Though Christmas is a religious holiday, many non-Christians celebrate this season. Along with approximately 20% of all Americans, my family considers themselves irreligious, yet we still celebrate Christmas (and Easter too!). We have many friends who do the same.
Why do we celebrate? I can only speak for myself, but simply, because we always have. As children, neither my husband nor I remember any specific religiousness associated with the holidays. Of course, we knew that people celebrated the birth of Christ during Christmas and his rebirth at Easter. But for our families, these were simply times for celebration of the importance of family and close friends. As a military family that is often without blood relatives, holidays of all sorts have become an important time to celebrate with friends whom we affectionately call our “framily.” We love the new popularity of “Friendsgiving,” as that is what we have called it for many years because we are usually too far away from family members to celebrate with them.
How do we celebrate Christmas? Almost everyone can admit that Christmas is a magical time of year. We celebrate with a tree, an Advent calendar, and other traditional decorations. We make and buy gifts for the people in our lives in gratitude for those relationships. We send cards because we love to keep in touch with people we know and love, near and far. We hang stockings. I have a pretty cute Santa figurine collection. We do pretty much all of the same things religious families do, minus the religion.
We also celebrate Easter in a similar manner, welcoming spring. We decorate eggs. Even as teens, our kids expect to do some kind of egg hunt. We always have a basket filled with spring symbols like lambs, rabbits, eggs, and carrots, usually in the form of chocolate. Of course, there is a fabulous meal with ham or lamb, often enjoyed with a big group of friends.
We see these holidays, especially Christmas, as a time to celebrate relationships, gratitude, joy, love, and memories of those no longer with us, as a time to recognize joy despite the challenges of life. We wish for peace, both internal and external, and celebrate our loved ones and the non-material gifts they give us. Christmas is a time of storytelling, peace, and love. We love the traditions.
Many Christmas traditions were brought to this holiday from religions that predated Christianity, such as decorating trees, hanging greenery, and exchanging small gifts, along with offering special greetings, meals, and drinks. By practicing these traditions, we honor our ancestors and recognize all the meanings associated with them. Pretty much all northern hemisphere cultures celebrate the winter solstice with some of the festivities now associated with Christmas.
Also, there is no denying that Christmas pretty much infiltrates this time of year. Decorations were all over the place long before Thanksgiving this year! It is pretty hard to ignore. However, many other current religions have holidays at the same time. Let’s not forget that those believers honor their traditions amidst the hubbub of Christmas.
I asked some of my non-religious friends to share how they celebrate traditionally religious holidays:
“I guess I haven’t given it a lot of thought. There are so many non-religious activities. For Christmas we still do the decorating, the baking, the lights, the caroling, the gift giving. We just focus on it as a season of giving. At Easter, we once again have a big meal and hunt eggs full of candy. Basically, we just skip the scripture reading and the nativity scene. But I don’t mind some religious activities. I want my daughter to be exposed to many different things and pursue what beliefs she is curious about. I do kind of wish there was a candlelight service just for singing holiday songs! I think that would be fun.”
“We do pretty much the same as [the above]. It’s all about spending time together as a family (and with friends) and just having fun! My husband dresses up as Santa on Christmas. It’s hilarious.”
“Very similar to [those above] for us too, but we do attend a candlelight service. Christmas becomes a time to be with family, make memories, bake, and get more excited about giving than receiving.”
“We decorate for the season of the year and celebrate each other and how we can help others. Especially for Christmas, [we see it as] a reminder to be kind and help others but also to take time to celebrate ourselves within our family.”
“We celebrate all the traditions I grew up with (German) and add new ones all the time, so we still set up a nativity scene and the kids used to ‘play out’ the Christmas story with figurines to a traditional German play. The Christ Angel brings gifts on Christmas Eve, and Santa Claus leaves something in the stockings on Christmas morning. And we have family traditions, like watching Elf (and other Christmas movies) while eating homemade cookies and drinking hot chocolate or Glühwein!“
“We both grew up with a lot of normal Christmas traditions but without much religion as part of it. So we’ve kept the secular things because we like the feel of the holiday, while avoiding overtly religious components (e.g., no angels, no songs with Jesus/God references). Being in Korea, homesick and away from our families and then with a baby, really started that for us. The tree theme is red and blue and Doctor Who. We have Santa decor but don’t ‘do’ Santa. We do gifts and eat and spend time together as a family when able around work schedules. We’ll establish more family traditions as the kids get a bit older. I would personally prefer to move away from Christmas itself and toward some other winter celebration but don’t care all that much. It never occurred to me to celebrate Easter beyond the fun of joining an egg hunt, which is really just a fun activity celebrating spring/fertility, but my in-laws always dress up and do brunch on Easter, which is super weird to me because they’re atheists. Growing up, we never did Easter baskets or any of that stuff (and Easter bunny costumes are always creepy!), so it wasn’t really a thing to me, and I don’t plan to make it one for our family.”
“Most of our holiday traditions are focused on making the most of our time together as a blended family. My cousin made me a winter-themed advent calendar that I strategically fill with activities depending on the dates my oldest daughter will join us and extended family will be in town. Examples of our activities in December include baking cookies and delivering them to our neighbors, writing cards for teacher gifts, watching a holiday movie and drinking hot chocolate, and making paper/popcorn/cranberry garlands. Most years we exchange gifts on a day other than Christmas to work with our shared-kid schedules and have a big meal with family. Around New Year’s all our kids do an end-of-the-year survey and read their ones from previous years, much to their delight! I really enjoy being able to emphasize our time together and reflecting on the year past and the one to come.”
“I celebrate the Norwegian way, minus the Lucia celebration. But Christmas Eve is when we eat our nice dinner and open presents after 8:00 P.M. Because my kids are half American, we do one present to each from ‘Santa Claus’ on the 25th…which I call the first day of Christmas (første juledag). No church, no mention of anything [having to do with] Christianity.”
“For Christian holidays with an closeted atheist husband, at home we decorate and play games and all the fun stuff, like Santa and the Easter bunny. We tell the girls about all the religions of the world. They know because of our family in Northeast Texas that these holidays are to celebrate Christian beliefs. I don’t think that we should force anything down their throats. They have their own minds, and I want them to have strong spirits. I love Christmas, and we go all out. We also love Easter. We almost treat Easter like a practice Thanksgiving. We have all the same foods.”
Many families celebrate the holidays without religion, and maybe without you even knowing it. They find all of the joy and wonder that Christians find in these holidays, perhaps for similar reasons and perhaps not. If you are not Christian, do you celebrate Easter and Christmas? What are your special ways of and reasons for celebrating?