ask others if the idea of celebrating a Religious Holiday as a non-religious event makes sense. Don’t just use Christmas. Use Passover and Ramadan too.
    As Georgette wrote and realized, their heads will be spinning.

  26. hey prof, I’m no expert on Judaism but I have heard many describe themselves as cultural Jews that celebrate the traditions rather than the religion of Yom Kippur and Passover.
    I think an analogy can be made to people celebrating the traditions of Christmas while not focusing on the religious significance.
    So there’s your answer. But you won’t like it, I’m sure, because you’ve expressed the sentiment many times that I am not among the people who offer a “reasonably intelligent argument for their position.”
    I understand where you are coming from, I do. I have often thought it might be confusing for a child to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas if they are told of the origin, history and reason for the existence of Christmas. But people do it all the time with no problem and who am I to judge.
    Actually, I think this thread showcases some very respectful disagreement about a topic that is deeply personal. SHOCKING!

  27. Okay, I welcome the opportunity to think about why I do what I do.
    I believe the question posed was how do I square the celebration of a religious holiday without religion?
    I guess I largely challenge the idea that my celebration of Christmas (as an atheist) is actually offensive to most people. Most Americans seem much more comfortable when I don’t challenge the admittedly non-secular society that exists today. My examples of the references to God in society and politics (as “tortured” as they may be) were meant to demonstrate that a certain acquiescense to religion makes living in American society easier. Trust me, if a Christian wishes me “Merry Christmas” they are less offended when I offer the same response in return (even if they are aware of my non-religious inclinations) than should I say “I do not celebrate Christmas because it is a religious holiday.” My Christian family and friends would be quite flummoxed should I stop buying Christmas presents and visting on Christmas.
    And why Christmas and not Passover or Ramadan – I assume because most people here were raised in the Christian tradition and came to a non-Christian/religious point of view later in life. As stated early, many non-religious Jews continue to celebate religious holidays for cultural and traditional reasons. I admit ignorance when it comes to Ramadan.

  28. Being a cultural Jew is like being Black or Italian.
    However, at some point, no matter how “cultural” you are, you quickly move to the simple fact that Judaism is a Religion. And those shared “cultural” moments come out of a shared Religion.
    Kinda like a being a cultural Black without an appreciation of slavery and Civil Rights… (You can claim this, but at some point your reasoning becomes, yes, tortured. So go ahead and try to explain this “cultural” Jew or Black stuff when the bad guy come looking…)
    As for celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah, that makes sense only if the parents are Jewish and Christian. This kind of “interracial” relationship presents real questions for parents, I recognize this.
    But the answer cannot be to create some sort of odd “cultural” holiday.
    However, I recognize folks like to have everything their way, so you can have all the trappings of the religious holiday without all the heavy lifting of well, actually believing.
    Yom Kippur and Ramadan without the fasting…
    Easter without the Crucifiction and Resurrection…
    Christmas without the birth…

  29. I too grew up in a Christian household, but after much introspection, religious and spiritual searching have decided that I am not a Christian. I believe in God and I revere Christ the man, but I simply don’t believe in the trinity or that Jesus was a savior. My father is an ordained minister (something he did later in life) and my oldest brother is as well. I didn’t want to give up all recognition of Christmas because of what it came to symbolize in my life which was peace and family unity. So I do celebrate Jesus’s birth, not because Jesus is my personal savior but because Jesus was a man whose life in my opinion deserves to be celebrated and emulated. Since the Christmas tree is a pagan part of the tradition anyway, I feel no conflict about putting one up every year. Actually, because of its pagan origins, my brother, the minister would not for many years put up a Christmas tree or decorate, especially with green or red. He’s lightened up on this over the years. Looking at it from that vantage point, one might ask how do you celebrate a pagan holiday with religion:)
    As much as practicing Christians might cringe at it, the extreme commercialization of Christmas over the years has made it inevitable that it would spill over into a secular/cultural holiday and not just a religious one.
    Now I have a question. What does it mean to be culturally Black or Italian? My head is spinning over that one.

  30. dionne-
    You had me till you went off on the pagan stuff…..
    As for being culturally ___________ (insert ethnic/racial group here).
    Ask any “wigger”, or non Italian-American “guido” what it means…
    Not too hard to understand.
    It is one who identifies with ONLY the things they like about a group, but are not members of that group.
    So wiggers can LOVE rap, clothes, etc. but don’t care to discuss issues like the lingering effects of slavery, institutional racism, DWB, etc…..
    Non Italian-American guidos can love the idea of family, the food, the tanning, the chiseled chests, nails, etc… all without being Italian-America and understanding the racism Italian-Americans have endured over the years.
    (I’m writing this as I listen to Brian Lehrer have an intellectual conversation about the show, “Jersey Shore.”)

  31. Just as it is apparently too hard for you to understand the reality that pagan rituals were adopted and blended into Christmas, it is equally difficult for me to accept attaching sweeping stereotypes to a group of people and calling that their culture.
    “Wigger” is a term I could have definitely lived without. I’m so sorry I asked.

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