In this Christmas blog special, NSRN editors Timothy Stacey and Fernande Pool share and reflect upon the narratives of how six nonreligious people navigate through the festive period.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: ardent secularists voice their outrage at the continuing dominance of Christian celebrations in increasingly nonreligious societies. Their Christian counterparts paint themselves as a minority under attack: their symbols mocked, repressed or castigated in the name of nonchalance, diversity, commercialisation. This has reached the point that many of us get anxious even discussing the holiday with colleagues: “what are you doing for…Christmas? Winter break? Help!”
But what are the thoughts of the silent majority? For the first time in history, religious “nones” are now the dominant group in the UK and Australia, and a close second in the US and Canada. How do they feel about Christmas? How do they navigate the complex mesh of Christian, secular and commercial symbols?
For the last six months, the Lived Religion Project has been tracing the complex and beautiful ways in which religious and nonreligious people alike carry their beliefs in everyday life. Its aim is to challenge religious illiteracy and prejudice in politics, the media and amongst the public. We do so by asking simple questions like: What do you believe? Can you tell us the story of how you came to believe that? Is there anything about the way you live your life that might surprise an outsider? The majority of the work thus far has been carried out in Vancouver, Canada, which has one of the highest proportions of religious nones in the Western world. This has given us unique insight into the diversity of nonreligious ways of engaging with the world in the everyday.
On the build-up to Christmas, we decided to give the project a fun twist: we hosted a roundtable Christmas(?!) dinner discussion with a range of nonreligious guests. Each person took a turn to explain what Christmas means to them.
For my family Christmas is about giving gifts to each other, thinking about what people care about: a gift that means something to them, even if only in the brief moment they open a present. It’s also about the politics of gift-giving: a marker of where you are as a person. So I have one brother who used to be the best at giving presents, and who now is the worst. And I feel that the process of thinking about the gift is a way of demonstrating love through demonstrating knowledge of someone.
Growing up in the UK, I don’t think we were raised Christian. We were probably raised to be aware of the absence of Christianity in our lives. I went to a Church of England school and then as now the message always seems to be: “okay you’re having fun, opening gifts, but really you’ve forgotten about Jesus”. And I’m like “oh yeah, I did forget that guy.” Because even in Christian circles there was this reluctant acceptance of our forgetfulness, I never really felt the need for a clean break from the Christian aspects.
Christmas has nothing to do with gifts. I am kind of proud of the fact that it wasn’t about gifts. Having grown up in the Netherlands, we used to exchange gifts on Sinterklaas, the 5th of December. Whereas it would feel corrupting to make Christmas about presents. Instead, we’d all get aluminum foil bags of chocolate, raisins, nuts, mandarin. And we’d snack on that the whole day. We grew up in a very Christian area where nobody really received presents. I was very happy with my mandarin and it breaks my heart to think that you could have a child who wouldn’t be happy unless they received some expensive gift.
My primary school was rather strictly Protestant, and although for most of the time that felt oppressive if anything, I did like the build up to Christmas: the lighting of the Advent candles, the singing of Christmas songs, reading the story of Jesus’ birth, all culminating in the annual Christmas performance, when all the school children would sing songs and family would come watch. We’d get an orange and a Bible afterwards. The performance was never quite as exciting as anticipated, but I do still attach a feeling of warmth and light to it.
Christmas is quiet time. I’m from a farm and my parents worked very hard. So, Christmas was a time to be together and rest. For the last ten years, Christmas has been an emotionally distressing time; I didn’t always feel comfortably to spend time around my family during those years and during Christmas I felt forced to. But having grown up, I have become softer, and now I see that no matter how estranged we have become as a family, I will make an effort to see them on that day. Because in the end, they’re your people.
When I was young it was all about presents. I think my parents also really enjoyed the idea of exchanging gifts. My sister would go around the house wrapping up stuff that we already had. So, for her it was just the process of unwrapping things. But now it’s evolved. We don’t really give gifts that much and it’s distilled down to: time with family. But for us it doesn’t have to be that day; the day itself doesn’t necessarily contain anything. It’s grown to be that time period where you get together and give each other cards. My Dad will always write beautiful cards that have everyone in the room crying and meanwhile he’ll walk away and get himself a drink. And you can’t do that through an email from overseas. So it’s just become a time to remind people you love them.
You have to remember too that our Christmas, in New Zealand, falls in the middle of the summer so a lot of people are taking time off work; everyone’s very relaxed; people are on the beach having beer, having barbecues. There’s a sense of freedom in the summer that Christmas has become bound up with. But that said, the northern hemisphere stuff still trickles down: There are songs about snow and pictures of snowmen. That could be made more relevant!
I was born in the northern hemisphere so Christmas is what I grew up with. In Korea it’s all about kids getting presents. There’s no sharing of presents as such. It’s just for children. And then it’s also a time for couples to go out. It’s not really a family occasion. You go to church and to mass I guess – I’d say 70-80% of people do. It’s other holidays that are about family: autumn harvest festival and New Year. So, for example on New Year we get together as a family with up to forty relatives and pay respect to the ancestors. You know how Muslims pray? It’s a bit like that: for each ancestor, you pour rice wine and you bow three times. As a kid, I found that really annoying: 3 hours bowing nonstop. But growing up I also felt kind of connected to it because I appreciate the idea that family is important.
From my family’s perspective, when we moved from Korea to New Zealand, we lost most of our traditions and holidays. So, we didn’t really celebrate the harvest or New Year. So now I primarily associate Christmas with my wife’s family and being at the beach.
It was an annual tradition for my family to go up and visit my grandmother on my Mum’s side. My Mum’s side’s the Christian side, and my Dad’s is the Jewish, European postwar exile side. My Mum’s side was Anglican but not devout by any means. For me it was about materialism, when I look back. But now it’s about the family memories. Especially after my grandmother and grandfather are gone and we don’t see each other much as a family. Christmas was always the main family event: we’d gather and sleep over at my grandmother’s, in a cabin that my grandfather built in the woods beside a lake. At that time of year, the lake would be frozen and my uncle would plough an ice rink on the lake. My seven cousins would be there and there’d be a turkey on the table and all the kids running around. So yeah: pretty idyllic Canadian.
Looking back on it I’m closer to my cousins on my mother’s side partially because of that annual event. When I look at my personal memories, a lot of it was selfish commercialism. But in a kind of magical way. Not being able to sleep. Wondering what kind of lavish gifts would be bestowed on me. I was pretty sneaky too. I used to secretly open my presents early.
But anyway, there was never much by way of religious or cultural rituals. It was just family-focused. We never went to church. The first time I went to church was my grandfather’s funeral.
That so-called Canadian ideal that never existed here, out West; it’s a very Ontario-centered idea of what Canada is. We don’t have frozen lakes. But Adam got to live it!
I grew up in a very Christian household. So, Jesus was the “reason for the season”. My family is super-evangelical, fundamentalist Christian. My parents aren’t, but they were raised that way and it comes out at Christmas because they want to lock down that tradition. So recently I had a chat with my Mum and suggested we might go to a church service that recognizes gay folks as legit. Because my brother is gay and so forcing him to go to a service where they don’t recognize his humanity might be really horrible for him. But my Mum was like: “don’t you respect your elders?” But I do and I think a lot about how to translate legacy to the future, and what it means to inherit certain ideas and to fully embody those ideas as a living creature now and what it means to pass them forward. We think we have to choose what we inherit and so I’ve started trying to influence the process.
Interestingly, two years ago my mum didn’t make us go to church. But this year our whole family is coming so she is accountable to a wider network. Christmas isn’t just about what we think personally, or what our immediate family thinks but also what our wider culture expects of us. So, her personal identity is wrapped up in how she performs Christmas.
As a child, I was fully wrapped up in it. Christmas and Easter felt very connected and imaging where Jesus would end up 30 years later was sort of magical. Knowing that this person was super radical for people. My parents are quite radical in their generosity. They recognize Jesus as a hero of how to live in a countercultural way.
Now I have no personal connection to Christmas at all. We partake in very pagan rituals now and my own personal belief is a much more earth-centered spirituality. And when I think of Christmas now I think it comes with the solstice. We physically witness the earth shutting down for the year. In the northern hemisphere, that is. I like to think about what it means to close the year. So, Christmas is about what you want to nurture for the year ahead. We place each ornament on the tree as the wish we plant for the new year, that we want to germinate when the light returns.
We are in a period of rapid transition. As Laura stressed, we have to be intentional about choosing the traditions we inherit and how to do so. While some advocate for the wholesale abandonment of a Christian past, and others from a Christian lens lament what Christmas has become, the majority quietly navigates between these two positions, holding onto the aspects they most cherish, and quietly but resolutely letting go of the aspects that do not resonate.
Of the most cherished aspects amongst our guests appeared to be spending intentional time with family and childhood memories of excitement and expectation. Although nonreligious, they choose not to radically reject Christmas because they are capable of putting to one side Christian symbols while welcoming a designated period of reflection and togetherness. But they also recognize that Christmas was an important aspect of their childhood. In this sense, perhaps it is worth keeping in mind that Christmas is not merely a reflection of our own beliefs but a deliberate performance of togetherness.
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Timothy Stacey is a Postdoctoral Fellow at both the Religion and Diversity Project, University of Ottawa, Canada and the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. Tim explores the role ‘myth’, or stories of great events and characters, in developing solidarity and combatting populism and extremism. Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division, has just been released by Routledge.
Fernande Pool is a Visiting Scholar at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Her PhD thesis, titled The ethical life of Muslims in secular India: Islamic Reformism in West Bengal, (March 2016, London School of Economics, UK)critically explores the nature of ethics and alternative experiences and meanings of secularism and religion. Fernande has been named a Marie Skłodowska-Curie LEaDing Fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, starting April 2018.