My non-theism is not a major part of this blog, but I’ll out and say it: I’m an atheist. No, I’m not that kind of atheist: I won’t berate you for being religious, and I’m a big fan of theological discourse. I have a draft post sitting around on why I consider myself an atheist as opposed to an agnostic, and why I still consider myself Jewish when I don’t believe in God, and all that jazz: I’ll write about it later.
But this time I’m going to write about why I celebrate the holidays.
First, some background.
My family is weird.
I was raised in a non-religious household, not an anti-religious one. My mom’s family is Jewish, my dad’s is Catholic. As a kid, I didn’t know my parents’ religious beliefs, or lack thereof. I went to church on occasion with friends, and my mother’s brother is very Jewish so we did Shabbat when he came to the US from Israel. One of my best friends as a kid was Muslim; one of my best friends now is Catholic.
I’m pretty decently well-read when it comes to religious books, although I’m no expert. I’ve read bits and pieces of the New Testament in several different languages (English, Old English, Classical Greek) and I’ve visited my uncle’s yshiva a few times. My uncle himself has been an amazing resource for theological discussion, a fascinating man to listen to– even if I fundamentally disagree with him half the time
The point here is, I’ve been exposed to religion. My non-belief is no decision, but a gut instinct: I love the ceremony that comes with Judaism and am slowly learning our traditions, but everything I’ve seen tells me there is no god.
I’ve also seen what good religion can do for a person.
I see my uncle’s passion. I see the comfort it provides my grandparents, and the mother of a friend I lost when I was young. I see the guidance it gives my best friend, the sense of community…
Second, a little more background.
…Which is why I want to emphasize that the person in the following story is not who I consider a normal Christian.
I went to high school in a pretty conservative area, with a lot of very religious kids. Being an atheist sparked a lot of debates, even with the teachers: one of my closest friends was my Business Law teacher, who approached me to ask me why I didn’t believe. (Totally inappropriate in hindsight, but asked with such genuine curiosity that it sparked a friendship that lasted well after high school.)
Not all the debates were positive. One year, a guy in my Drama class told me I couldn’t celebrate Christmas.
This statement was somewhat unprovoked. I don’t remember what led up to it: talking about our plans for winter break, I think. I mentioned that I was going to visit my grandparents for Christmas and it was like a switch flipped: “You’re an atheist. You can’t celebrate Christmas.”
Despite years of intolerable songs, highly religious neighbors, and a decent theological education, I had never considered this connection. Holidays had stories that went along with them, sure, but they weren’t really connected to the ritual, not for me. Jesus was about as Christmassy as Santa: related and part of the story, but not a real thing. I should have known: the name “holiday” itself comes from “holy day”. Then again, we can’t get too pedantic: “goodbye” comes from someone abbreviating “God be with ye” in bad handwriting.
I’m pretty sure I gave my high-school friend the finger, and I hope he’s grown into a more tolerant person over the years. But it made me think.
Why do I celebrate holidays?
Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, isn’t really a religious one. Religion-wise, over the year, I celebrate Christmas, Hannukah, Easter, and Passover.
Despite the long blog post, the answer’s pretty simple: family.
Tonight was the last night of Hannukah. My mother made latkes, we heated up some applesauce she canned a while ago, and we sat down by the menorah.
Tomorrow, we’ll drive out to see my dad’s parents and siblings. My dad’s sisters also married Jews, so Mom’s going to make latkes on Christmas morning. We’ll eat lasagna on Christmas Eve, because we had it on the first Christmas Eve my uncle Les spent with the family: it was his first, period, so he asked if that was a tradition.
It’s a tradition now.
In the Spring, if I can swing the airfare, we’ll all gather at my grandmother’s again: more food, more family. And Passover’s sort of my thing. This past year, I made the seder. Hopefully I’ll be able to make it again.
I said in my last holiday post that I’m a self-described Scrooge, and I really am. I can’t stand Christmas music, and I’m not a fan of all the specials everyone seems to watch every year. I don’t really like getting presents, and all my friends know that they get their gifts at random over the year. I’m awful at giving them out on time, even if I plan for it.
But come hell or high water, I’ll celebrate them. The people involved are worth the time.
Happy Christmas, everyone, or else Happy Holiday Season.
A quick edit:
My mother informs me that she doesn’t like my use of the word “weird” to describe my family. It has a negative connotation to her. If you fall in that camp, you can use whichever of the following words has an affectionate connotation to you: eccentric, crazy, odd, bizarre, quirky, unusual, outlandish, Bob’s-Burgers-esque, zany, bi-sect-ual,* or unconventional.
Let it be known that every single one of those words applies, and I hold my family in the highest regard. I love them dearly. “Weird” is very much a term of endearment.
* because Christianity was originally a sect of Judaism, right? Get it? Right? Anyone?