As an atheist who grew up in a nonreligious household that celebrated Christmas with gusto—for us it was about food, family, and Santa, but not about Jesus—I’ve always loved the holiday.
As a child this was partially due to the “magic” of the season—such as the year we found pieces of cotton strewn about the house, strategically placed where we would discover them, and speculated (at my mother’s suggestion) that they were in fact bits of Santa’s beard that had fallen off during his visit. But that aspect of Christmas always felt like a game, like make believe. The most important elements of Christmas were always the uninterrupted time with family, and the encouragement to slow down and express our love and appreciation for one another.
Now, as an adult, Christmas remains one of the most special days of the year for those exact same reasons (minus the “magic”)—enhanced by the fact that it’s usually the only time that my family is able to assemble from the various places we’ve relocated to.
[The] politicization of Christmas—a discourse often polarized by many believers, who use Christmas as an opportunity to exclude those who don’t share in their views, but also by some atheists—doesn’t account for those of us who see Christmas as [an invitation] to huddle together in the face of an all-too-often cold and dark world, relishing in good food, good music, and the company of good friends and family. And as an opportunity to help make a dark, cold world just a little warmer, a little brighter, and a little more inhabitable for others, through compassionate service or loving action.
As tomorrow is Christmas, I wanted to share a reflection I wrote about the last tattoo I got, which happens to be a Christmas tree ornament, and how this tattoo serves to remind me of the importance of warmth and compassion all year long:
Growing up nonreligious, I sometimes listened to the stories my religious friends were told about their identities and beliefs—stories that connected them to people who came before them—and found myself wondering if I was lacking something. But at such moments my thoughts would often turn to the stories I was told about my Grandma Judith, who died two days before my third birthday.
Judith was kindhearted, generous, and rarely afraid to speak her mind. She blazed trails, broke barriers, and was both fiercely independent and profoundly loving. When she was diagnosed with cancer my mother became her primary caretaker, and we spent a lot of time with her during the end of her life. Her impact was felt long beyond her death; sharing stories about her and discussing what she would think about things became one of our central family traditions.
Though we considered the possibility of a heaven—and surely if there were a heaven she would be there, we thought—my mother did not emphasize whether or not we would see her again someday when talking to us about her. Instead, the focus was on carrying her forward into our lives, in seeing her live on in our memories and in the stories we told about her and about how much we loved her.
Because of this, Judith deeply informed the person I am today. When I started writing Faitheist, I decided to speak to my mother about how formative Judith had been. It was only then that I learned that Judith had dedicated the final years of her life to two causes I’ve dedicated much of my life to: interfaith and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) activism. In fact, she was even a founding member of Minnesota’s AIDS Interfaith Council of the Twin Cities. During these final years she hinted to my mother that she thought I might be gay, and declared that my astrology chart made it clear that my life would rotate around religion. Though I don’t believe in astrology, I suspect she would be very pleased that both of her predictions panned out.
One of my most prized possessions as a child was a wizard Christmas tree ornament—Judith loved wizards—that she gave me one Christmas. From then on it was always the first ornament I removed from our box of Christmas decorations, and I ensured that it got the best placement on the tree every year. I still have the ornament, and it continues to occupy an important place in my home. It connects me to my past and to a person who influenced much of it. It is a reminder of the importance of stories as a way to communicate values, build understanding, and develop identity. And it keeps me mindful of Judith’s loving, compassionate, and brave example.
I have few direct memories of Judith, but she remains one of the most important people in my life. Though I will always be connected to her through the stories I was told as a child, my newest tattoo of that wizard Christmas tree ornament is for her—for all that she represented, and for the many gifts she gave me.
Whether you are an atheist, a theist, or somewhere in between—and whether you celebrate Christmas, or Festivus, or something else, or nothing this week—I hope that you will take the opportunity to reflect on the gifts that others have given you, and that you might reach out and share those stories with others. Season’s greetings to you all!