The Problem with Christmas

“You’re going to deprive your child of Santa?”

That was one of my close friends when I explained that my husband and I are atheists, so we won’t be celebrating Christmas. I was surprised that Santa was what she was most concerned about. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:

Friend: “But Santa has nothing to do with God.”

Me: “True. Which presents two issues. One: he has come to represent materialism, and has replaced the central purpose of Christmas in American culture. And two: Santa doesn’t exist just as we think God doesn’t exist. We would be hypocrites if we encouraged a belief in one and not the other.”

Friend: “But you will be depriving your child of the joy and fun of Christmas.”

Me: “There are many other joys to be had in the world. Most children on this planet don’t get a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve. And they don’t have Christmas trees either.”

Friend: “So you aren’t going to have a Christmas tree either?”

Me: “Why would we have a Christmas tree if we don’t celebrate Christmas?”

Friend: “I don’t know. That just sounds so sad and depressing to me.”

This wasn’t the first time I heard my lack of religious belief described as sad and depressing. Granted, my friend was referring to our rejection of Christmas traditions as sad and depressing, but I think the implication is still there. Ironically, I view Christmas as sad and depressing. Piles of gifts that no one needs or wants. Shopping seasons that begin in August. Stressed out parents who can’t afford the gifts their children demand, and therefore feel inadequate. Churches holding toy drives for poor children whose parents can’t afford to give them heaps of gifts. And what is it all for? I see the giving theme, but giving has become hypercommercialized. Our society has come to believe that we need stuff to be whole, merry, and well. And what we give is now a reflection of our worth as people. Parents give children expensive Christmas gifts to show the extent of their love and success. Churches hold toy drives because their members feel generous and good in giving to poor children, but are they giving the children what they truly need to better their lives? The idea that a child who has nothing to open on Christmas must be a poor, sad child is beyond conprehension to me. It’s just stuff. Plastic, disposable, nonessential stuff that provides temporary pleasure.

Not to mention that half of the paper waste in America is produced at Christmas every year. But the environmental impacts of our Christmas shennanigans are another blog plost entirely.

All that said, and my conversation with my friend aside, the Christmas Question is a big looming one in our house. How do we, as atheists but members of Christian families, participate in a religious holiday that has become less religious and more holiday? By refusing to take part in any Christmas rituals, we will, at least in our families’ eyes, be rejecting family traditions. By participating, we won’t be authentic to our own ideas of the world and our own values. What does that teach Soren? But at the same time, we want Soren to have memories of his grandparents that include family traditions and rituals. The difficult thing is that most family traditions center around religion.

Even by this Christmas, when Soren is nearly two, we’ll be faced with the dilemma. Do we tell him about Santa — a fictional character like god — and let him participate in holiday traditions that are important to our extended family and friends? Or do we tell him the truth — that Santa is a fictional character that represents generosity and the joy of giving? Will my parents be distressed if they can’t have that Santa excitement with their only grandchild? And more importantly, am I robbing Soren of something if I tell him Santa exists or if I don’t? Is it hypocritical to tell him about Santa but encourage him to think critically about existence, reality and science?

Merry Christmas.


9 thoughts on “The Problem with Christmas

  1. Hi,
    I’ve been thinking along these lines myself for a while too.
    Have you thought about having a cultural Christmas? Kind of like a Thanksgiving where family togetherness is the central theme to the day, not religion or commercialism. like cultural jews still get together for Passover, but don’t go to temple? After all the current hyped up version of Christmas has only been in existence a few decades, and was not a religious holiday until it was co-opted. Event the Pilgrims celebrated it as a non religious holiday.

    What about having secular winter solstice?

    Did you believe in Santa as a child? If so you feel that your belief in magic/imaginary beings caused you irreparable harm.

    I think the danger/concern of excluding our non religious families from all forms of religious traditions might be that as the child grows up, he or she might find religion a “forbidden fruit.”

    Best wishes,

    • I apologize for the late reply. Your comment made me think, and I often do that slowly. I agree that I risk making religion the forbidden fruit if I keep my son from all things religious. I think that is an excellent point and a true danger. I also think that keeping him in the dark about religion is hypocritical. I want him to question everything, including my own atheism. And to give him the freedom to question means giving him the alternative stories.

      I did believe in Santa as a kid. And I remember figuring it out and not being very devastated that the magic was all a lie. I felt proud of myself for coming to my own conclusions. I think that could be a valuable exercise for my son. I just need to get over the hypocrisy of telling him that I don’t think God exists, but Santa does.

      Christmas is a cultural holiday and I think we, as a family, need to find ways to make it our own. I have been listening to the e-book “Atheists’ Guide to Christmas” and have found the more moderate positions a relief. There are atheists out there who celebrate Christmas because it is fun and they like egg nog and Christmas trees and that’s all there is to it. I could probably use a little less pontification on these kinds of topics and more enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake. But then again, that’s what skeptics do right? They consider and reconsider!

      I am very interested to hear more about what other nonbelievers or skeptics do for Christmas.

      • My family is atheist and celebrates Christmas as a cultural holiday. We put up decorations and gave presents but did not tell our son Santa was real. We did explained the various stories of Santa and Saint Nicolas (as well as watched holiday movies and read holiday books) and the traditions of other families however. We further explained that while Santa isn’t real many people play “the Santa game” and pretend that he is real. My son even made up his own Santa story where Santa’s sleigh is pulled by dragons (my son has a very active imagination). We didn’t want our son to get jealous of his family and friends who did celebrate Christmas and were concerned with how our son would react in social situations if other children tried to tell him Santa was real. Also, most of our relatives kept mentioning Santa so we felt like it was a topic we needed to address.

  2. I am trying to figure out the answer to this very difficult question. I have as recently as 4 months ago become the father of a beautiful baby girl.
    The problem is that the responses I get vary from people who think I am being ridiculous to those who treat me like a villain. Only on the Internet have I witnessed anyone who shares my concerns. But the issue is not even Christmas itself, which I have no qualms about celebrating. It’s probably my favorite holiday besides Halloween. The tree, presents, and even snowmen and Santa Claus decorations will all be present in my household. My concern is raising my child to believe in the literal existence of Santa. His image is the most pervasive icon in Christmas, and it’s not as if I would have to actively indoctrinate my child in order for her to enjoy these stories and images. The idea of Santa is largely a positive force to me, even if it carries some mixed messages. My problem is this:
    How could I, as a person who advocates critical thinking and healthy skepticism, purposely suppress critical thinking if and when the question is asked, “Does Santa Claus really exist?” That natural development seems stunted by a reinforcing of circular logic and faulty rationalizations. I felt my suggestion of asking her what she thought and why was a reasonable way to understand her stage in development of critical thought. She obviously had to have ascertained that there were reasons to doubt his existence. I could be proud of my budding thinker and then tell her that Santa REPRESENTS the spirit of charity and bringing families together on Christmas. We have the real thing. I perhaps didn’t put it so eloquently, but I think I got to the part about asking my daughter to explore whether or not Santa was real before my wife started crying at the notion that I would rob the joy of Christmas from our children. I felt terrible. So Santa’s coming to our house, but Grandma and Mom will have to do the lying. As you might imagine, my fondness for the holiday has decreased in recent months.

    • Atheist Father, I think I understand your dilemma. My own dilemma surrounding Santa is similar. As parents who want to encourage critical thinking in our children, how do we handle Santa? We won’t encourage them to believe in deities, so Santa belief feels hypocritical. I’ve gotten similar responses as you have from people: they seem to believe that I’m being either ridiculous and too serious, or that I am denying him one of the simplest joys of childhood. It’s hard for people who have grown up with and embraced Christmas and Santa to consider doing it another way. I try to remind myself of that.

      I like your approach. Your daughter (congratulations, by the way!) probably has at least three years before she questions Santa’s existence. In a few years, she’ll probably be thinking of fairies and unicorns and reading stories about them, and you will have lots of opportunity to question whether she thinks they exist. And when your daughter finally comes to you and asks you if Santa is real, it seems like a responsible and loving approach to say, “what do you think?” and let her think through it with you. Urging her to continue her belief past her skepticism seems counter to your philosophy. Your wife sounds upset by this idea, but I wonder if she would really approach it differently in that moment, with her daughter looking up at her, the question bright in her eyes. Would she really insist that yes, Santa exists, and extinguish your daughter’s curiosity?

      I went to an insightful and helpful lecture by Dale McGowan who wrote “Parenting Beyond Belief.” That book covers The Santa Question from two perspectives and might offer you and your wife a starting point for future conversations. In the meantime, I can offer my own solace: this year is a freebie, in a way. Your daughter won’t be aware of Santa indoctrination this year, and chances are, she won’t next year either. (My son is 20 months old and has no interest in the pudgy man he sees in various places.) You have some time to figure it out. When you do figure it out, please share. There are many of us in the world who are just as stumped on this topic as you.

      • Every time I know me and my kids will encounter Santa themed activities I say, “ya! Let’s play pretend Santa!” They are both under three, I wonder if they will question if he is real or not. They don’t ask if the pretend cake at their pretend tea party is real either. But regardless I won’t ever lie to them about anything. But I think it’s fun to pretend with my kids. I’m not working to deceive them and I tell them upfront what to expect. If they want to believe they can! They can believe whatever they want to believe true or not. I’ll just model my life in grace and hope they follow. No other member of friends or family is capable of influencing their beliefs more than I so I feel pretty secure on the topic.

  3. Oh, how happy I am I stumbled upon this blog! My husband and I have no kids yet, but are beginning to talk about trying. This is an ongoing topic of discussion though. We are both whole hearted athiests. We plan to raise our kids to question and research and learn. It is refreshing to know there are people out there who are torn over the santa clause dilema. Both of our families celebrate christmas and santa. I am 100% against raising our kids to believe in santa, as I see it we would be teaching them not to sceptisize, and I do not want that! My husband does not want to rob our kids of christmas and santa, but I believe I am more inclined to illiminate it altogether. I am happy I read the reply by the atheist father, becasue I think this would be a good “meet in the middle” for my husband and I. I will let my kids “believe” there is a santa until they begin to question it and then I will simply ask “What do you think?” and if they do not believe then so be it.
    Anyway, thank you for this blog. It has gave me hope and made me feel less “lonely” as you said in one blog. I feel as though I have people on my side and maybe my kids won’t be so ostrisized… I just want my kids to be thinkers… to come to their own conclusions… if it is religion… well, as hard as it may be for me to swallow, I would accept it. I just want them to take in all there is. Thank you. Thank you!

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