“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?