Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Non-believer's Christmas

I am a non-believer. I was baptized when my parents were briefly Presbyterian, but I received no religious education and was not confirmed as a member of any Christian denomination. At times during my youth we actually attended services, most consistently during my high school years in the mid 1960s, when my mother took us to the Unitarian Church in Urbana, Illinois. Urbana was a university town, and all our friends were liberals. The counterculture revolution and anti-war movement were under way, and everything was affected by the social forces in the air. Sermons at our church were more political than religious, and long before the current controversy about secularizing Christmas, our Unitarian congregation favored hymns and Christmas carols that were stripped of any references to god.

Naturally, I became an agnostic. Like most people, I held fast to the religion of my upbringing, which was hardly any religion at all. But it is difficult to avoid membership in the culture that surrounds you. Anyone brought up without religion in the United States is culturally a Protestant Christian by default. Like most of the families we knew, mine celebrated Christmas, sang carols, read the nativity story from the Bible on Christmas Eve, and occasionally attended church. The rest of the year you would never know what, if any, religion we espoused, because most of the time we espoused none at all.

There is much to like about Christmas. It is a holiday that celebrates children: the birth of a child and, through the Santa Claus story, the delight of children with the gift of toys. The innocence and promise of childhood are always worthy of celebration. Although a kind of self-interested and unrestrained consumerism is rampant at Christmas, we are often urged to “Remember the Neediest!” and give to charity at this time of year. It is a time when we all give to others. In addition, Christmas approximately marks the Winter Solstice, when the days begin to get longer. Candles and evergreens bring light and life into homes darkened by winter’s long night. This part of Christmas marks an important seasonal turning point and makes a connection to many ancient celebrations of the lengthening of the light.

And there is music. Yes, it is predominantly religious music, but I have no problem with that. I have always loved singing in church. For a time when my kids were young, my then-wife took them to Episcopal services, and though everyone knew I was a non-believer, I often came along to be a good sport. Singing hymns was my favorite part of the service, and I took to it with great enthusiasm. More recently, I have attended Jewish services on occasion, and where the siddur provided transliterations of the Hebrew, I did my best to sign along in a language I do not speak. My kids have been singers most of their lives, and I recently attended a Lessons and Carols concert to hear my daughter sing with her college choir. As is common for me, I got teary at several points while singing the carols. Religious music evokes emotion, and although I cannot endorse its religious sources, the melodies and the generosity of spirit in the lyrics move me like anyone else.

When it comes to religion, I am the kind of person who often seems to be hanging around clubs he cannot bring himself to join. Not quite the same as Woody Allen’s problem (“I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member”), but we are both outsiders. In the case of Christianity—and in contrast to Judaism—I am fully entitled to the cultural Christianity of my birth. I will never be a religious Christian—or a religious anything—but I am entitled to my Christian secularism if I so choose. So I can fully enjoy Christmas in the way that suits me. I may be an outsider to religion, but I am not an outsider to Christmas. I often find the sense of expectation surrounding the giving and receiving of presents somewhat stressful. There is the race to get everything purchased and wrapped and the worry that someone will be disappointed with what they get. As a result, I feel a great sense of relief once Christmas morning has passed. But everything else about Christmas is something I can choose to enjoy or not, and there is much to enjoy. It will never be for me what it is for a religious Christian, but I am happy to have the chance to celebrate Christmas in my fashion.

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