Many traditions, both old and new, take place between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Families and friends gather together and try to get along, strangers smile at the weird driver singing “Jingle Bells” at the top of his lungs, and everyone agrees not to post diet victories on Facebook until January.
As a Jewish mom, I celebrate Hanukkah and light the menorah with my family. We have theme nights for eight evenings, to go along with latkes and applesauce, where we exchange books, homemade gifts, and other tokens of love and appreciation.
As an agnostic woman, though, I identify more with communal and historical aspects of this holiday. The importance of family time is my focus, and I’m not shy about rejecting the notion that a small amount of oil in an ancient menorah lasted a literal eight days.
Christian traditions get the same treatment. My children and I discuss cultural celebrations we appreciate, but obviously do not share the idea that a Messiah was born in a manger, or that belief in this idea will somehow save us.
I reject almost every religious reason for this season, and yet can still acknowledge, and appreciate, the rituals I see around me.
Except that “elf on a shelf” craze. That’s just strange.
When I was younger, I saw things differently. I’d feel annoyed when someone wished me a Merry Christmas. My friends and I wanted to be seen as different from those around us, and would chirp back, “Happy Holidays!” Now I’m an adult, and after a long day of working and parenting and yelling at one broken appliance or another, I’m thrilled to have anyone wish me a Happy or Merry Anything, especially if they’re giving change back or serving a tasty beverage in a martini glass.
I don’t have to participate in something to see its value.
There are many aspects of the season that include traditions borrowed from pagan rituals. The history of why Christians chose to include wreaths, trees, and the time surrounding winter solstice, for the celebration of their Lord’s birth, is fascinating.
I understand why other agnostics, and our close cousins the atheists, feel like this time of year doesn’t really include them. They’re right to point out, from time to time, the great harm that faith and church and mosque have done to this planet. Encouraging people to think and behave, rather than pray and believe, has its place.
Every once in a while, I too lament the need people have for strong religious affiliation. I can’t help myself. I wish human beings could be inspired to do good deeds without reward of heaven or fear of hell. I long for a time when people won’t need to follow in order to feel like they belong. I look forward to an evolving population and time when we can celebrate the “literature” behind stories of Moses and Jesus and the Maccabees and Mohammed, without thinking for one minute that these are anything other than stories.
And then I’d petition someone to start an annual celebration of truly wonderful books, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But I digress.
And I know we’re not there yet.
That’s why I’m choosing to focus on the positives: history lessons, rum and eggnog, kissing under the mistletoe, and an increase in charitable giving. Non-believers like me can find the good in a great many things this holiday season. So until we’ve left the remnants of religion behind, let’s all continue to smile at houses with blinking lights, pictures of children on Santa’s laps, and tired, overworked store clerks wishing us a very, Merry Christmas.
Catherine Durkin Robinson is a mom, writer, advocate, political organizer, and runner. She’s also exhausted. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.