It’s complicated, but suffice to say I was raised Unitarian, I am not an atheist, I am not a Christian, and I don’t currently attend any church on a regular basis. And my family always has celebrated and probably always will celebrate, Christmas.
I used to feel a sheepishness about this Christian holiday hanging around my life, a sheepishness that triggered cynicism or the unnecessarily repetitive pointing-out of the pagan origins of Christmas customs (which, fair enough, are there in abundance and a meaningful part of the holiday for me). I wasn’t alone among my many non-Christian friends with the vague sense of apology coupled with attacks on the holiday for being blended, and therefore impure already, so what the hell. At its worst this creates a sense of going through the motions and robs familiar rituals of meaning.
But a few years ago I had what can only be described as an epiphany. I was talking to a friend who mentioned wanting to make arrangements to visit her family for a Jewish holiday (I have to admit I’ve forgotten which one). Knowing her to not be religious, I must have made an expression of slight surprise, and, picking up on this, she said “I’m not a religious person, but I still feel very culturally Jewish, and it’s important to me to be there.”
And then it dawned on me. I do not believe in the Judeo-Christian God or that Jesus died for my sins. And yet, in some ways, I am culturally Christian. And the thought quickly followed: I am of a culture. And it’s okay to have a culture. I would never fault anyone else for this.
To be fair, I am a white American with a family history of Christianity, and I recognize that the frequent invisibility of my culture is an outgrowth of its privilege. That is critical for me to remember. But it’s also realistic to acknowledge that that culture exists, and that it is part of my messy, complex humanity.
There is a commendable, but at times excessive, thread in American consciousness that is preoccupied with hypocrisy. In those we don’t like we relish pointing out hypocrisy above all else, and we fear it in ourselves. I wonder sometimes, though, if is better to have the right principles and fail to live up to them some of the time than it is to have the wrong principles and display unflagging consistency. And when it comes to the sustaining elements of family and history and identity, a demand for tidiness, philosophical or otherwise, has the power to mow down landscapes.
My mother does not believe that Jesus was the son of God. But she loves nativity scenes because she loves the ideas of birth and hope and humble beginnings of great wisdom. And I have enjoyed her nativity sets since I was a child and rearranged the little figures over and over and told stories about them, and as an adult I have shopped for her collection. I love Christmas lights because they cheer me up as the nights grow longer, and their symbolism carries hope and the celebration of the eventual return of the light to the planet. But mostly because the quality of the light makes me feel soaked with wonder, and because I remember lying under a Christmas tree as a child and staring up through the lit branches. It’s complicated.
There is a lot worth questioning in the way we celebrate Christmas (or whatever you celebrate this time of year). Unsustainable consumerism is a threat to both the planet and the soul. I try to approach the season with moderation, make meaningful gifts to charity, and use the closing of the year to reflect on the gifts of hope and love and better ways to live up to them. But I don’t apologize any more for calling it Christmas. This is part of who I am. I will take comfort in my mother’s nativity scenes just as someone else will place a star on their pagan-descended Christmas tree and think about Jesus. And that is okay. We will be weighed down with a hundred nostalgias and arbitrary desires for symbols and ritual because we are human and it is dark and cold out and this is what we do.
Happy holidays! (of your choice)