Teaching My Son To Celebrate Christmas Without Religion

Jordan christmas

For those of us who don’t fit into religious boxes, there’s nothing wrong with taking away what remains of Christmas when you remove its Christian roots.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving each year, my 6-year-old son and I always share a similar look of manic glee at what is about to unfold: the annual unpacking of the (fake) Christmas tree and decorating of our home with gilded nutcrackers, a ceramic wintry village, and sparkly garlands. Our advent calendar is made by Lego, and the tree topper is a star, but not the one the Three Wise Men saw on the night of Jesus’s birth.

Christmas is a time of glitter and ritual, brightening the dark, of celebrating our love for each other, and, of course, a time for exchanging gifts, but it isn’t grounded in religious meaning in our house. For the most part, that’s never been an issue, but as my son grows older, and considering that many of his close friends celebrate an assortment of religions, the issue is coming up more often.

“Mom, did you know that Mark believes Christmas is about Jesus?” my son asked me this week as he engaged one of the decorative nutcrackers in a battle with his plastic batman.

This wasn’t a shocking question; one of his best friends’ families is Christian, the most commonly-held religion in our town aside from Mormonism. “Well, yes,” I said, “for people who practice the religion known as Christianity, that is what they believe.”

My son pursed his lips. “What about Buddha? Did he celebrate Christmas?”

My husband, who emerged a little traumatized from a strict Adventist religion, has been a practicing Buddhist for over 20 years. Me, with lapsed Jewish roots that never had a chance to flourish, I’d call myself a Buddhist wannabe, as I adhere to some of the principles, but like anything organized, I usually fail at the specifics.

“No, Buddha wasn’t a Christian; he lived roughly around the same time as Jesus, scholars believe.”

We also have many friends who choose to incorporate natural symbols of Winter Solstice—a “seasons tree” and the rhythms of the natural world into this time of year instead, and we certainly relate to such practices.

My son frowned and considered this. “I think Christmas is about giving good presents to people you like.”

I saw my opening. “Yes, but it isn’t always about giving material presents, you know. The material presents really only matter if they come from the heart and are given with love.”

“Santa must really love me.”

I sighed again. Yes, we tow the Santa line, and only because I didn’t want my kid to be the one to dash the dreams of all the other kids in his class. Even though I’ve never been fully comfortable with this promise of a magical fat man delivering bounty based on vague notions of good behavior, my son is deeply committed to the art of make believe and adds colorful elaborations to the Santa Origin Story all his own.

“Daddy and I really love you,” I said. “And we would even if we didn’t give you presents. Christmas is more about love than presents.”

I hovered for a moment in anxiety that I might be doing my child some damage by not helping plant his experience of the holidays in a religious framework. And yet, there’s no shortage of discussions in our house about the meaning of life, about practicing good values, and being a good person. We interchange the words God, Buddha, and Universe, and have read the book What Is God? to our son many times, at the recommendation of a good friend whose family also doesn’t practice religion.

Outside, it began to rain—a hard, quenching rain we haven’t seen in years of terrible drought here in California. My son put down the nutcracker and came over to my lap.

“What is it you like about Christmas?” I ask. “What does it mean to you?”

He gazed out at the steady rain and cuddled closer. “I like it when Grandma and Grandpa come over and we get all cozy in the house and make a fire.”

“Christmas is about being cozy and celebrating the love of our family,” I said.

“Plus it’s fun,” he added.

And suddenly one refrain of the Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” popped into my head (yes, I’m aware it’s Christian): “O tidings of comfort and joy.” For those of us who don’t fit into religious boxes, there’s nothing wrong with taking away what remains when you remove Christian (or Pagan) roots: brightening what is often the gloomiest month of the year, curling into each other for comfort, and focusing on making a little extra joy.

Jordan Rosenfeld is author of the writing guides Make a Scene, Write Free, and the novels Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Modern Loss, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, the St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Chronicle and more.

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