Why I Stopped Saying “Merry Christmas”

Some may be surprised to hear that I am not a Christian. Others who are aware may be surprised to hear that there was a time when I was one. The topic isn’t one I talk about a lot. It isn’t because of being ostracized, which believe me, happens. Ask that an all-inclusive event not be labelled with one holiday, and you have your character attacked. Admit the fact to the woman at Einstein Brothers who is hounding you for parenting advice because your family is so peaceful and respectful, and she will run for all it is worth. Explain to your in-laws that your family celebrates something else and hear ranting and screaming with some declarations that you are solely responsible for killing baby Jesus (or is that just my in-laws?). No, the reason I don’t talk about it a lot is because it just doesn’t matter. Treating people with respect doesn’t require that we share religious (or not) beliefs. I am not out to convert anyone away from their religious philosophy.

Back to the phrase “Merry Christmas,” though. I didn’t stop saying it because I am no longer a Christian. (Please don’t try to convert me. I have studied religion in depth. I am confident with where I am in my journey.) I stopped saying “Merry Christmas” back when I was still a Christian. Why? you ask. The reason is simple. I realized that when I said those two simple words, no matter how well-meaning, the supposed happiness that I was wishing the person was contingent. It was contingent on their celebration of the holiday I was specifying. It was about my holiday and therefore about me. If you know the other person and what they believe and celebrate, that can be fine. They share the same holiday with you, and therefore it is also about them. However, said to someone whose beliefs you are unsure of or whom you know celebrates something different, that contingency makes a big difference.

So, back when I was a Christian, I stopped saying “Merry Christmas.” I began saying “Happy Holidays!” It worked for friends who celebrated other holidays, even if that was New Year’s Day or something else. It worked for strangers I knew nothing about. I genuinely was wishing the other person happiness, with no contingency, without making it about me or my beliefs. Now, I sometimes even just say “Happiness to you!”

So, during this cold winter season (in the Northern hemisphere, heat of summer in the Southern), I wish you all happiness!

Honoring Belief and Authenticity during the Holidays

Photo by Scott Vuocolo

Before my husband and I had children, we discussed how we planned to handle various aspects of holidays. We aren’t Christian and don’t celebrate Christmas, so it only seemed natural to me that we wouldn’t bring the commercial aspect of Santa Claus into our home for the Solstice.

It wasn’t something I would miss. Not only was there the overly commercial aspect and the blatant lying, but I didn’t have fond memories of the jolly old man. I have the obligatory pictures of me sitting on Santa’s lap, tears streaming down my face at having been forced to sit on a strange man’s lap. At the age of four, I informed my mother that I didn’t believe in Santa Claus. I knew she left the gifts, and I wanted to appreciate her effort and thought rather than some mythical stranger.

However, my husband did have fond memories. He enjoyed the magical aspect as a kid and actually pretended to believe in  Santa Claus long past when he actually quit believing in order to receive an extra gift.

There were discussions. In the end, we compromised. We would discuss the spirit of giving with our future children and Father Time, a representation of that spirit, would leave gifts. I was a bit unsettled by this but recognized the need to honor my husband’s wishes, too. And then we had children…

Gazing into that tiny face, so trusting of us, we knew we couldn’t lie to him. We had no desire to break the special trust held between parent and child. So, life went on. We celebrated our solstice traditions and thought nothing more of Santa Claus or Father Time for five happy years.

The year our oldest turned five years old, he brought up the topic. We had read books about what other people believed and what other holidays people celebrated. We were surrounded by the commercialism of Santa Claus every time we went out.

One fateful day the question came. “Mommy, does Santa Claus exist?” There was an internal cringe, I’m sure. I explained that some people believed he did. Others didn’t. Some people believed in other forms of a spirit of giving. And then I asked him what he believed. He told me that he thought Father Time would leave presents for him and his siblings.

The morning after the longest night of the year, as we got up to open gifts, there were three unwrapped presents sitting on the sofa. My husband and I said nothing about them. We neither claimed to have given them nor that they were from Father Time. While we wouldn’t lie to our children, we also didn’t wish to squash any magic from what they wanted to believe.

The next year, at the age of six, he asked is Father Time was really real? I told him that I could answer his question and that the answer would be one of two – either yes or no. If it was yes, life would go on as it had and he would still believe. However, if it was no, would he be happy no longer believing? I asked him a hard question. Which was more important to him: knowing for certain what the answer was or believing regardless? He chose to continue believing, knowing that at any time he could ask me and I would answer truthfully, whatever that may be. His four year old sister piped up that she didn’t believe and that she thought that when I filled everyone’s stockings, I also left the gifts on the couch. I replied that different people believe different things.

We now have four children, ages 8, 6, 3, and 7 months. Listening to their conversations about the subject is interesting. I still stick to my need to be authentic and refuse to lie. I also will not force my beliefs on someone else and tell them they are wrong. Honoring honesty and authenticity doesn’t have to conflict with honoring the magic of childhood.

Edited to add: After that first year, the gifts have all been digital media for our library – either movies or music cds. Its a tradition we plan to continue, regardless of what our children believe and one which we can feel honest about.