When my daughter was five, we drove by a nativity scene and she asked me what it was.
“That’s a scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ,” I informed her.
She couldn’t stop laughing at what I had said.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Jesus Christ is what you yell when you’re frustrated!” she explained.
It was at that moment that I realized that maybe I hadn’t done the best job at explaining the country’s dominant religion to my two kids, at all — and I certainly hadn’t done the best job of explaining the real meaning of Christmas to them, either. And it sounded like it was probably time.
I was raised an atheist by two microbiologists. That means that when I asked my parents who Jesus was, they told me he was “a nice man with some good ideas,” and when I asked what would happen when I died, they told me that my body would slowly decompose, with the help of worms and insects eating my dead flesh. Great job, mom and dad!
Now in my 40s, I am still an atheist with very little interest or belief in anything religious — but I also want to maybe take a slightly more... spiritual... angle with my own kids. Like: yes, your dead flesh will be eaten by bugs and worms. That’s still true. But then that flesh will rejoin the universe’s Circle of Life and your soul will live on in the hearts of your loved ones. Or something. I’m still working on the details.
I realized, after the nativity scene talk, that, Jesus Christ, I also needed a similar strategy for Christmas, too. I wanted it to be meaningful, but I also don’t believe that Mary was magically inseminated and gave birth to the son of God, so now we’re going to decorate a tree in our living room and watch for flying reindeer.
Here’s what I landed on to have a meaningful, sort of spiritual Christmas while skipping the Christianity.
Christmas is a time to celebrate the solstice
You’ve probably already heard this from your crunchy friend who drinks unpasteurized milk and once recommended you put a crystal in your vagina for a reason you can’t quite recall: Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25, and a lot of Christmas traditions are actually lifted from the Pagans. Yep, including the tree stuff.
And, really, a ton of different cultures and religions throughout time have a big, showy holiday right around the winter solstice. Why? There are tons of theories (including religious ones) but it’s always been a turning point in the calendar: a time to celebrate that there’s literally a little bit more light in the world.
Also: winter is cold and boring and most cultures at the end of December need a big party to keep up morale and make good use of all the stuff they harvested in the fall.
Really, you can look at both of these things scientifically (hat tip to mom and dad): we celebrate Christmas because of the position of our Earth, hurdling through space, and also for some cultural anthropology reasons.
Christmas is about giving
I know a lot of people don’t celebrate Christmas in a religious way anymore, or that they just do so nominally. But I also want to keep my family away from celebrating only commercially, too. Even though I don’t want to spend my holiday pretending there’s a Christian god, or any god at all, I also don’t just want it to be about presents and stockings and eating things. Or — I want the presents and stockings and eating things to be in context. The context of celebrating our world and our bounty and each other.
Christmas is about peace and joy
Here are two concepts I think we can all agree are good to celebrate: peace on earth and joy to the world. I find it kind of blah when cards say something simple like “Happy Holidays.” But I love finding decorations that say “Peace on Earth” or “Joy to the World. Or even “Holy Night.” Even though I don’t believe in either God or Santa, I can still embrace the magic of our world and the redeeming aspects of humanity.
Honestly, a lot of the Christian holiday songs can be easily appropriated by atheists who just like nice things. There are really only a few I prefer to skip for being too religious, plus Little Drummer Boy because let’s face it, it’s a bad song.
Christmas is about a nice man with some good ideas
This is one part my parents got very right.
Some people get confused when I tell them that while I don’t believe in Jesus Christ, the guy who can walk on water, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, a person who had some good ideas a very long time ago. I don’t think he’s Our Lord and Savior, but I do think he was on to something when he told people to love their neighbors, stop killing each other, stop judging, etc. I recognize that Jesus has had a massive effect on our culture and our world as a whole and that portions of that influence have been really good. Christmas is a great time to celebrate those portions.
I just leave the magical parts to Rudolph, though.
Sarah Aswell is the Special Projects Editor at Scary Mommy, where she contributes her editing and writing across the website and runs Scary Mommy Book Club. A humor writer and stand-up comedian, Sarah’s work has appeared in places like The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, MAD Magazine, Reductress, Funny or Die, and more. Her writing about comedy, entertainment, and parenting has appeared in Vulture, Forbes, USA Today, Vice, The Advocate, and Working Mother Magazine, to name a few. Sarah lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two daughters and slightly too many cats. She was recently named one of the best unknown comedians in America by Thrillist, which is one of those insults that sounds like a compliment. Follow Sarah on Twitter at @sarahaswell and/or check out her comedy at sarahaswell.com.