How to Celebrate Winter, Secularly


>>11376235724_3ec3caa05d_kThe other day, my eight-year-old asked if we could walk through the Christmas section at the store. He wanted to look at the lights, sniff the cinnamon- and vanilla-scented candles, and touch the velvety red bows. In a moment of parental impulse, I asked if he wanted to get a tree. He paused in running a beaded garland through his fingers to ask, “What for?”

As a secular family, we have never had a traditional winter holiday. We don’t hang wreaths or sing carols, decorate trees or keep an elf on the shelf. Ours is a home devoid of advent calendars and nativity scenes. Like many non-Christians, we go out for Chinese food on December 25th.

With complex and complicated extended family roots in Quaker, Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian, and Catholic faiths — not to mention my youthful dabbling in Hare Krishna and Islam — our children have had the opportunity to explore many traditions. We haven’t denied our children a deity, but we haven’t promoted one either. Usually, it doesn’t even cross our minds that we might be different. But then, December comes.

Strands of twinkling lights and hordes of Santa impersonators remind us that there is something big out there of which we are not a part. We see the parades and ornaments and buy in as much as anyone else that this is supposed to be a magical time of year.

Like many parents, regardless of faith, we fall prey to the trappings. We exchange gifts and gorge ourselves on gingerbread men, heed the siren song of candy canes and eggnog, and watch movies featuring bumbling elves and kids who nearly shoot their eyes out.

But it is important to us to bear in mind that this is also a holy time — an expression of a religion that is not ours. And so, we maintain a friendly distance from Christmas.

We don’t decorate because to put on an outward display of allegiance would feel forced. Plenty of our contemporaries do this, and we do not begrudge them that. It’s just not for us. When greeted with a “Merry Christmas!” while entering stores, we respond with a heartfelt “Happy Holidays!” We drink out of whatever color cups we are served. Just like always, when asked for a moment of prayer, we remain silent out of respect for our fellow human beings.

This is not a protest. This is being true to our family while still honoring the traditions of others.

And so, while standing in the Christmas department at a store we forgot would be packed with holiday shoppers, and my son turns to me and asks why would we get tree, I do not have an answer. He has everything he needs to enjoy the season right here on aisle seven.

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  1. Clair

    I appreciate the personal aspect of this essay and am glad that the author is open about her secular approach. I like that an 8 year old is curious and delighted but not yet compelled to imitate the larger society that leverages themes of Christianity to drive retail profits. I am hopeful that a more secular society will find ways to enrich our hopes and dreams, a place that religion occupies. Ideas?

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