Being an Atheist at Christmas

“Merry CHRISTMAS,” I am greeted by my coworker with a very emphatic Christmas greeting when I walk into my office.

“Um, Merry Christmas to you as well. Why the militant Christmas greeting this morning?”

“I’m just so TIRED of getting all these “Happy Holidays” cards. It’s CHRISTMAS. That’s what we’re celebrating, right?”

“That’s what you’re celebrating.” I shot back with a wink, letting him know I was being intentionally obnoxious, and not just my regular humorless* godless self.

“Yeah, yeah- I know other people are celebrating other holidays.” He sounds the tiniest bit apologetic.

*My coworkers are sort of assholes when it comes to their religious beliefs. I rarely talk about my (lack of) beliefs because these guys are pretty PRO GOD. I said “Holiday Party” when referring to our department’s annual “Holiday Party” last year (because that’s what it’s called) and the old man almost lost his shit. IT’S CHRISTMAS! CHRISTMAS, GODDAMMIT!” And then he called me a heathen and a pagan (I know, I didn’t even bother) for months until I told him I was going to go to HR if he didn’t knock it off.

“There isn’t really a war on Christmas, you know,” I’m totally being more obnoxious than necessary. My coworker watches Fox news and occasionally we talk about how ridiculous some of their stories are, but for the most part he seems to find their coverage “fair and balanced.”

“I KNOW there isn’t a war on Christmas!” Now he sounds defensive. (Muhahaha, JUSTICE)

I pour my coffee and sit down at my desk. “Chill out dude. We “celebrate” Christmas at our house and we aren’t even Christian.”

And we do celebrate the holiday. We have a tree. We do gifts and cards and Christmas lunch. Pretty much the whole shebang without the Jesus part.

However, growing up Catholic, Jesus was a central figure in my childhood Christmas celebrations. Pageants and Advent and midnight Mass were all annual traditions that put Jesus front and center, not just on Christmas morning but also for weeks before and after the holiday.

My move away from the church began when I opted out of confirmation at the age of 16, and I stopped going to Mass altogether when I joined the Army at the age of 17. After I came home from Iraq, I wasn’t quite an atheist, but I certainly wasn’t Catholic anymore. My “nuclear” family is very secular: My husband identifies as an atheist, and while I don’t typically define my lack of religious beliefs as atheism, for simplicity I’ve done so here.

Sometimes I feel a deep nostalgia for the parts we leave out of our Christmas celebrations now, and I miss the traditions that made the holiday meaningful to me as a child. The advent wreath that used to take up residence on our dining room table four weeks prior marked the beginning of my restless and impatient anticipation of Christmas morning. During the four weeks preceding the 25th we would light a candle marking each week. The first week, we lit just a single purple candle, the second week, two purple candles, the third, three candles (one pink and two purple), and the last Sunday before Christmas we would light all four. On Christmas day we would light a snow white candle placed in the center of the wreath.

??????????

Around the same time we put out the advent wreath my mom would always set up her nativity scene, sans baby Jesus and the three kings- those figures would make their appearance on Christmas morning. Infant Jesus would appear in his manger, his little plastic hands and feet so tiny and perfect; the three kings would turn up near the kitchen, the starting point of their 12-day journey across the living room. The star on top of our tree was the star they followed to see the newborn king. I would wake up and make sure the little plastic baby was in his place, sometimes before I even looked under the tree. Baby Jesus in his little manger and the glow from all five candles on the wreath made it feel real.

Now I wake up on Christmas morning and feel like I’m just going through the motions. I’m happy to be with my family but there are some gaps; the way I celebrated as a child felt like it had purpose and meaning. Now that I no longer believe the story behind the traditions, the day rings a little hollow. But as much as I miss my childhood traditions, repeating them now would feel dishonest. Much of my melancholy stems from knowing I can never be in that place again, that place of pure belief and faith that everything is as it should be and that all the stories you are told are true.

My boys are 7 and 8 years old this year. We have our own traditions, and maybe it feels just as real to them as it did to me when I was their age because this is what they know. What I know is that they’ll find religion (or not) on their own terms and repeat (or not) the traditions of their childhood because they want to, not because those traditions are all wrapped up in religious dogma,

I’m not slamming the dogma- I get it. My love of the traditions of the Church and my identity as an Irish Catholic operated as a security blanket and insulated me against my own unspoken doubts for a very long time. I felt that my identity as a Catholic was inexorably wrapped up in who I was as a person and it wasn’t until I spent a year in Iraq, in some very extreme and isolated conditions away from the warmth of religious tradition and repetition, that I felt brave enough to face those questions and doubts.

I don’t talk to many people about why they are atheist or agnostic, (or why they used to be Christian but chose to leave their church) but I imagine it wasn’t a decision made lightly. And it probably wasn’t because 45 people said “Happy Holidays” to them instead of “Merry Christmas.”

 

What is the American Ideal?

When I went to work at McDonalds in 1998 I was 16. Young, white, and female, I’d barely finished my application before I was offered a job by the manager. “We would love to have a more “American” looking young lady like you working at the front of the store.”

She even told me I’d be making a dollar and a half more than most of the other employees, but asked me to keep that confidential in order to avoid any “conflict”. I was pretty naive, and had no idea what she meant by “American looking” until I started my shift a few days later. She meant “white.”

Some of the employees working in the back spoke very little English, but those who were obviously American but apparently not “American looking” told me they’d been asking for months to be on front register or drive-through, only to see their manager hire white people for the positions instead.

So this manager’s idea of “American” was white. Her racist euphemism for preferring white faces to brown faces was “American.” Similarly, we hear words like “traditional” and “good old fashioned family values” to describe a certain “American” ideal: White, heterosexual, and Christian.

Naturalized Identities are really successful at reinforcing ideology. If my main identity is American, that comes with it many concepts, assumptions, and expectations. It also can obstruct or rule out certain opportunities or life experiences based on what I think is “normal” behavior for people like me.

AWESOME NEWS!

Everything I am is constructed. All the groups with whom I identify – all the titles and attributes I assign to myself – Every single thing is simply an idea, a front. My identity is wrapped up in what I think other people think I am. The same is true of you and everyone we know.

OK, now I sound like some off-the-wall woo-woo philosopher, right? But think about it- we’ll start with something basic.

I am White

C’mon. You can tell by looking at me that I’m white, right? How is that a ‘construct’?

What is “White” or “Black” if not an identity constructed based on someone assigning value to the color of a person’s skin? I am only “white” if someone else is not. Similarly, another person is only “black” or “white” or “brown” when they are named so. Stuart Hall discusses the concept of identity in his piece “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”

Cultural identity […] is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.

I am American.

I am American because a group of men decided that America is a nation; these dudes fought a war against another group of dudes who had claimed the land as their own colony by simply showing up, a declaration validated not by the inhabitants, but by a separate small nation across a great ocean. They drew arbitrary borders and kicked out/murdered/crushed the souls of the natives who were there already and called it America.

[To be clear- identifying with a culture isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as you aren’t an asshole about it. You can be invested in your heritage and not be all “Oooh, I’m so much better than you because my pasty ancestors are from somewhere cold where other pasty people are from, and your brown ancestors are from some other place that is lame.” (or the other way ’round, duh)

Also, it’s super important to recognize the inherent benefits many have because they look like the majority of people in political and economic power (who think like the asshole example above), and consequently the obstacles many others face because they are different than the asshole example above (the aforementioned ‘not “American” looking’ Americans).]

  • My identity as a woman? Constructed.

“Woman” as an identity is more than just a description of my gender. It entails all sorts of behavioral expectations, restrictions, and beliefs about what makes me valuable as a human (my sex production, my child production, my domestic production, etc.)

  • My identity as a mother? Constructed.

“Mother” as an identity is much like “woman” in that there are specific expectations of me as a mother. I should engage with my children in specific ways, I should conceive my children in specific circumstances; I should give up certain aspects of my life in order to fulfil this identity “mother.”

  • My identity as a student, a wife, a veteran, a government employee, a middle-class suburbanite, a rape victim? Constructed.

That last “identity” was a touchy one, right? Rape victim as a construct? I’ll explain:

There is a specific expectation of how a person should act when they are raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. It’s this “appropriate” behavior that demonstrates to men in positions of authority whether you are being truthful or not. As a “victim” you are expected to mourn the loss of your dignity/sense of agency/personal safety. You are expected to go through a process of recovery, where you work through the assault and recognize the magnitude of the personal violation to which you were subjected. You are expected to identify as a “victim” or “survivor” and incorporate that event into how you see yourself as a person, how you experience your life from that point forward. It is expected that you will feel less valuable (because you are seen as such, generally) because your self-worth is associated with your sexual reputation. You are supposed to fixate on the personal aspects of this violation so as not to look at the bigger picture, so as not to fixate on the epidemic of violence against women by men used as a social tool of control and domination.

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There are a million social expectations and boundaries that define our everyday lives- much of that shit gets in the way of actual human connection. Expectations of what “motherhood” means totally gets in the way of how I want to live my life. I stayed home for the first three years after my kids were born and I literally almost committed suicide. It destroyed who I was and I HATED IT. Then I started working and began to feel like myself again, but I heard all sorts of trash about how my kids were missing out on being with their mother, and that I should just stay at home and let my husband take care of me. Yes. In 2007 people were telling me I was neglecting my children by working.

Also, I stopped wearing my wedding ring about a year ago. Is it because I don’t want to be married or because I stopped loving my husband? No way! I am more in love with him now than ever. He’s my best friend and my partner, the father of my obnoxious kids, and he picks up the dog shit in the yard.

What I didn’t like was this concept of rings and marriage defining what I realized was none of anyone else’s business. He knows we’re married, I know we’re married- who the fuck else needs to know we’re married besides us? Also, I don’t want to be defined by my marital status. I am a human being, not “married” or “single” and I don’t need a social signifier like a ring defining an aspect of my life that is not anyone else’s business (plus it smacks of property exchange from the [sort of] way-back and that’s gross).

What is the value in deconstructing identity? Why explode the very idea of who we are?

Because FREEDOM! Just kidding. Sort of.