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.