My son, Gus, has been dreaming about wolves. The pack watches over him at night, he explains. And sure enough, I can almost see them, steely-eyed, tails aloft, trotting obediently behind him in the morning into the kitchen. He stands barefoot among his imaginary beasts and asks for breakfast. After so many months, he’s finally well-rested. He hasn’t had a nightmare since the wolves arrived.
He found his refuge just as I discarded mine.
This year, I stopped believing in God.
As the weather chills and Christmas approaches, my husband, Matt, and I talk about our holiday plans. With no church services to attend, we have time to spare, but I can’t seem to fill the blank spaces on our calendar. It’s my first Christmas as an atheist, and I ache for the traditions I am leaving behind.
All my life, Christmas was a religious holiday. As a child, I looked forward to the candlelight service on Christmas Eve as much as I anticipated opening presents the next morning. I loved coming in from the dark and standing between my parents in the sea of red sweaters. I held my candle steady, careful not to tip it even when the hot wax dripped onto my fingers. As I sang, I imagined our voices lifting together to the very same place.
When Gus was born, I had my chance. I filled his nursery with Bibles, devotionals, and Christian literature, but when it came time for bedtime stories, the religious books stayed on the shelf. I didn’t enjoy reading them. When I tried, I would skim and skip pages, a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach. One day, with Gus on my lap and the Bible spread before us, I realized what was unsettling me.
I loved my religion, but I didn’t believe a word of it.
Now, a few months after my deconversion, I think often about Christmas. Will my kids experience beauty and wonder in the holiday, as I once did? Or will celebrating a secular Christmas be like taking the family to Disney World — a cherished childhood memory, but meaningless all the same?
The answer, as it turns out, lies with the wolves.
Come Christmastime this year, our family will pile in the car and travel north. In the northeastern corner of Minnesota, in the depths of the Superior National Forest, there is a protected habitat for wolves. Matt will pull into a parking space outside the interpretive center. I will unbuckle the kids from their car seats. Together, we will hurry in from the cold, push through the double doors, and shed our coats and scarves in the lobby. There will be the smell of damp wool, the squeak of our boots on the floor. Gus’s eyes will be shining.
I don’t have to teach my kids about beauty. They see it already.
I don’t have to cling to old traditions to make Christmas meaningful. As long as we’re with each other, it will be.
We can stand together in front of the glass windows. I will take off my mittens. Matt will put his hand in mine. The kids will squirm between us, their fingers and faces sticky from peppermint candy, peering around our legs into the dark exhibit, looking for life.
Above us, the falling snowflakes will be indistinguishable from the stars.
Before us will be the wolves.
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