The Christmas wars are raging unabated this year, as well-meaning Christians remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
All quibbling about Pagan traditions aside, I acknowledge that this is, basically, true. But part of me cringes every time I see that phrase. Because, for me, Jesus has nothing to do with the celebration I will take part in on Dec. 25.
I will be the first to admit that there is something a little bit weird about an atheist celebrating Christmas. I have given it a lot of thought over the years, and have come to the conclusion that it simply defies analysis.
Sure, it might not make a lot of sense for me to sing “Glory to the newborn king” while I trim the Christmas tree. But that’s what’s going to happen. (I’m speaking figuratively here, since two dogs plus one baby equals no way a tree’s going up in my house this year.)
I grew up in a completely secular household. I was never baptized, never attended a church service and what I knew of the Bible came from a story book, curiously enough, in my (Jewish) doctor’s waiting room. Don’t be offended, but to me, the stories I read in that book were no different than the stories in my book of Greek myths. They informed me culturally and historically, but didn’t resonate personally.
But our family’s Christmas celebrations were pretty normal. There was a tree, lights, presents, stockings and a big meal. Some years we had an Advent calendar with chocolates behind each door. Every year, my sister and I would get out my grandmother’s collection of angel figurines and arrange them on the mantle. The Nativity figurines my other grandmother had brought back from a trip to Mexico were set up on the bookshelf.
Our Christmas tree was a glorious hodgepodge. There was no color scheme or specific style; we hauled the same decorations out of the attic each year and hung them to a chorus of “Remember this?”
Each of us had a favorite. Mine was a porcelain goose with little jointed legs that swung as it dangled from the branch. Then there were ornaments we had made in school, and ornaments that had been given to us as gifts. There were the brightly colored felt ornaments made by my mother in a rare fit of craftiness. There were the traditional glass globes, of which we seemed to break about one a year. It was a beautiful mess of memories, all jumbled together.
And scattered throughout the tree were birds — some tiny, like the little chickadee; others larger, like the bold cardinal. Made with real feathers, the birds had wire feet that wrapped around the branches. We loved to position them deep within the tree at odd angles so they peeked out at you, quizzically, just like a real bird might. Topping the tree was not an angel or a star, but another bird: a white dove. My mother told me that it symbolized peace, which gave me a nice warm feeling.
Christmas still gives me a warm feeling today, and I guess my own feeling about the holiday is a lot like those crazy, jumbled-up Christmas trees of my youth. It’s not neat and tidy; it’s not arranged according to any plan or system. It’s just something held together by memories and propped by tradition.
Today, you won’t find any Nativity scenes or angels among my Christmas decorations. (OK, you won’t find any decorations at all, but that’s borne more of laziness than any principle.) But I will continue to do the things I have done to celebrate Christmas all my life: give and receive gifts, and spend time with family and loved ones over a meal.
Is it strange to want to do this, to gather together during the dark of winter for a time of happiness, of sharing and giving, of warmth? I don’t think so. So as irrational as it may be, I’m going to wish all of you out there a merry Christmas. And if that’s offensive coming from an atheist, then I truly am sorry.
No tag for Emily