Yesterday Athena and I were chatting about Christmas and I asked her if she knew why we had Christmas, and she explained to me that we had Christmas so that we could be with family and get presents and have food and be thankful. To which I said, yes, those are things we do on Christmas, but do you know why there’s a Christmas in the first place? To which she confessed she did not. So I explained to her how it was Jesus’ birthday, and how many people believe Jesus was the son of God, and that celebrating his birth was important to them. This then moved into a discussion of how old Jesus would be if he were alive today, and also how old God might be, and then we watched Tom & Jerry brutalize each other in cartoon fashion.
We had this conversation for a simple reason, which is the same reason I’ve explained to her why people vote or how the sun is out there in space or why she can’t stick her finger in a wall socket just for fun: I want her to actually understand the world around her and why things are the way they are. As most of you know, I’m not in the slightest bit religious personally; at the same time I think it would be wrong if Athena’s only understanding of Christmas was as a jolly and secular gift-giving event. That’s not why Christmas exists; it exists because some 2000 years ago, someone was born who a couple billion people on the planet believe is the son of God, and those people want to commemorate the event. Athena, being five, might not understand all the implications of knowing that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, not the least because she’s a little shaky on the theological implications of Jesus being Christ. And that’s fine; people who are considerably older have a difficult time wrapping their brains about it as well. But putting that into her consciousness now means that at some future point in time we can expand on it and explore it more. I see it as a building block.
And what will I teach her about Christmas as she gets older? Everything I think is important, and also everything she wants to know (which may not always be the same things). I’ll read to her the Biblical stories of the birth of Jesus; I’ll also explain to her one of the reasons we celebrate Christmas when we do was a matter of the Church co-opting Solstice observances to accommodate previously pagan converts. We’ll sing Christmas carols; I’ll explain the history of the Christmas tree and Santa Claus. I’ll answer the questions she asks, and help her find the answers for herself. I think over time she’ll get a good understanding of Christmas as a religious holiday and as a secular gift-exchange extravaganza. And in the end, if all goes as planned, she’ll make her own decisions about the importance of each of these aspects to her. But it’s critically important she understand that at the root of it all is the birth of a child many consider divine. As they say, it’s the reason of the season.
As I’m not personally religious, some of you may ask why I would make the effort to teach Athena the religious aspects of the holiday. The reasons are several. The first is that even if one doubts the Christhood of Jesus, one may still admire him as a man, a thinker, and an icon of peace. You don’t have to be a Christian to want your child to know that Jesus is at the heart of Christmas. The second is that it’s my job as a parent to teach my child these things; I don’t want my child picking up theology on the proverbial street corner because we don’t teach her about it at home. That seems a fine way for her to pick up some dubious knowledge from dubious people who might eventually get her in trouble. Better that we introduce her to that sort of thing. Third, it’s not a bad thing to reinforce the idea that when Athena does have questions about any subject, she can come to us, and we’re going to tell her as much of the truth of things as we can.
Also, unlike a fair number of the non-religious, I’m not antagonistic toward religion per se, or Christianity specifically. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think Christianity is a fine religion, and I wish more Christians practiced it. And, not entirely separately, of course one reads a story like this, in which Christians were so incensed that a manger scene was taken out of a school play that they voted down much-needed funds for their school district, or that they’ve mandated teaching “intelligent design” in high school biology classes, and one wonders why so many Christians seem to believe that Jesus wants their children to be dumb as lard, as if there’s some sort of natural opposition between accepting Christ as one’s savior and increasing one’s knowledge of the world to the limits of one’s God-given abilities. But that’s not about Christianity, or religion in general; that’s about some people’s thick-headed interpretation of it and the religious impulse. I don’t blame Jesus for the stupidity of some of his followers; we don’t get to choose our fans.
I am not religious, but I would not be disappointed if my daughter decided to become so, over the fullness of time and through a depth of knowledge, since it is not a failure of the either the human intellect or spirit to seek the divine. Where I would have failed her is if her religious impulse were to take on a close-minded, fearful and intolerant cast. I would have equally failed her if she were non-religious but also close-minded, fearful and intolerant of those who had such an impulse.
In the end, I want to teach my daughter about Jesus so she can understand him, understand those who see him as the son of God, and understand how he fits into her own view of the world. Making sure she understands why Christmas exists is a good starting point. It’s early in her understanding of all of this, of course. But better early than too late.