With the Yuletide season upon us, America is once again engaged in the standard asinine debates about the holiday: Is Santa white? Is that decorated green perennial at the mall supposed to be called a "holiday treet"? If you neglect to say the word "Christmas" when conveying good wishes to a stranger of uncertain religious background, are you part of a noxious war against the sacred holiday?
Insofar as the December holiday has become a culture-war touchstone, I suspect it has something to do with increased pominence of atheism in American life. Religiously neutral seasonal greetings were one thing when they were about being respectful to Jewish neighbors—but, at least in some corners of the country, it's something else entirely when the respect is being directed towards the faithless.
On the other hand, Christmas can be confusing for atheists, too. Minority religious groups in Christian countries have had centuries to develop their own approaches to December 25—my colleague Marc Tracy just made the case for the joys of being Jewish on this holiday—but for atheists, there's no established formula, let alone something that's had time to evolve into a Chinese-food-and-a-movie cliche.
With all this in mind, I decided to call up Deborah Mitchell, the author of the forthcoming book Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids Without Religion. Mitchell covers everything from the basis of morality to prayer, but I was especially interested in how she suggests nonbelieving parents talk to their children about Santa, religion, and the meaning of this special time of year. In short, here is your atheist’s guide to Christmas.
Isaac Chotiner: How old are your kids?
Deborah Mitchell: Now they are 15 and 18. We celebrate Christmas because it is also a secular holiday, and we give and receive presents and enjoy spending time together. If we have relatives in town who want to attend church, we do go to church. Even though I’ve raised my kids without religion, we still respect the traditions of others.
IC: Okay, so they’re older now. When did they start asking about religion and Christmas and the history of Christmas?
DM: They were young. My older son started asking me before he even went to kindergarten. I didn’t want to lie to him, so when he asked me questions about Santa—or God—I would just stick to the facts. I told him that Santa is based on a story about a real man, but that there really isn’t a bearded white guy who squeezes down the chimney. I told him that Christmas is a time for giving, for being grateful and for spending time together. He did seem to wonder a lot about God, too. He asked the typical questions most kids ask. Where does God live? What does he look like? Can he see me dancing?
IC: And so what did you say?
DM: There were a lot of things that, at the time, I did differently. As they got older, I changed my stance. But in the beginning I didn’t really tell him one way or the other. Instead, I’d ask him a lot of questions like, ‘what do you think?’ or ‘does that make sense to you?’ I wasn’t trying to push my views on him and make him take a stand against religion. I just didn’t want to indoctrinate him. I was trying to let him figure things out for himself.
IC: At what point did you announce your beliefs and say ‘I actually don’t believe in God, we can celebrate Christmas, or your grandparents can celebrate Christmas, but I don’t believe this.’
DM: It was toward the middle of elementary school, like 3rd or 4th grade, where I became much more forthright by saying, ‘I don’t believe in the stories about God.’ I told them, ‘this is my view, and if you choose a religion when you get older that’s perfectly fine with me.’ I was divorced so my children would sometimes go to church with their Dad. It was a little bit confusing for them in the beginning, but I did tell them that they would have the chance to choose whether or not they wanted to believe.
IC: Did you feel like when you told them your beliefs that they were at all disappointed?
DM: I really didn’t feel like that they thought that. I mean, at times, I know that they still struggle with the whole concept of afterlife, death, and you know, being mortal. They just sort of took it all in stride, as kids often do.
IC: It is a bummer when you realize that you’re mortal. I remember that.
DM: Yeah. I had bought one of my kids an astronomy book because he was really interested in the subject. When he read about black holes and about how big and old the universe is, he felt a sense of existential dread and sort of freaked out. Other parents have told me that their kids struggle with mortality, too. I think it’s common for children to have an “oh my God” moment. They realize, “I’m just like the stars. I’m going to burn out one day, too.”
IC: Yes, the realization that the world doesn’t revolve around you is a complex one.
DM: Yes. But it is also very humbling.
IC: I was thinking about raising kids, and while I don’t believe in God, I want to say to them that they can believe whatever they want to believe, because if they decide to be religious then that’s their choice. On another level, Jesus actually wasn’t the son of God and I should state that as a fact rather than say you can choose and all opinions are equally valid.
DM: I definitely wouldn’t advocate lying to your kids. You know, when they say ‘what do you think happens after we die?’ I tell them, I don’t know, but this is what I think: we die, we go into the ground and we become fertilizer. You know, that’s it.
IC: Maybe shy away from saying you become fertilizer when they’re too young.
DM: [Laughs] Right, for sure. Maybe say instead, we’re part of the circle of life. We become part of the earth again, from which other things will grow. But, you know, these are conversations we have now. I never lie to them about anything in regards to God or whatever knowledge that we have. Jesus may have been an actual man, we know that, but there’s no evidence he was divine.
IC: Apparently he was a white man.
DM: Right, I thought that was funny. There are no descriptions of Jesus’ appearance in the New Testament, but I’m sure, living in the Middle East, he was not a blue-eyed, white guy.
IC: You want your kids to be open-minded but you also don’t want to tell them that every opinion is equally valid.
DM: That’s true, but you run into another problem that when they’re young and you’re trying to talk to them about religion, they’ll then go off to school and talk to their peers. And these kids go and tell their parents, so you have to be careful when they’re young.
IC: I imagine you have paid some attention to the War on Christmas. I always thought that the War on Christmas was a positive sign about where our culture was, that people at Fox News or wherever had lost, and this was a sign of reaction.
DM: I agree, I think it’s a good sign. It’s a sign that things are changing. You hear the whole war on Christmas thing, it seems silly. I live in Texas, where they recently passed the Merry Christmas bill, a law that says you can have holiday displays at school as long as you don’t promote one particular religion. So you can have a nativity scene as long as you also have another holiday symbol like Santa or a menorah. The funny thing is that these symbols are supposed to be sacred to the church, but we buy a cheap plastic Jesus at Wal-Mart, haul him across town and plop him in front of a school. It seems to take some of the sacredness out of it. You’d think that the Church would want to keep their symbols on their property sort of like an authorized dealer. It just seems a little odd to me, anyway.
IC: Odd, in the sense that it’s so removed from the original intent?
DM: Yea, like they want to force it into places where it doesn’t really belong. This past weekend, we had a parade in our town. There was a front-loader tractor in the parade with Santa and his reindeer on top and Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the dirty bucket. That seems so ironic.
IC: I gather you enjoy celebrating Christmas now.
DM: Yes, absolutely.
IC: What’s your routine, do you have a routine?
DM: We do the same thing as Christians do. We get up in the morning and we open gifts. We don’t go overboard with gift-giving—just a couple. We have our meals, and we celebrate with family and friends. If we’re visiting my mother—she’s Catholic—we will attend church with her if she wants. We also give to the community through special, Christmas-time donations or by picking angels from the angel tree.