Christmas And Religion: Dealing With Christianity As An Atheist Parent
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Imagine being a three-year-old encountering Christmas for the first time in a shopping mall. Without any context, you'd conclude the holiday is about three things: Twinkly lights, a chubby guy in a red suit and lots and lots of presents.
In this day and age, that assessment would actually be pretty close to the truth. Christmas has gotten far away from its Christian roots, and it's now celebrated by people of all religious backgrounds.
In families that go to church, children will no doubt get the scoop on Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus from a young age. But with religion increasingly leaving the public school classroom, children of parents who are atheists or agnostics may never have heard about any of that. These parents might personally feel uncomfortable with the religious aspects of Christmas, but they might also not want their kids' Christmas knowledge to consist solely of Santa and Toys "R" Us. It's only half the story -- and the consumerist, commercial half at that.
So, should you tell your kids about the Christian basis of Christmas, even if you don't believe in it?
Ann Douglas, blogger and author of The Mother of All Parenting Books, feels it's important to give kids the background of the Christian narrative, regardless of your culture.
"It's just like when we're in high school or university, we have to study great works of literature or art or Greek mythology," she explains. "If you don't understand key historical concepts in our culture, you're at a real disadvantage in understanding the world we live in."
For those unfamiliar with the Christmas story, says Douglas, it's easy to find concise information online or in books (there's even The Bible for Dummies). Then, present it objectively to kids in a way they can understand.
"You can say, 'In our family we don't go to church and we don't subscribe to a particular faith, but for some families this is a very big deal,'" she notes. "I think you should treat it with respect so your kids don't go to school and say, 'Oh my god, did you know some Christian people believe this?'"
Douglas suggests parents talk about the things that work with the family's beliefs, like peace, kindness or justice.
Scenes of the nativity from Hollywood. Story continues below:
Beverley Cathcart-Ross, a counsellor and founder of The Parenting Network, says we want to model the kind of behaviour we would like our children to take out into the world.
"Just because I never played soccer as a kid, would I not expose my kids to soccer?" she says. "If I don't believe in God, why wouldn't I expose my children to God and Buddha and Islam? They're a huge part of the world they live in."
Cathcart-Ross gives the example of her brother, who isn't religious. His children go to a Christian school (it was the best school in the area), and two of the three children believe wholeheartedly in Christianity. As a parent, he is respectful of their viewpoints, happy to read religious stories and participate in saying grace before meals, but he also has discussions with them about evolution versus creation.
"How we were created is where he separates himself," Cathcart-Ross says. "But he doesn't give [his kids] a hard time at all, he talks about being open-minded. There's some difference of opinion, but that's okay, we're not all going to think the same."
Since the Christmas season coincides with several other religious holidays, says Douglas, it can make this month a great time for cultural learning.
"I know when my children were in the primary grades, they would come home singing the different songs about Hannukah or whatever, and I thought it was great because I had never learned any of that when I was in public school," she says. "I wish I'd had a more diverse kind of upbringing."