Get the Christ out of Christmas
November 9, 2005 10:28 AM   Subscribe

To any non-Christians who celebrate Christmas - what makes the holiday special for you? What is "the true meaning of Christmas" for you? What traditions do you follow, what are your favorite memories, etc.
posted by ferociouskitty to Society & Culture (37 answers total)
Response by poster: And yes, this was a good start, but I'd like to remove the filter of any specific belief set.
posted by ferociouskitty at 10:29 AM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Do you mean people who were raised non-Christian only?

I grew up Christian and have since "converted" to atheism, so Christmas for me is about nostalgia, presents, pine trees in the house, time with the family, egg nog, and a hint of melancholy. But most of my feelings about the holiday derive from the fact that I was raised Christian.

If pressed, I guess I'd say there is no true meaning of the holiday. I just persist in enjoying the positive aspects that come out of it.
posted by knave at 10:39 AM on November 9, 2005

I am agnostic Jew and I really like presents, candy canes and twinkly lights. Oh, and snowmen and snowflakes and reindeer. I guess the true meaning is an aesthetic one...pretty is the reason for the season.
posted by youcancallmeal at 10:40 AM on November 9, 2005

My family is athiest, and to us Christmas is about reuniting and spending time with the family. It is usually the only time each year when I see my parents. I guess you could say we consider it to be how most people think of Thanksgiving - a chance to get together with the family and catch up. We also have a tree with ornaments and exchange gifts on Christmas morning.

Culturally speaking, in the United States many of the Christmas traditions are not overtly religious, and some of these customs are easily adapted by non-Christians, as we have done.
posted by peppermint22 at 10:47 AM on November 9, 2005

Response by poster: Do you mean people who were raised non-Christian only?

No, certainly former Christians are welcome to apply. Actually, I'm looking to the answers here as a way to resolve some of my own issues about the season as I move closer and closer to agnosticism, so that may even be particularly helpful.
posted by ferociouskitty at 10:48 AM on November 9, 2005

My family is mixed, but I attach no religious significance to Christmas, so I think my perspective fits your criteria.

My dad's side is Jewish; my mom grew up Methodist but most of her family is now Catholic (go figure). We've always considered ourselves (immediate family) Jewish and occasionally went to services at the local reform temple. (Though I no longer consider myself religious at all -- agnostic, maybe, or more like temporarily apathetic).

We've always celebrated Christmas (and Easter and many secular holidays) with my mom's family. When I was younger, we celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah (at our house), though the former was definitely the preferred holiday; lately, Hanukkah usually consists of one meal and maybe some token gifts.

Even so, when I was younger, my friends would accuse me (usually playfully) of celebrating Christmas to get double presents. Not a false statement at the time. As I've grown up, though, and started to actually care about people other than myself, I feel like I can truthfully assert as much right to enjoy Christmas as anyone. For me, even without any religious aspects, it's a time for our whole family to get together and share a few days. Especially since my grandfather passed away, I've really begun to appreciate how special our holidays are, and how important it is to get together while we're able. I feel very fortunate that my mom's family is large enough yet close enough geographically where we can have a good-sized, fun group to spend time with on every major holiday.

I wouldn't trade my memories and experiences of Christmas with the family for the world. I don't have the full force of religion behind me, that's true; but as far as meaning, fulfillment, and love go, we've never needed it.
posted by SuperNova at 10:52 AM on November 9, 2005

My family is not religious in the slightest, but Xmas was always a huge deal in my house. In Norway (where I grew up), Xmas is still called jul (yule), and the holiday itself is a really nice mix of old pagan traditions with some Jesus stuff added on, and the Jesus stuff is minimal.

So - we have a tree and lots of decorations, but no cribs and mangers. We do snowmen and santas, not angels and wise men. We think of it as a winter and family holiday and it's one of my favorite times of year. To me, I don't celebrate the birth of Christ, I celebrate yule.
posted by widdershins at 10:56 AM on November 9, 2005

I was raised Christian and left the faith in my early 20s. To me, Christmas is snow on the ground, forced air heating, steamed-up windows, a fake tree, and mom's home cooking. All stuff that my parents' house has that mine does not. (It's not "home," as they have moved five times since they lived in the house I did most of my growing up in.) I wouldn't say I miss it, exactly, but it's good to have it once a year, even if I do have to fly across the country to get it.

And on top of that, of course, I'm with Stan...

Stan: Y'know, I think I learned something today. It doesn't matter if you're Christian or Jewish or Atheist or Hindu. Christmas still is about one very important thing.
Cartman: Yeah, ham.
Stan: No not ham, you fat fuck!
Cartman: Fuck you!
Stan: Christmas is about something much more important.
Kyle: What?
Stan: Presents.
Kyle: Ahhh.
Stan: Don't you see, Kyle? Presents.
posted by kindall at 10:58 AM on November 9, 2005

Yeah, just gift giving, etc.

My family was never very religious, and we got gifts on Christmas morning.

The vast majority of the american traditions and iconography of Christmas are secular. Santa-clause, candy-canes, and so on. People say "happy hollidays".
posted by delmoi at 11:06 AM on November 9, 2005

I'll explain it to you as a practicing Jew: going to friends' & in-laws' houses during Christmas is akin to you celebrating like Valentine's Day or Columbus Day: there's no religious basis for it feels like an ersatz, hollow phenomenon that you participate in for the sake of acknowledging a ubiquitous, mandated holiday. Therefore, the holiday isn't all that special, and you therefore can't derive a 'true meaning'. Any tradition has already been imposed, so it's really just a sense of going along with the tempo of the jesus calendar.
posted by naxosaxur at 11:07 AM on November 9, 2005

I was raised in an agnostic household, and I now travel more than 2,000 miles to go home every year at Christmas to spend time with my parents and four brothers (who are spiritual, agnostic or atheist to varying degrees).

To me, Christmas is a time very much steeped in traditions. The traditions don't have much meaning behind them to us, except that they bring back a lifetime of memories: being amazed by the tree, with its presents sprawling out across the floor; digging into stockings -- one for every resident of the house, including cats and dogs and ferrets; getting up earlier than any other day and groggily making pancakes together; and glutting ourselves on candy together.

For the most part, my brothers and I are not financially established yet, but we still all give each other presents, and I just love the sentiment behind the cheap trinkets and handmade gifts I get each year, and I love the ritual of trying to come up with something personal for each of them and for my parents.

It's a nice day to appreciate the cold weather and appreciate each other, even though we often drive each other bonkers the other 364 days each year.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:22 AM on November 9, 2005

I was raised Christian but now consider myself a freethinker of sorts. That doesn't trouble me when it comes to celebrating with my still-Christian family. Not only do I enjoy the family togetherness, reminiscing, and so on, but I look past all that to the real real meaning of the holiday. It is no accident that celebrations like Christmas and the earlier pagan celebrations on which it is based occur at the winter solstice, literally the darkest time of year. It is cold and miserable, there is nothing to do outside and you are sick of being inside, and on top of it all it is only going to get worse during the next couple of months. So what better time to gather friends and family together to laugh and sing, eat and drink, and chase away the winter doldrums for a while. With any luck the memories of the holidays will keep me in good spirits until the end of February, when the days get noticeably longer and warmer.

Of course, this makes no sense if you live in the southern hemisphere, so I have no idea how I would view a hot and sunny Christmas.
posted by TedW at 11:23 AM on November 9, 2005

I'm Dutch, and when I lived in Holland we would always celebrate St Nicholas, 3 weeks before Christmas. We'd do the gift exchange then, because it's more fun (it includes writing poems and making fun of people).
So once Christmas came around we were sort of gifted out, but we always had a tree and decorations. No church, no gifts. We did always send out lots of Christmas cards, and received them, and I think that's what I like best about it. Even if you don't have time to keep up with al your distant relatives and old friends, you have an excuse to get back in touch at christmas. One of my mom's old neighbours sends her a long letter on a Christmas card once a year, and that's all the communication going on between them.
posted by easternblot at 11:27 AM on November 9, 2005

It's about family. About good will towards men. About charity towards the needy and generosity towards people you know and love. About allowing other people to be generous towards you. It's about feeling warmth even when it's cold outside. It's about the tradition, and knowing that parts of the tradition has bled down many more generations of family that you've ever met. It's about stollen, and caramel squares, and spicy apple cider, and ham, and candy canes stolen off the tree -- things that aren't on the menu any other times of the year and that serve as reminders of the good-will-towards-men holiday. It's about being a part of a spirit that trancends religious belief, both within my family's religious ancestry and within my family and friends' current religious tapestry. It's my favorite holiday and, for all these reasons, I think it is perfectly in line with my own Buddhist leanings.
posted by dness2 at 11:28 AM on November 9, 2005

Best answer: I was raised Unitarian Universalist, and one of the themes/ideas that we would discuss at church during Christmas-time was, "Every night a child is born is a holy night." This has always stuck with me-- that you're in the dark and cold of winter, and then suddenly, a literal and figurative light appears. At Christmas I think about the hope and potential of birth and rebirth.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:35 AM on November 9, 2005

When I was (a bad) Catholic, I always thought it was strange that some arbitrary day had been chosen to celebrate Christ's birth, and didn't accept Christmas as a legitimate religious holiday, but I loved baking cookies with my mom and my sister, plus it was one of the few times a year that the whole extended family got together. When I rejected Christianity I continued with these cultural aspects of the holiday. But when I converted to Islam I became bothered by the Pagan origins of the holiday (the same issue that keeps some Christian groups from celebrating Christmas). Fortunately I now live several hundred miles away, so its easy to avoid all of that, and I just send gifts to my family because I love to give them gifts and if I do it at that time I can avoid a lot of hurt feelings.
posted by leapingsheep at 11:35 AM on November 9, 2005

I'm an atheist, I think, Christmas is special to me because I get to spend time with friends and family in a pretty subdued environment. Sure, with the niece and nephews it does get loud (and I wouldn't have it any other way) but overall it's pretty relaxed. Presents, breakfast, drinks and dinner. The only other time everybody gets together is at a party or funeral.
posted by substrate at 11:39 AM on November 9, 2005

I'm not exactly sure how I feel about Christ and religion -- so for the moment, I suppose you could either classify me as agnostic or as questing.

I've been that way for a few years, though, and thus gone through a few Christmases. I've really cherished the season, though, and the reason I do is that I enjoy how everyone becomes a slightly better version of themselves, it seems. Giving increases, people are often kinder to each other, and so on. Granted, there are huge exceptions -- Christmas can be a stressful holiday as well.

But the focus on family togetherness and a better world is what I'm getting out of it in the meantime.
posted by WCityMike at 11:40 AM on November 9, 2005

Pretty lights, snow, family.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 11:46 AM on November 9, 2005

To me, Christmas is about thinking about other people before yourself. That means taking the time to acknowledge people, whether you've talked to them throughout the year or not. It means being charitable -- financially and emotionally. It means taking the time to think about loved ones and then sacrificing your personal time (and/or money) to find/make a gift that reflects their personality, interests and dreams. It means having an abundance of food and drink -- a feast you share with others. The tree, stockings, presents, meals, songs, music, decorations and other items are symbols of tradition and show that this is a special time. Christianity comes into it, but, for me, it is just as important as the "pagan" aspects of the holiday. I see it as a cultural event, not a religious one, even though I was brought up in a somewhat Christian home.

My mother-in-law is a strict follower of her own interpretation of the Bible. She doesn't celebrate the holiday and, in fact, disparages us for celebrating it. The end result is that we spend Christmas with my family, where there's a lot of fun and festivity -- and she gets mad about us not visiting over the holidays. She doesn't celebrate Easter, either, and is aggravated by our decision to spend it with my family. This makes no sense to me, since she sees no value in the holiday, so it shouldn't matter which weekend we visit! I think she's just annoyed that we're celebrating it, despite her wishes.
posted by acoutu at 11:51 AM on November 9, 2005

Best answer: As the son of immigrants who never had any particular religious bent, I still enjoy most of the trimmings of Christmas/holidays. Why? Because it's the one time of year when society tries to buck its ideas up, and do something to make people feel better.

Whether it's just having an ice rink, nice pretty lights or even people making an effort to talk to their families, at least people are trying to make life better then.
posted by badlydubbedboy at 12:16 PM on November 9, 2005

My partner and I have opted to take religion out of the holiday, and we celebrate winter solstice instead. Believe me, in the Northwest Territories, the prospect of the sun returning after so many months of darkness is a matter that transcends religion. Now that we don't live in the north anymore, we still celebrate the winter solstice by watching the sunset, going home and exchanging gifts/getting drunk, and trying (usually unsuccessfully!) to get up early enough to watch the sunrise the next day.

We do have a tree, typical decorations (snowmen, etc), and we send out greeting cards (as secular as possible). Our favorite new tradition is making Wassail (a kind of mulled wine - so good! You can even make it non-alcoholic)
posted by arcticwoman at 12:18 PM on November 9, 2005

Raised Catholic, now atheist. And I love Christmas, and we make a big deal out of it every year. It means two things to me.

One is about real things. About family. About seeing people I love, who I haven't seen for a long time. About eating well, and drinking well, and laughing well, in good company. About the shrieking delight on ripping open wrapping paper and finding a fantastic toy inside. Oh, and same when the kids open their presents too. Walks through fields where the furrows are frosted hard and then home to a fire and a drink and Christmas crackers with rubbish jokes and pointless shoddy toys in.

And the other is about myth. About snow lies all around, and about fat blokes stuck in the chimney, and evergreens in the front room, and sparkling lights everywhere and ghost stories, and a Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim and It's A Wonderful Life and red-nosed reinders and the whole mish-mash of Christian and pagan and marketing all flung together.

And no offence to anyone religious, but for me it's *all* myth (apart from Father Christmas of course, he's real obviously). I didn't care about not believing in pagan ideas of winter rebirth when I was religious, I don't care that bits of Christmas iconography now come from Coca Cola's ad agency, so even though I'm an atheist now I have no problem with all the child in the manger, donkeys lowing, angels hosannaing stuff either.

It's a happy time. People sing songs. We eat good food. Things twinkle. I love it.
posted by reynir at 12:53 PM on November 9, 2005

Cynical: Overtime pay subbing for everyone else on one of the slowest business days of the year.

Less Cynical: It's one of a handful of times of the year that the entire clan gets together to swap a year's worth of cat stories, see the pre-adult cousins grow up, and relax with some good food and company.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:15 PM on November 9, 2005

You mean Athiest Kids Get Presents Day? Yeah, that's a good one.

After all these years of being Christmas posers, we're finally ditching the Christmas traditions this year and going to Hawaii for a week.
posted by mullacc at 1:39 PM on November 9, 2005

Christmas is about the vestigial memories of school being out woo hoo! Seriously, that's a big part of it for me.

Kind of what KirkJobSluder labelled "cynical", though I don't see it as cynical or degraded at all.

Christmas is also about the elusive possibility of snow, which when I was in Texas was a big deal, and of course almost never happened.
posted by furiousthought at 2:15 PM on November 9, 2005

Massively cynical: it's my birthday, and you just can't party when friends are away with their families celebrating something else entirely (and admittedly more important).

So every year I go back to my parents' in South Florida, and we're all agnostic/atheist/marginally Buddhist, but my mother loves celebrating, so we do the Christmas thing. Resistance is futile.
posted by casarkos at 3:00 PM on November 9, 2005

Atheist here; Christmas, in my mind, is just one big day in what in my mind is a massive end-of-year celebration. It's about lights shining out against the darkness and the cold of winter, whether on a conifer or a candelabra or in a fireplace or in the eyes of children. It's about hope triumphing over despair - after all, the days can only get brighter. It's about the end of a long night-time. I don't think it's an accident that one of the stories told about the day involves wise men following a star through the night sky...
It's about families getting together for warmth and comfort, because when we're warm and well-fed and with people who love us, we're safe, and the darkness outside can't touch us.
posted by wanderingmind at 3:04 PM on November 9, 2005

Raised Christian; staunch atheist since early teens.

Even as a Christian child I have to say the whole Mary's boy child bit left me entirely bored and unmoved. We got the whole church thing out of the way on Christmas Eve and then settled in for the real business. And that business was all about family get-together, presents, pigging out on great food, fun decorations, the tree, crackers, silly hats, watching the rellies get drunk and try to sing...

That's always been the real meaning of Christmas to me. It's closer to the celebratory mid-winter festival the Christians stole than any silly old superstitious nonsense.
posted by Decani at 3:22 PM on November 9, 2005

Everyone is off of work/school anyway, so it's a good time to visit family. Every year we got the tree, decorated it, bought the gifts, made the big dinner, and felt like consumer goons. This year we finally decided to acknowledge the fact that none of us believe in Jesus, so we are going to go on a cruise together and only buy things at the after-Christmas sales when everything is 1/3 the price it was two days before. I think it will be the best Christmas yet.
posted by gatorae at 4:31 PM on November 9, 2005

Best answer: Its a magical season where in general everyone in my family is happier than they are the rest of the year, we get to spend alot more time together, bake, buy and decorate a tree, shop, go to get togethers and dinners. Plus we all love the cold, and warm fires.

No particular emphasis on Christianity, just on family and tradition
posted by mhuckaba at 4:45 PM on November 9, 2005

I figure if Xians can steal the holiday from Pagans and use it, why can't everybody else steal it from Xians and make it their own?
posted by Megafly at 5:28 PM on November 9, 2005

I was raised Episcopalian and have moved on to agnostic. knave said it best: nostalgia. It was one of the few nice times of year in a very dysfunctional family. Lots of good food, extra family around, secrets and surprises, presents that weren't necessities.

Actually, I'm looking to the answers here as a way to resolve some of my own issues about the season as I move closer and closer to agnosticism, so that may even be particularly helpful.

I have the same issues and this thread is helping. I've felt guilty celebrating something I can't believe in. I'm trying to think of it as more a Yule/Solstice holiday.
posted by deborah at 5:31 PM on November 9, 2005

Snow? At Christmas? Are you kerrraazzzy?

Christmas is a time for family, and gifts, and food - maybe a BBQ for lunch, sometimes ham or turkey instead.

And if we're really really lucky, we find time to go to the beach, but that usually doesn't happen and we go on boxing day instead.

I grew up in an atheist/agnostic family, to me it's all about family.
posted by The Monkey at 5:39 PM on November 9, 2005

My family is pretty much non religious (any of those who are practice in a very private sort of way - no prayers at the table or anything).

As a kid it was all about the presents, I think! As an adult I enjoy seeing family who I don't often get to see, and whose company I enjoy.

I personally dislike the frantic Christmas feel pushed on us by the media, and I could happily go without all the reptitive jingles played over loudspeaker at the shopping centres.
posted by tomble at 6:10 PM on November 9, 2005

Hi, I'm Dave and I'm a lifelong atheist...(hi, Dave!)...what I love about the "Christmas" season:

1. General good cheer and well-wishing by most folks
2. Seasonal music
3. Lovely lights and decorations adorning businesses and offices
4. Pretty holiday trees
5. Consumer and marketing aspects
6. Workplace is more festive and comfortable
posted by davidmsc at 8:50 AM on November 10, 2005

My religious background is kinda skewed as is (mom is southern baptist, dad is catholic, and i was forced to go to baptist and penecostal (sp) churches for 10 years), but if you throw in the fact that I don't really consider myself to be anything, it makes for a tasty goulash. =)

Everything I do between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve is in remembrance of nostalgia for my childhood (as well as my brother's - I have custody of him). But I think that's the wrong way to say it. Growing up, we didn't really have a perfect holiday for one reason or another. The holidays that we celebrate today are done as the way we'd like to have had them when we were little kids.

I tried going without celebrating anything a few years, but found that I felt left out of the hoopla, as well as didn't really have a way to differentiate between seasons. I'd also like to think that, in a few years anyway, I'd have a child or two, and wouldn't want them to miss out on something just because I don't consider myself to be of any religion.

I've put my own spin on the holidays since living on my own these last few years. We eat Thanksgiving dinner on the night before Thanksgiving, and the day of we just sit around, eat leftovers, watch football, and put up the tree, the lights and the stockings. We play old christmas songs (our favorite being anything by Bing Crosby) around the house. And about a week before, we go drive around the larger neighborhoods and look at Christmas lights. We open our presents and eat dinner on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day we sit around and talk about what we got and such. We take the tree and decorations down the day after Christmas.

I honestly don't know what I consider to be the true meaning of Christmas... maybe as a way for people to get together and celebrate family? I don't know.

So I suppose the reason I do it now is because of how I wanted it done 20 years ago, because my brother is still young and needs something to help him keep his innocence, and for practice for when I have kids.
posted by damnjezebel at 10:57 AM on November 19, 2005

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