Secular But Not Atheist: Christmas and the Agnostic Parenting Dilemma

When it comes to parenting, my husband and I have taken a very laidback approach, which was surprising to me.  Anyone who spends more than a minute talking to me will quickly learn that I am not laidback about anything, at least not if I can help it.  As with school, and then my career, and even my decision to get married, I had already made decisions about certain major issues when we embarked on this parenting journey — natural childbirth, breastfeeding, the usual stuff.  These decisions were easy.  The evidence supports it!  How great that someone did all this research?  You only need to read and decide!

Enter religion:   baptism, regular worship, sacraments, high holidays — the whole holy enchilada.

Oh, GOD.

My long and evolving relationship with both organized religion and the more  free-form spirituality that seems common today is very complex.  I won’t do it justice, but let me try in one garbled sentence:  Catholic Mom, agnostic Dad, tried to find a Catholic church, they didn’t like unbaptized but older kids in the 1980s, settled for Protestant church, tried several, found a decent one, parents go through weird spiritual awakening/new age thing, traditional religious views sidestepped for elements of pagan, wiccan, kinda sorta native indigenous spiritual universal huh-what . . .  now this is ME trying to reclaim my Christianity as a teenager . . . extreme guilt, enter liberal politics, what was I thinking, COLLEGE hey atheists do it better, no! there is more to life right?, start legal career NO TIME FOR ANYTHING BUT SCHOOL AND WORK  . . . let’s get married, which church, what church? I LOVE ALL RELIGIONS EQUALLY but especially the ones that have Christmas or some similar sort of winter celebration . . . consider converting to Wicca/realize Wicca is like Christianity except with magic instead of Jesus/and can you really “convert” if you don’t actually practice any faith on a regular basis?


That is, until you have kids.

My older daughter, celebrating her second Christmas in 2011.

Sometimes I envy the parents who just say, “oh, we got the baby baptized so my in-laws wouldn’t give me grief,” or, “you know, we’re both kind of Christian, traditionally, so we do Christmas Eve services with my parents but it’s not like we go to church,” or this gem:  “it’s not important to me, personally, but it’s for the kids, you know?

No.  I don’t know.

Look.  I take this stuff really seriously.  The bottom line is this:  At almost 34 years old, the only thing about which I am certain when it comes to all Big Guy in the Sky theories is that no one is certain about the existence, or lack thereof, of a god or godlike force that controls the universe.  So that means any and all religions, including the quasi-Christianity in which I was raised, are pretty much out for me.  Some would call me a “soft atheist,” but I prefer to think of myself as agnostic.  I’m not really happy about my agnosticism though.  Like most humans, I want to know, and I want to understand, what makes the universe tick.  I would love for God to show up one day and say, look, dude, I’m here, and here is the religion I would like you to participate in!  But by default, until some deity intervenes directly, I’m not going to take on any religion just for the sake of picking one in the meantime.

So how can I choose to indoctrinate my children in any religion when, even if only by default, I have declined to indoctrinate myself in one?

And more pertinent to the time of year:  How can I teach my child to celebrate Christmas when I don’t even consider myself .  . . [DEEP BREATH] . . . a Christian anymore . . . at least in the classical sense of the word?

See, even there, I had to qualify it.  And even as I type, I am looking skyward, cautiously, waiting for the huge lightning bolt to strike me.  I can’t give up on this deepseated Christian thing.  And, however irrational and dysfunctional of me, I can’t give up the beauty of the Christmas story.  You know, the one co-opted from ancient pagans.  The trope of the virgin birth that was already heavily utilized by the time some folks decided to slap a Christian label on it.

I can’t celebrate a secular Christmas with my kids, like most Americans do.  It just feels wrong, and disrespectful.  So I feel like I should tell my kids:  sorry, no Christmas, because it’s a Christian holiday and we are not Christian.  Or alternatively, I should indoctrinate them in Christianity, like I was as a child.  I don’t like either option.

So for now I am stuck in a Christmas — and an approach to religion and parenting, generally — that is Secular, But Not Atheist.  That may or may not be the same thing as “agnostic,” but I’m not really sure.  I’ve never closely examined how agnostics, particularly agnostics with children, celebrate Christmas without feeling shallow at best, and hypocritical at worst.

My two-year-old is aware of Christmas, but I know she has no idea what it is.  Like me, she is going to celebrate Secular Christmas this year, but unlike me, she won’t have any clue that there is another kind of Christmas.  You know, the Christian kind.  But this won’t always be the case.

No other parenting decision has ever caused me as much internal conflict and struggle as this one.

Merry Christmas.


16 thoughts on “Secular But Not Atheist: Christmas and the Agnostic Parenting Dilemma

  1. Hi Melanie, I just read your blog regarding secularism and raising / building a family. Were in the same exact boat so just wanted to say hi! I know this blog was 9 years ago so I’d be interested to hear how it’s been going. We have a 15 month old so we’re just starting and having these important conversations. We’re in the beginning stages of trying to find a secular parent group in CT. Fingers crossed!


  2. Oh I so love this post (I’m probably late to the party)! I have a 4 and a 2 year old, and so far I’ve found that I enjoy celebrating the “sciency” aspects of winter holidays with them. They still get Santa. We don’t talk about Jesus really (unless they’re asking me questions that stem from grandma). But we do try to add in celebrations like Solstice – which are at the very least rooted somewhat in fact and science. I’d love to keep following you to see how you deal with all of this. Being surrounded by Christians who are pretty determined to make my sons into replicas of themselves is difficult.


  3. I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only parent struggling with this. My daughter is seven now and this is still a difficult subject. She understands that Christmas is a Christian holiday to most people and that we are not Christian but we still celebrate for the universal aspects. I’ve even touched on the appropriation of pagan traditions by the early Roman Catholics with her but things still feel awkward here. Have you had any developments or personal breakthroughs with this. I would definitely be interested to hear.


  4. Thank you for this post. I came across it today while searching out how others have explained Christmas and religion, in general, to their children when they don’t/no longer believe in any themselves. I appreciate your candor.


  5. I’m in the exact same situation, which led me to this column via Google. I think I’ve talked myself into taking this time of year to teach the kids about Christianity. I’ll let them take it from there when they’re older.


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  7. I don’t think you should be worried about who you would offend. It could be offensive to a Pagan that a Christian celebrates Christmas-lol! My point being you already know the history of Christmas. Teach that to your kids. Celebrate what you want & don’t want. I think it’s funny how many Christians blindly celebrate a holiday they believe to be Jesus birthday when it’s not. Actually knowing why your family chooses to engage in traditions is worth more I think. I’m agnostic and don’t have children but I like the family celebrations of Christmas. I really like the idea of celebrating winter solstice, which I do. I want to teach my children the historical signicance of Christmas & I plan on throwing in a little magic for the young children. I just heard of elf on a shelf that sounds fun. But these are my choices and you can come to what you think it’s best but don’t worry about others!


  8. I dislike when people get kids baptized just to appease family members. If you don’t really believe in it, it’s disrespectful to those that do to just put on a show of it. I had a few relatives ask my parents why we didn’t have my daugther baptized. The answer was, we’re not Christian, plain and simple. As for Christmas, we celebrate it secularly, because we grew up with it and because it’s fun. If my daughter asks me about the Jesus stuff, I have no problem telling her that this is what some people believe but that it has nothing to do with our family’s celebration.


    1. Sara, I feel similarly, and that’s why I have not baptized my children. I would be fine with it if my husband really wanted to (he was raised Catholic and it was a possibility for a while). However, I’m not a huge fan of doing any kind of religious ceremony or practice just for the sake of doing it, or out of tradition without any actual faith-based motivation, etc. If it works for others, that’s fine with me, but it’s not what I would choose. That’s my whole issue with celebrating Christmas. I know it’s a cultural thing to celebrate Christmas from a secular perspective in this country. But imagine if I just decided to celebrate Hannukah, or Diwali, or what-have-you, and the reason I gave was that it’s just fun and a nice way to enjoy this time of year. I wonder how many people I would offend. Then again, maybe it’s just different because of how widespread and culturally accepted Christmas has become. Every so often I will talk to a really confused Jewish person who asks why we bother celebrating Christmas if not from a Christian religious perspective. It’s a fascinating cultural phenomenon.


  9. Until you decide…why not share all the holiday stories of this time of year? The word “Christmas” is certainly tied to Christians but the season itself was swiped out from many other traditions. My son (6yo) just asked me the question: Is Santa real? Santa falls under belief…same as all religions. You can choose to believe all or none. The evergreen tree is a pagan tradition. Not religious. All the lights are from the Festival of Lights and from Solstice and the darkest time of the year. It’s such a wonderful smattering of many traditions…I don’t think it has to be an either/or.
    For the record, I’m nothing. I believe universal design and some notion of god but certainly not a big dude watching over us to judge our behavior (ever notice how Santa and God got really mixed up somehow?) But I love sharing all the various traditions with my son…if he chooses to believe in God or Santa or whatever…that’s cool.


  10. I am catholic (not always good about church 😦 where as the husband is agnostic but we kind of take a light hearted appoarch to celebrating the holidays including Santa, and the story of Jesus birth…but I do not overthink it. The reality is you are just setting options in front of them and when they grow up they will pick their own path. Most of the time it can follow or go completely opposite so I just try to have fun. Right now just make some fun holidays of love and togetherness and remember they are not concerned with all of our “issues with religion, belief, non belief”(which I went through exploring most other religions and philosophies) they just see mommy with a christmas tree smiling as she digs through a stocking.


  11. Ha ha ha, I was totally going to call you on her outfit!! That to me was more important and glaring than the rest of your post! Just kidding, good post. 🙂


  12. I feel the need to state for the record, although this has absolutely nothing to do with the foregoing post, that I was not responsible for my daughter’s outfit in the picture above.


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