Celebrating Love and Light: 10 Holiday Tips for the Post-Religious

By Valerie Tarico

Is the holiday season more glitter than glow for you lately? For a humanist who seeks to live a life centered in reason and compassion, the holiday time can be surprisingly challenging. Old traditions may not fit anymore, but what does? We see ourselves as an integral part of nature, and the beauties of the winter season surround us, but how can you bring the season into your home in a way that feels rich and satisfying? We humanists find meaning in relationships, but reunions can be fraught with peril. If an old Christian friend or family member uses Christmas cards or gatherings as an opportunity to evangelize, you may even find yourself feeling downright crabby. How can you shake it off? 

Here are ten tips to help you get the scrooge out of your humanist holiday season: 

1. Remind yourself that our celebrations from December 21 through January 1 are not Christian in origin. All over the northern hemisphere, people have celebrated this time as one of birth and new life. Solstice is the reason for the season, and December 25th was the day of solstice under the old Roman calendar. The return of light, the budding of new life, the promise of fresh starts—these were particularly precious to agrarian people who entrusted themselves one year at a time to the cycle of the seasons, but they are precious to us all.

2. Discover the magical, mystical origins of the Christmas story.  If you love mythology in any form, from the epic of Gilgamesh to the epic of Frodo Baggins, the Christmas narratives are rich with threads of hero quest that have been woven and rewoven and can be traced across time and culture. Why was the virgin birth added late to the Jesus story? Why were stories of dying and rising gods so common in the ancient Near East? What can these ancient stories tell us about who we are as human beings? Antiquities scholars, both Christian and secular, can set you on your own journey of discovery. 

3. Claim what fits. In weddings, the saying “old, new, borrowed, blue” reminds us that mixing and matching are what ritual and celebration are made of. Every culture and religion borrows from those that came before. (Syncretism, they call it.) So does every person. Pick what you cherish from your tradition or others and do your own mixing. One wonderful thing about moving beyond dogma is the quest for meaning is yours. You and only you know which old traditions are still meaningful.

4. Don’t be afraid to embrace explicitly Christian elements. If you’ve been wounded by Christianity or feel like our world is being wounded, it is easy to be bitter or reactive and to pass that reactance on to any children who look up to you. A better approach is to treat Christianity just like you would any other mythic or cultural tradition. All of them reflect the struggle of our ancestors to determine what is good and what is real and how to live in community with each other. All contain a mixture of wisdom and foolishness and downright immorality. Take what seems timeless and wise and move on.   

5. Get creative. Draw on your inner artist. The best art takes old elements and assembles them in a way that is unique to the artist. Create your own rituals. What is your life about? What do you want to celebrate and with whom? What might the decorations look like? Which smells and tastes do you savor? What music does resonate? Do what feels genuine, and then persist.  Developing a solid sense of ritual and tradition takes time and repetition.

6. Find common ground with visiting relatives. All relationships (teacher-student, work colleague, friend, partner, daughter, nephew) require that we come together around things we have in common: shared interests, respect for each other’s good qualities, overlapping values, the appreciation of a good meal or a football game. Your family may not share your skepticism, curiosity, or desire for personal growth.  If not, don’t go there, and don’t let them draw the conversations into your areas of disagreement. Take deep breaths, exercise self control, and change topics. Save deep, painful conversations for another time. Trust yourself. Schedule coffee with sympathetic friends.  It may be sad, but it is ok for you to grow emotionally and spiritually even if people you love don’t come along.

7.  Be a little wicked if you like.  Religious people use the holidays for drawing in new believers or old believers who have fallen by the wayside. Sometime their evangelism comes from the thoughtless assumption that you share their point of view, and sometimes it is intentional. It’s part of our cultural dynamic, so feel free to do the same. Send solstice cards.  Invite religious friends to your celebrations. Give a receptive friend the gift of growth: if someone is wobbling their way out of Christianity, give them a copy of my book, Trusting Doubt. For a friend who may be ready to move from born again “beliefism” to a more thoughtful form of Christian faith, give Bruce Bawer’s Stealing JesusFor someone who would like to see the Bible through the eyes of an unflinchingly honest Christian antiquities scholar, get Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God.

8. Balance your gift giving. Stand on principle—some of the time. Face it, certain kinds of gifts don’t mean much, but not giving them does. Your integrity doesn’t stand or fall based on whether you give the token “Christmas” gifts to your boss, co-workers or neighbors.  Go to Starbucks and buy a dozen gift cards, or if time costs you less than money right now, bake those cookies. Tell people you wish them well—because you do—and be done with it.

9. Pay attention to your deeper values. Your resources are finite, so how do you want to use them? What are you trying to say to other people with your gifts—about them, about you, about your relationship, about the things that make life rich and full and that you want to share with them? If you are tired of the consumer rat race, opt out. Give some Kiva credit or a goat through the Heifer Project, or adopt a sea turtle or whatever. Then wrap the gift certificate around a really good bar of chocolate. 

10. Immerse yourself in the real gifts of the season—love, light, joy, generosity, kindness, gratitude, wonder and shared hope. In the end, what else is there?

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and former director of the Children’s Behavior and Learning Clinic in Bellevue, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt, a book about her personal encounter with religious fundamentalism. Her website is www.valerietarico.com