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December 16, 2004

Why Christmas

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.

Posted by john at December 16, 2004 10:27 AM

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Comments

Justin Johnson | December 16, 2004 12:09 PM

*applause*

If only more parents weren't closed-minded idiots on both ends of the religious debates. Hope you and yours have a fantastic holiday.

Tripp | December 16, 2004 12:18 PM

John,

You are a good father.

Sincerely.

JamesG | December 16, 2004 12:52 PM

Great post. Your daughter is lucky to have an as open-minded parent as you clearly are.

Religion has always been a sticky subject in our family. I have a huge family and oddly enough, few of them share the same outlook on religion. The topic has all but been banned at family gatherings.

The last big fiasco that I remember resulted from one of my cousins asking another one about the significance of Yule. The next thing you know, the Catholic family members were all over the pagan ones. Of course the baptists had to start taking pot shots at the Catholics. In come the atheists to proclaim all others to be morons for not seeing that religion is nothing more than a man made set of rules invented to scare early civilazaitons into living what they deemed a proper life. and so on and so forth. The situation caused in several family members to stop speaking to each other at all for months.

As for the situation in Mustang it is all over the news here (I live in Oklahoma). I am curious to see what other repercussions come from it. I still think they should have found a different way to protest. Every one in the state knows that Oklahoma schools need everydime they can get their hands on.

I have often heard Oklahoma referred to as the buckle on the bible belt, but you would be surprised what lengths most community leaders will go to in their attempts to avoid religious controversy. Oddly enough most of them just wind up making matters worse. But then you can't please all of the people all of the time.

Karen | December 16, 2004 12:57 PM

That photo -- oh my god, angel child.

Jim Winter | December 16, 2004 01:08 PM

It's as I always said. It's not that I don't believe in Jesus. I do. I just don't like some of the people he hangs out with.

Dawn B. | December 16, 2004 01:23 PM

Good for you. My parents also told us the "why" and the "what" of Christmas, even though my father is agnostic.
We didn't get the pagan backing [though I wish we had]. I also wish I'd gotten some of the Chanukkah mythology from them instead just from my friends at school, so I could understand what others were doing more.

Andrew Wade | December 16, 2004 01:48 PM

"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."

Blame Paul. Actually don't; Paul's writings are where the Christians you are talking about here get the Biblical backing for their strange philosophy, but to my mind that doesn't explain the source of their philosophy. There are many Christians that don't follow Paul, and (around my parts anyway) quite a few that think Paul had issues and needed a nice man to show him a good time.

Catherine Rain | December 16, 2004 01:50 PM

A wonderful post and a *beautiful* photo.

Steve Eley | December 16, 2004 02:25 PM

As one who is also essentially non-religious these days, but who's teaching Religious Education to a room full of seven-year-olds at his UU church this Sunday, I'd like to thank you for the inspiration and the spirit of your post.

Brian Greenberg | December 16, 2004 02:53 PM

For what it's worth, I think the fact that the story of Jesus/Christmas is so important to you suggests that you're more religious than you might think.

As one of the commentors noted, it didn't occur to you to explain the history of Hannukah, even though that's also something that millions of people in the world believe.

This is in no way a criticism, and should not be taken as such. It's just an interesting observation. My older son is a little younger than Athena, and despite not being religious myself, the degree to which I want him to know about his religion has surprised me.

John Scalzi | December 16, 2004 03:30 PM

Brian Greenberg wrote:

"As one of the commentors noted, it didn't occur to you to explain the history of Hannukah, even though that's also something that millions of people in the world believe."

It's more accurate to say that I didn't write here about talking about Hanukkah to Athena, as we have in fact talked about it (in the context of the Menorah). You have to remember that I don't give you all a blow-by-blow of every single thing we say and do here in the Scalzi household.

I'm pretty sure I have a good grip on how religious I am, incidentally. I don't think it necessarily follows that an interest in making sure one's child understands the cultural and religious underpinning to a holiday swamped by commercialism is necessarily indicative of a religious impulse in myself. Now, I certainly *do* have an interest in Jesus and Christianity, both in myself in the context of living in a country filled with Christians. One does wish to have understanding. However, I also have an interest in Mohammad, for example, as well as Islam, but knowing *his* story -- and indeed admiring much about him -- does not necessarily make me religious, either.

Steve Brady | December 16, 2004 03:38 PM

So what have you told her about Santa Clause, John?

Not that I'm remotely close to having children, but I have given it a little thought, and

1) I never want to lie to my children.

2) I want them to be children and have healthy imaginations and have fun.

3) I don't want them to be the kids who go around ruining it for the kids that do believe in Santa.

Steve Brady | December 16, 2004 03:39 PM

And I realize that I just spelled it "Clause" and I will now go hang my head in shame.

John Scalzi | December 16, 2004 03:47 PM

She's already told Krissy she's figured out that Santa's fictional. Which is not to say she won't happily go along to get more stuff.

justfred | December 16, 2004 04:08 PM

Just wondering if the concept came up, that December wasn't actually (historically) Jesus' birthday; as I understand it the census was sometime in May. And the reason it was moved was to appropriate the pagan solstice holiday. And it's not just a coincidence that Easter falls near May Day, and Halloween/All Saints Day near Samhain. Then perhaps in a few years you can discuss the irony that the Christian holiday (and arguably the not-especially-important Channukah holiday) has now been appropriated by the secular capitalists. What a great way to win converts - steal their holidays! "Yeah, we have a holiday around then, too, but we call it something different."

Really, I'm trying not to be cynical about this but I think it's interesting to note the historical progression, and faith vs politics.

John Scalzi | December 16, 2004 04:15 PM

Well, as I said in the entry, I'll eventually get to all that, although at the moment it might be a little much for her. One step at a time.

Andrew Wade | December 16, 2004 04:48 PM

Yup. First these's Constantine, and the Reformation. And for understanding Jesus, understanding the temple and social system in place during his time is (IMO) vital.

"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."
Reinforcing the idea that asking questions about any subject is okay in the first place is a good thing, and fairly incompatible with a lot of the bad theology out there.

Evan Harris | December 16, 2004 05:00 PM

I think Athena needs a little halo, in the picture...

>>> think Christianity is a fine religion, and I wish more Christians practiced it.

There's a new bumpersticker.

Darkhawk | December 16, 2004 05:23 PM

>> And the reason it was moved was to appropriate the pagan solstice holiday.

Popular myth, especially among those pagans who insist that Christianity stole all of what was rightfully theirs.

The understanding I have after talking with a Catholic theologian, on the other hand, has to do with a bunch of weirdly obsessive-compulsive priests.

Basically, they had the notion that Jesus, being perfect, therefore must have existed for a perfectly round number of years, and thus died on the anniversary of the day he was conceived, and had a perfect nine-month incubation, and a bunch of other stuff.

Now, because Good Friday was determined according to the Passover, that meant that the Feast of the Annunciation had to fall somewhere in that time of year. So basically they determined when the Crucifixion had to happen according to the believed year of death, declared that day the anniversary of the Annunciation, and counted forward nine months to set the Feast of the Nativity.

Then a bunch of calendar reforms happened and the Nativity got pushed in near the solstice, but that's neither here nor there.

(I don't know how accurate this is overall, or whether there were extant pagan groups with festivals around the solstice at the time the calendar was being codified that might have had some influence, but this is at least the Catholic myth of where they got their calendar setup from, as opposed to the neopagan one.)

Kristy | December 16, 2004 05:29 PM

It's been said here already, but I must affirm: wow, you're a great daddy.

Melissa Jan | December 17, 2004 10:50 AM

Bravo, John, on the open approach to the topic you're sharing with Athena.


Neither of my parents is religious, which has occasionally led the purposefully ignorant to accuse, "Of course you're agnostic as you were raised that way!"


Happily, I--and eventually Athena--can reply, "I was raised to think for myself."

Tripp | December 17, 2004 11:07 AM

One thing about spirituality is that it can sneak up on you.

John Scalzi | December 17, 2004 11:22 AM

It's not the only thing that does that, of course:

"For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night."

PiscusFiche | December 23, 2004 08:23 PM

Awesome. I particularly like this bit:

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.

It's really hard to leaven a certain distrust in organised religion that I've gained since leaving my religion, and while my parents raised me to think for myself, once I showed signs of doing so, I think they regretted the choices I ended up making. I think Athena's a lucky girl.

Epacris | December 27, 2004 12:26 PM

Coming here from your link to this at Christmas 2004. Following up the idea of the December date not being Jesus' actual birthday. It's the celebration of his birth, not necessarily the anniversary of it.

Remember that for a long time many people's birthdays were never known - this still applies to quite a few people in the lesser-regulated places on Earth. The European Christian custom was for people to celebrate on their name-day, the feast-day of the saint whose name was the same as theirs, or close (e.g. Hans is from Johannes = John).


I have an adopted friend, whose parents chose a birthday for him, and we celebrate his being born then, though I think he may now have found his actual one out.

Strange, is it not, that it can be calculated pretty exactly what day Jesus was crucified; it's a recorded historical event, but celebrated by the most famous movable feast. His birth (or even its year) is, though, as poorly known as many famous people of his times and after, yet it's one of the most famous set dates (even if a few of the Christian branches have their own variation).

Melbourne has a large population of Greek descent, Sydney has Greeks, Russians & many from between, so there's a bunch of Orthodox shoppers who get some post-Christmas Sale bargain presents. And we get to try a lot of different Christmas dishes from Northern, Southern & Eastern European traditions, all for sale in our local shops, or made at friend's homes. Common New Year's Resolution: Not to eat so much next Christmas :)

Ron | January 1, 2005 10:27 PM

I am trying to understand how you can say that you would not be disappointed if your daughter decided to become religious. Since you say you are not religious, I assume you have considered many arguments for becoming religious, and you have rejected each one. In rejecting each argument, you must have found it to be somehow flawed, otherwise you would be religious. If your daughter considered the arguments for becoming religious and was persuaded by them, how would you not be even slightly disappointed that your daughter was persuaded by what you consider to be flawed arguments?

The other thing I was wondering is whether it is wrong for me to see the practice of religion as an undesirable but understandable practice. When I observe people thanking Jesus for dying on the cross to cleanse them from their sins, I see their actions the same way I see the actions of an obsessive-compulsive repeatedly washing their hands. The people can be wonderful and respectable. But what they are doing is ineffectual, even if it is understandable. Just as the hands of the obsessive-compulsive are not becoming any cleaner after the fifth hand-washing, the souls of the Christians are not cleansed by the blood of Jesus.

thisgirl | January 3, 2005 12:36 PM

There should be more parents like you; intellectual honesty is the best way to raise curious and thoughtful children.

Randy Jackson | January 22, 2005 12:49 AM

Thanks Ron. I popped over from Don's and am glad I did. My wife smiled for hours after reading both of your Christmas posts.

Believer | November 17, 2005 01:27 PM

Hello! I just stumbbled apon this website. I can't help but post a comment to you John. You do sound incredibly open minded. Not a bad thing at all. That speaks of your acceptance for people in all stages of life. Yet in a world that contains such forces of evil as this one there is danger in leaving one's self too open. I am a believer and walk with Jesus daily. I love him and he is the very center of my life. And i hope that doesnt automaticaly mean that i am closed minded. I just understand what it means to protect my heart for it is the well spring of life. I will not let my heart dwell on the things of this world for this world will pass away death will come and the things of this world will be rusted. Yet i will dwell with my father in heaven for all of eternity. You do sound like a wonderful father. I pray that you dont look to Christians to understand Jesus but to Jesus to understand Jesus. All who call themselves believers do not folow Christ. They only want to protect themselves form damnation..the gate is narrow and the path is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Im not sure why my heart is compelled to tell you these things but i am praying for you and your daughter. She is beautiful and im glad you told her of Jesus and would be open to her finding Religion. Though to me being a Christian is much more than that. Paul Knew nothing could bring him more joy than Christ. Paul was commited to fallowing him and in return was blessed beyond my understanding. He had an intimate relationship with God. He offered peace and hope to a world full of selfishness hurt and pain. He saw the miracle in a love greater than any the world could offer. He knew the power of grace and washed himself daily. He struggle because he was human but he took them to the cross. He knew God makes and would make everything beautiful in it's time. Grace and Peace to you my friend.

Robert Landbeck | November 17, 2005 05:11 PM

I don't know where this came from but I think the 'God' question is about to take a most unexpected and very radical new twist, as the first complete and entirely new Christian teaching for two thousand years has been published on the web, entitled The Final Freedoms.

It is described as a single Law or Torah and moral proof, one in which the reality of God confirms and responds to an act of perfect faith, with a direct intervention into the natural world, providing a correction to human nature [natural law], a change in consciousness and human ethical perception, providing new, primary insight and understanding of the human condition.

This is the first ever testable religious teaching known to exist or be published in human history. If this material demonstrates itself to be authentic, the implications for exiting theistic religious traditions defy the imagination!

It's all too easy to under estimate, what at first appears an implausible or incredulous web site, but the download, [a free pdf file] is extraordinary! No joke, no hoax, not spam or theology!

Check this link: www.energon.uklinux.net

Cheers: R.A. Landbeck

PS: Like your cat!

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