I have a love-hate relationship with the hell that is the winter holiday season. On one side you have beautiful music, family gatherings, comforting traditions, and pie. On the other hand you have family drama, financial stress, winter weather, and trying to live up to everyone's expectations. I have found that the holiday season can be especially difficult to navigate if you don't believe in God. And as an atheist, I feel confident saying there are quite a few things us atheist moms want you to know about the holidays.
Toward the top of that list, I believe, is the knowledge that, yes, atheist moms feel holiday stress. It's true that I don't have to celebrate, but it's also true that my family doesn't live in a vacuum. Instead, we live in a society that tends to go overboard this time of year. So, unless my partner and I decided to raise our children on an atheist commune with no access to the outside world (which, I'll admit, is appealing at times), it's inevitable that my kids will grow up with Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and an expectation of presents on December 25. And I didn't grow up in isolation either, so even though I'm atheist I've came to love the cultural aspects of the holiday, and continue celebrating them, just sans the religious parts.
For the majority of the year being an atheist mom is no big deal, but around Christmas it can feel as though people want to take my secular kids to church. My children have come home from school asking me to tell them all about Jesus, and I've been the mom complaining about her kid coloring nativity scenes at preschool and being forced to sit on Santa's lap. I've been labeled as "weird," and I've helplessly watched as other parents kept their children from playing with mine. I mean, how do I explain the aforementioned to my child? Badly, apparently, because I was stumbling over the words "it's OK to be different" while trying not to cry.
So yeah, the holidays can be hard for atheist moms, and there are a few things we want you to know.
The holiday season is like a bag of mixed nuts: sometimes you get your favorites, and sometimes you have to eat a bunch of things you don't like to get to the good stuff. I love holiday meals, but as an atheist mom, I feel awkward AF not saying grace or having my kids get antsy when I make them wait to eat. I love some holiday music, but not the never-ending chorus of religious music that assails you from Thanksgiving until Christmas. I have no problem with store clerks wishing me Merry Christmas — they totally mean well — but I could do without the stares or scowls when I reply, "Thank you," or, "Have a great day," as if I am a bad person for not saying those two words that I literally don't believe. Sigh.
My point is that the time of year that is supposed to be full of cheer, can be really isolating for atheists and our kids.
I grew up Christian in a small, mostly Christian community, and as a result I have a lot of warm, fuzzy memories about Christmas. However, it seems like Christmas has become a polarizing topic over the past 30 years or so, with one camp viewing it as a cultural celebration of food and gift-giving, and the other wanting the "reason for the season" to take center stage. My family definitely falls into the former camp. When our family celebrates Christmas, we are celebrating family. Period.
I love some parts of Christmas, namely the stockings, cookies, presents, and pie. Oh, that glorious, glorious pie. So my family partakes in those specific parts of the holiday, and we create our own traditions. It's not really about buying things, it's more about forming a connection between "family" and this time of year for my kids.
For the longest time, I did a lot of things around the holidays that I truly hated. I went to church, attended office parties and gift-exchanges, spent way too much money, and had my kids pose for pictures on Santa's lap. Now, though, I don't do the parts that make me, or my kids, uncomfortable, and I try to teach them values that I hold — like giving, charity, and kindness — as well as creating a little holiday magic for them on Christmas morning.
I think all moms are under too much pressure around the holidays, but atheist moms have another layer of unnecessary bullsh*t to deal with. Every year I have to endure questions or comments about my parenting, and also about my atheism. So yeah, family gatherings mean lots of awkward moments and intrusive people asking inappropriate questions, which leave me wondering, "Could we not?"
Here's the thing: when I chose to decline an invitation to go to church with you, it isn't about you. When I tell you that my kids won't be attending church with your kids, it's not about you or your parenting or your children. It's a personal decision I have made for myself and my family, and in no way is a reflection of you and/or how you're parenting. We aren't Christian, and we don't have to participate. It's not about you, so please don't let it bother you.
It literally hurts no one to let everyone in the community celebrate at Christmas time. Besides, many winter holiday celebrations are largely Pagan in origin. They don't belong exclusively to anyone. And I mean, how can you not love Starbucks' holiday season?
I worry about messing up my kids pretty much all of the time, especially since our beliefs are so different from the other people in our community, and the holiday season brings those differences into focus.
Fortunately, I have come to realize that my kids will find magic regardless of whether or not we have a Christmas tree (we don't), or whether or not they learn the words to "Silent Night" at a candlelight service on Christmas Eve. If they don't experience the holidays the same way their friends at school do, that doesn't mean it won't be magical for them, too.
That knowledge doesn't stop me from worrying, though, which is something I think I have in common with all moms, everywhere, regardless of their beliefs.
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