I was raised Catholic. We weren’t devout Catholics by any means, but we went to church and received our sacraments and said grace before dinner. My parents were mostly CAPE Catholics — they only went to church on Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Easter. Then they stopped going at all. Eventually, I declared myself an atheist. No one excommunicated me from the family. They weren’t — and still aren’t — happy about it and they don’t understand it, but they accept it.
Even after I abandoned religion, I still celebrated all the appropriate religious holidays. Granted, it was mostly for the food. But Christmas, that was something different.
Christmas was never about Jesus’s birthday to me. It’s about so many other things. Perhaps I’m not celebrating the “true meaning” of the holiday but then again, no other holiday really gets its true meaning celebrated. Easter has become about bunnies and colored eggs. Halloween is about scary witches and ghosts and candy. Even holidays meant to celebrate births of great figures in American history are nothing more than days off from work and school and a chance to buy a washer/drying at a discounted rate. Americans love a holiday, that’s for sure.
Just as much as you can celebrate Halloween if you’re not Pagan, you can still celebrate the Christmas season if you’re not religious. I understand that to a devout Catholic, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. But hasn’t it become so much more than that? Forget the crass commercialism and admonitions that if you don’t buy a Lexus or diamond ring for your loved one, you have failed as a human being. There is so much more to the secular side of the holiday season than gifts.
So why does this atheist celebrate a holiday that is supposed to be about religion? It’s not the gifts, it’s not the gaudy decorations. It’s the spirit.
When I was a child, Christmas time meant so many things. Parties in school, snow on the ground, snooping around my parent’s bedroom for hidden presents. The air was filled with a sense of anticipation and joy that was not present most of the year. The calendar was marked down with X’s on the dates of December, and every new X meant that special day was coming.
Of course, I loved the presents. But I loved the atmosphere, too. My parents are very social people. During the holiday season, there would be friends and relatives dropping over to say hello, have a drink, maybe a bite to eat. The Christmas tree glowed and sparkled and the windows were covered with those plastic, colorful decorations depicting Santa and snowmen and angels.
Christmas is about traditions. For as long as I can remember, we would gather at my aunt’s house on Christmas Eve — we still do — enjoying an Italian feast of fish and pasta, at least 40 of us crowded into the fully decorated basement. We exchanged presents and Santa came and the grownups were all happy and carefree and festive. We would go home late, get tucked into bed and then lay there for what seemed like hours, too excited to sleep. It was a great night to be a kid.
My father would always take us shopping on Christmas Eve day, usually to Sears. We would buy presents for our mother — always Jean Nate perfume and powder — and presents for each other (I still have the music box my sister bought for me one year that played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”) and we would get home and have hot chocolate covered in whipped cream and wrap our presents. We made cards for our parents and sometimes we would make presents, too; sloppy hand-made ornaments that still hang on my mother’s tree.
Even decorating the tree became a tradition of hot chocolate and Christmas songs and sibling fights over who got to put the star on top. We still do that to this day, gathering at my parent’s house, now with kids and spouses in tow, and continuing the tradition of decorating and fighting, an inside-joke sort of bickering we do just to keep tradition fully in place.
On Christmas morning, my sisters and I would wake earlier than any human should rise, and we would sit by the fireplace in the half-dark, opening whatever was in the bulging stockings that hung from the mantle, waiting for our parents to wake. Finally, we couldn’t take it anymore and we would run into their bedroom, jumping on the bed until they finally got up, bleary eyed and exhausted from wrapping and arranging presents the night before.
After the presents were unwrapped and the fire was roaring, fed by discarded wrapping paper and empty boxes, dad would make a huge breakfast as we gushed over our presents. Then, while mom cooked, dad would take us out visiting relatives and each aunt or uncle would give us Christmas candy or cookies as we went from house to house.
All these traditions are still intact. Some have changed a bit; there were years when the Christmas Eve party at my aunt’s house turned into 3 a.m. drunken poker games and most of the cousins hanging out back with the keg. Then we got older, had kids of our own and put the magic back in our tradition.
Most of our traditions have stayed the same: we still open our presents very early, all of us arriving at our parent’s house at an ungodly hour, heading straight for the stockings while we wait for our parents to wake up. They greet us with the same bleary eyed look they always did and the presents are still stacked sky high under the tree like they always were. We have a big breakfast and thank each other thoughtfulness of gifts received, make an orange juice toast to peace on earth and time well spent together.
This is why I love Christmas. I love way the neighborhood is lit up in color and light at night. I love the excitement in the air, the way people give so freely of themselves, their money and their time to charity in the spirit of the season, the way the kids bounce when they walk through the mall, thrilled at the thought of picking out presents for those they love.
Yes, Christmas has become commercialized and may appear to be nothing more than a celebration of consumerism. If that’s what you see, then that’s all you want to see. Me, I see pretty lights and smiling kids and relatives all gathered in one place for a change instead of scurrying to appointments and ball games and work.
If the War on Christmas actually exists, I’ve been sitting it out. Please, feel free to wish me a Merry Christmas even though I’m not religious. I don’t expect you to replace it with a generic Happy Holidays. I don’t care if there’s a nativity in front of your store. I don’t mind if children sing Silent Night. I know there are anti-Christmas grinches around. Just because I’m not a participant in your religion doesn’t mean I expect you to stop celebrating it in front of me. I want to embrace your joy and your season.
To quote Bill Murray in Scrooged:
“It’s Christmas Eve. It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be.”