Updated: January 26, 2013 6:14AM
A few years ago, we were setting out Christmas decorations as our 5-year-old daughter looked on. We are not religious, but my wife was raised Catholic, and she has retained a fondness for Nativity scenes. Our two children know enough to recognize Jesus, Mary and Joseph. They’re fuzzier, however, when it comes to the supporting cast. She couldn’t quite place the Three Wise Men.
“Are those cowboys?” she guessed. “Security guards?”
I caution you not to take such questions lightly. Holidays are the playoffs of the parenting game. Our ability to feed, clothe and educate our children is never more on display. Many of us had envisioned how perfect these moments of holiday family togetherness would be. Even the most innocent screw-ups — the overcooked meal, the meltdown during “The Nutcracker” — threaten to live long in everyone’s memory.
The fact that these cherished holidays have their roots in religious traditions only amps up the pressure. This can be rather tricky if you lack a faith to pass on to your children. And yet we celebrate Christmas with the typical American orgy of lights, decorations, presents, baked goods.
Since becoming parents 10 years ago, my wife and I have taken our responsibility as executive producers of these festivities very seriously. The result is we now have two children who live holiday-to-holiday. The first time our son saw our discarded Christmas tree pulled from the curb, he bawled. When he had calmed down, he asked if it was now time to bring out the Valentine’s Day ornaments.
One glance at the way more pious families fill their seasons with rituals and stories and opportunities for reflection and good works, all of it reinforced by inclusion in a supportive community, and our faith-free celebrations start to look like mighty weak tea.
For the past several years, as a way to expose our kids to different belief systems and because we value tradition, we’ve attended Christmas Eve services. One year, I followed up with a bit of context. I called them to the couch; open on my lap was a large illustrated Bible. A few sentences in, they began interrupting me with questions. “Where’s Galilee? What’s Myrrh?” My wife made a beeline for Wikipedia. When they 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 explaining the visit from the Magi, I was regretting this. Far from providing context, I had confused them.
But here’s the thing: Holidays are the playoffs for religions, too. It’s the time at which they tell their most outlandish stories (I’m looking at you, Virgin Birth). Whether or not you’re engaged in daily discussions of those stories with your children, you’re bound to have some tough questions to answer. And that’s great: Questions are a sign that the kiddos aren’t just blindly accepting what they’re told.
Besides, the main byproduct of these holidays’ religious roots — an emphasis on expressing our love and caring for others — is a good thing. 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 Christmas carols.
Andrew Park is the author of “Between a Church and a Hard Place.” Salon.com.