The XX Factor

Relax, Parents: There’s No Need to Put the Christ in Christmas

The Rockettes don’t flash their legs to celebrate the Virgin Birth.

Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

In our age of neurotic parenting, it should come as no surprise that irreligious parents might succumb some to the evidence-free claims of many that children must be raised in a faith tradition in order to achieve some ill-defined “values”. Andrew Park at Salon has a piece up about his attempts to inject a little religion into the holiday festivities. (By “religion”, he of course means “Christianity”, because as concerned as he is about exposing his children to faith traditions, he isn’t concerned enough to start fasting for Ramadan and teaching his children about the prophet Mohammed.) After many years of wholesome secular family Christmases, Park decides to start reading Bible stories to his kids, in hopes of giving them “context” for the holiday.

The result? Utter confusion. 

A few sentences in, they began interrupting me with questions. “Where’s Galilee? Who’s Herod? What’s Myrrh?” I deferred the questions to my wife. She made a beeline for Wikipedia. When my children asked why Jesus appeared to have two fathers – God and Joseph – I couldn’t help thinking of the old controversy over school libraries carrying books about kids with gay parents. By the time I had finished trying to explain the visit from the Magi, I was seriously regretting this. Far from providing context, I had confused them.

What the context-free kids grasp that we adults may not understand is this: The myths and legends of a desert-dwelling people from 2,000 ago don’t have much symbolic or cultural relationship to the Christmas of our imagining, with its snow-laden landscapes punctuated with mistletoe and jolly, gift-bearing elves. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge evokes Christmas more readily than the tale of the Christ child born in Bethlehem, which most Americans probably can’t find on a map. Frankly, if you want to instill more relevant modern values into your children, you’d be better off sticking with the Dickens tale, which emphasizes the importance of love and generosity. The story of Christ’s birth, on the other hand, is about how virgins are better than non-virgins, with a side dose of arguing that babies who haven’t done anything yet can still be superior to everyone else by accident of birth.

Sadly, Park doesn’t walk away with this lesson, insisting despite this debacle that somehow Christianity must be a part of Christmas: 

Besides, the main byproduct of these holidays’ religious roots – an emphasis on expressing our love and caring for others once a year – is a good thing. In the current state of our world, we should take it where we can get it, and make sure our kids do, too. If you’re a secular parent and you’re worried about being hypocritical, think of Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and uber-atheist, who admitted a few years ago that he still likes to sing carols at Christmastime.

Dawkins does celebrate Christmas, but that’s not because religion has something special to offer so much as further evidence that Christmas is a secular holiday now. That’s why so many non-Christians feel entitled to celebrate it. No need to guiltily inject Jesus into the festivities if you don’t really want to. One in five Americans identify as non-religious now, but Christmas just keeps getting bigger every year. If you don’t want to bother raising your kids with religion, look at that number and know that you’re in good company.