I'm an atheist, and I love Christmas.
Growing up in Connecticut, my family attended the local (fairly progressive) Protestant church, with the intention, I think, that we learn how to believe in something. My brother and sister and I belonged to the church youth group, volunteered in the community, read passages during sermons. At age 13 or 14, we were all asked to decide whether or not we wanted to continue attending the church, and as part of the youth group, had to state our decision and the reasons why in front of our parents and other members.
I remember standing at the podium with the little speech I had printed out the night before. (I was a much bigger fan of public speaking back then and not at all nervous.) My parents, brother, and sister were in the small audience along with the families of other youth group members. I stated clearly and with all the conviction I posessed that I had not found the right answers during my time at the church; in fact, I had more questions than before. I told the room I didn't want to limit myself to one religion. I wanted to borrow, sample, and pull the morals and teachings I admired from all kinds of organized religion, creating something comfortable and meaningful for myself. People clapped; my parents looked proud; I was happy to have Sunday mornings to myself from then on.
My relationship with religion didn't simplify after that, however. I tried on Buddhism, investigated my family's Jewish ancestry, and, for a few difficult and problematic months when I was 17, attended an extreme fundamentalist church (at the encouragement of my then-boyfriend). Some of my forays into religion were half-hearted, others boring, and some actually left psychological scars. Nothing fit.
Finally, in college, I realized why. I didn't (and continue to not) believe in God. Or god(s). Or a higher power. And it felt so wrong to try to force myself to. So I stopped.
Don't get me wrong, I have strong beliefs. I believe in the power of human connection, and the strength of good families, the tenacity of long-lasting friendships, and strangers helping one another. I believe in love. I believe in respect and kindness. I believe in rights and equality. I believe in community. Most important here, I believe in science. And that's one of my favorites, because science contains the most beautiful realities and possibilities.
And I believe in Christmas. My immediate family members range from agnostic to atheist; none of us attend church anymore. Well, at least until Christmas Eve.
As the sun sets, we get bundled up, help my grandpa into the car, and drive across town for the same Prosestant church's Christmas Eve service. It's held in a stable. Everyone sits on bales of hale next to horse stalls, whose occupants kick the walls and whinny and fill the air with their steaming breath throughout the service. String lights hang from the ceiling, and gloved hands pass hot cups of cider. The minister repeats the story of Jesus' birth that we all know so well, and we sing "O Holy Night." A collection is taken up to donate to charity -- last year, to the families of the children lost in the Sandy Hook massacre. The basket was passed and all of us were in tears as we sat together, fresh in our grief.
If this strikes you as a little bit of an oxymoron -- an avowed atheist participating in and enjoying a religious service -- you're not alone. A lot of people find it odd. But for me, it's just another tradition, like drinking egg nog or hanging stockings. I take comfort knowing that the modern Christmas traditions so many families celebrate (putting up and decorating a Christmas tree, for example) have their roots in pagan religions. The holiday is an amalgam, really. One that, when viewed historically, has room for many of us -- even the holly-loving atheists.
I love spending time with my family around a cozy fireplace. I love sending out Christmas cards every year and decorating the house. I love the special food we make. I love giving back during the holidays (although I'm sure you would agree with me that community service should be celebrated year-round). I love the Christmas carols -- even the very religious ones. I love the feeling of excitement that comes having discovered the perfect gift for someone. I love watching A Charlie Brown Christmas and reading The Night Before Christmas with my brother and sister on Christmas Eve -- complete with disgusting sound effects during "tore open the windows and threw up the sash." (Get it? Ugh, we're gross.)
It's taken me awhile to get it, but I understand now it's the culture of Christmas that I adore. The social and familial traditions. (And yeah, the food.) That's where I belong, a happy atheist surrounded by family, presents, and a mug of hot chocolate.