The Dilemmas of an Agnostic Christmas: What Do We Tell Our Son About a Faith We no Longer Share?

My wife and I both have long since taken the Christ out of our personal Christmases. But our son has questions.

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“Daddy,” my 5-year-old son asked me on Friday. “Why do we celebrate Christmas?”

This was a question I’d been expecting for a few weeks — and even for a few years. My wife and I both have long since taken the Christ out of our personal Christmases (we’d both had our crises of faith before we met each other) but continued, like so many people do, to celebrate a holiday packed with family traditions, and to renew them when T was born.

Just, you know, without the churchy stuff.

So probably the easiest thing to do, when T posed his question, would’ve been to take the advice of my colleague Simon van Zuylen-Wood: “Just talk about Santa. I don’t think I learned who Jesus was till I was 18.”

And yet: It didn’t seem that easy, for several reasons.

For one, by reasons of sheer osmosis, T has been learning about other types of holidays from his kindergarten classmates at school. He has a startlingly detailed knowledge of what Chanukah is and what the menorah symbolizes. He’s even conversant, to a more limited extent, in Kwanza. Avoiding the whole Jesus thing seems like it would leave a rather significant (and, given his family background, unusual) gap in his cultural knowledge.

And there’s his grandparents, all of whom remain — to varying degrees of orthodoxy — devoted Christians. I was a bit afraid of earning their consternation, admittedly, but more than anything: I just want him to understand what it is they’re celebrating this season. I’ve made my own decisions about faith; someday he’ll have to make his own. I’m simply not militant enough in my own agnosticism to want to divert him from his own inquiry.

Richard Dawkins, I’m not.

Let’s back up: I made my formal break from the church about a dozen years ago. And while, to borrow a phrase from Huck Finn, “you can’t pray a lie,” my departure from faith hasn’t been entirely without regret. There’s an element of community that’s gone missing from relationships with old friends and family who remain in the faith — literally, I’m no longer in communion with them, and yeah: That saddens me sometimes.

It’s also been difficult, after a lifetime of immersion in faith, to know how to simply live without it. Taking moving, for example: There’s no better way to find your way and make connections in a new community than to plop yourself down in a church. Any congregation worth its salt will do its best to make you feel welcome and encourage your return.

And then there’s child-raising. Heaven and hell dominated my understanding of life when I was a young child. Mere disobedience wasn’t just a challenge to my parents, but a sin against God. I lived in fear of disobeying my parents, then dying before having had a chance to ask God forgiveness for that sin.

I can say, pretty fearlessly, that I was mostly a well-behaved kid. I’m also pretty sure that’s not how I want to ensure my son’s obedience.

So here’s where I stand: I don’t want to indoctrinate my child in religion, but I don’t want to shield him from it either. I want him to understand it, and how it’s helped shape the society around him, without pushing him for or against an embrace. Is all of that achievable? I don’t know.

By the time Friday night rolled around, I decided to give it a try. “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” I repeated. “Many people believe — your grandparents believe — there was a man named Jesus, who was the son of God, who did a lot of good things, who was born on Christmas.”

A pause. My wife looked at me. Then at T.

“It’s a season,” she said, “of appreciating and showing love to the people we love.”

That’s true. And probably good enough for this year. I’m not sure I’ll ever get the hang of being an agnostic parent. All I can do is to try to teach him about the values I have — we have — and hope that Christmases are simply a happy memory for him.

Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • Joel Mathis

    This is a good place to mention that my parents (and thus our family) transitioned away from fundamentalism when I was in middle school. The fears of my young childhood don’t represent the entirety of my home-bound years.

    • Michal

      Our five year age gap must represent a lot more than I have any idea of. The way you write about being raised (in the same household) often leaves me scratching my head. It just does not jive with how I see our shared upbringing at all.

  • Joshua Speed

    Sad and empty.

    • Joel Mathis

      Nah. I wouldn’t find fulfillment worshipping a God whose existence I doubt. But I find meaning other places.

  • Steven O James

    can someone explain why the media in general, and to be honest this site in particular, has decided to bombast us with stories of how atheists/non-Christians handle the holidays, while giving practically no coverage at all to the sheer joy the overwhelming majority of us take from these few days in late December. It’s almost as if the media is trying to sell the idea that a meaningless late December is the way to go. And to be honest, I am quite sick of it.

    • Joel Mathis

      Mr. James: I’m sorry to be such a drag to you. I tried writing this piece in such a fashion that respects the religious sensibilities that I no longer share; since society has deemed that Christmas is *also* a secular holiday, and yet not, this’ll happen sometimes: It’s the price you pay for cultural victory! Be of cheer!

    • phillysportsfan

      aw, you don’t like being bombarded by an ideology you don’t share. how sad for you. atheists have no idea what that’s like.

  • Jessica

    Joel, check out Unitarian Universalism. I think it might be a great fit for you. Btw, I struggle with this exact issue, and it just came up in the car the other day. I was stuck for an answer on the spot, but after thinking about it and reading your article I will revisit it with them.

  • Will Spokes

    I appreciate very much the honesty of this piece. As someone who considers himself an orthodox Christian of the Presbyterian flavor, I too find Christmas difficult to explain to my children and why we do or do not celebrate Christmas. Unlike many of my Christian friends, I do not see the celebration of Christmas as essential to Christian Faith. To be honest I find it exhausting and confusing. To be sure I believe in the incarnation and all that supernatural stuff, together with all its personal and global and future implications. But I just don’t see anywhere in the New Testament the expectation that we would celebrate the events there recorded the way in which we have devised. At the same time I resonate with the cultural and familial traditions of gift giving, building memories, and enjoying the company of loved ones. That is all to say, I resonate with my secular and agnostic and atheist friends who find Christmas a conundrum as well.

    • Joel Mathis

      Will, my original upbringing was in the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist denomination mostly found in the south. No Christmas, for reasons you describe. We converted to the Mennonite church when I was around 11 or 12; they did offer a more religious celebration of Christmas. I’ve covered as much of the religious spectrum as I can!

  • tonyb

    Living proof why some people shouldn’t have children.

    • Michal

      What an ugly thing to say.

  • phillysportsfan

    “Many people believe — your grandparents believe — there was a man named
    Jesus, who was the son of God, who did a lot of good things, who was
    born on Christmas.”

    see, i would have finished that with, “almost all of that is certainly wrong, but in this country, for the time being, we’re allowed to believe or not believe anything we want.”