The 12 Days of Secular Humanist Christmas

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I come by my non-belief in any sort of God honestly: I was raised by an atheist and an agnostic who are themselves the children of atheists and agnostics. Three of my grandparents left the church (in one case, the synagogue) of their own accord at very young ages; the fourth grandparent was raised by a Unitarian Universalist and another agnostic. My own religious life was confined to the few months I spent as a teenager, attending every church in town, as a form of passive-aggressive rebellion.

Some people will think my childhood must have been a wonder-less, data-driven wasteland, where all decisions were based on cold logic and the sky was just a God-shaped hole. I would however, like to set the record straight: I never felt the absence of religion in my life. My parents are two of the most moral and ethical people I've ever met. There was love everywhere, as well as stories and community and tradition, and we always, of course, celebrated Christmas. We had a tree and lights and stockings and, while my parents never encouraged us to believe in a bearded white man in the clouds, they never discouraged us from believing in a bearded white man in the North Pole. I guess they figured the Santa story is less problematic than the God one, and that belief in Santa is almost never chronic and generally not terminal.

What does this mean for you? Well, what follows are 12 ways you too can enjoy a friendly, happy, Secular Humanist Christmas. Work on one a day until December 25 for maximum enjoyment.

Santa sells!

1. Buy Nothing Month


Though the actual day of this has passed ( it's the opposite of Black Friday, in which you don't buy a single thing the day after Thanksgiving), the ethos of it is exactly what you need to get into celebrating Secular Humanist Christmas (from now on, I'll just call it "SHC"). The idea is that we aren't buying into the hype about Christmas from anyone, including corporate America. So for SHC, it's good to find presents that are cheap-ish or reused or handmade. It's also important to not be emotionally manipulated by things like instrumental versions of "O Holy Night" at Nordstrom's or by the red cups at Starbuck's. Feel the feelings you're feeling! Live in the moment! Don't let religion or capitalism define you!

If you are at loss about how to live Buy Nothing, The Bay Area-based fashion blog, Ironing Board Collective has a great guide to help you with all your occupy holiday shopping needs.

Save the Rebel Alliance for Christmas.

2. Advent Calendars

"Advent" is a decidedly NON-secular word. But there's nothing that increases excitement like a good countdown (just ask astronauts). I like to go with the traditional chocolate calendar but you can definitely get a little fancier. LEGO has a pretty sweet Star Wars calendar (which I know about because of my friend Nicole Bernard who took the picture above) and if you are still occupying your shopping (AS YOU SHOULD BE), Etsy has about a bazillion handmade advent calendars to choose from, like this one which is secular AND cute.

3. The Tree

SHC doesn't involve a lot of talk about the baby Jesus, true, but that doesn't mean it isn't based in tradition. Most people know that a lot of the Christmas rituals come from old Pagan holidays. The tree is one of those things! Using evergreen branches and wreathes to celebrate life in the dead of winter goes back to the pre-Christian Norsemen. It makes sense that when every other thing is dead, and we are cold and wet and it is dark out, evergreen branches are a good reminder that we will make it back to the sunshine and plants will continue to grow.

My dad, a botanist, has always refused to buy a tree from a lot. Luckily I grew up in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, home to many, many Christmas tree farms. One of the best ways to get your SHC celebrations going is to take the family out to a place where you can actually saw down a tree. Yes, there will be disagreements and maybe even injuries, but when you strap that tree to your car, you'll feel such a sense of Christmas-y accomplishment! Just make sure you strap the tree on really tight to avoid a Christmas-y lawsuit and/or trip to the hospital.

Here in the Bay you can experience the lumberjack life at Castro Valley Christmas Tree Farm. If you want a tree cutting experience that includes train rides, try Santa's Tree Farm and Village in Half Moon Bay.

4. Secular Christmas Music

Everyone knows that music is the quickest way to an emotional experience. Here are a few songs my family uses to get in the Christmas mood:

"Rebel Jesus," preformed by The Chieftains: SHC doesn't have to be completely devoid of Jesus!

"Pretty Paper," preformed by Willie Nelson: This record was strictly not allowed to be played in our house in months other than December.

"Merry Christmas from the Family," preformed by Robert Earl Keene: An important part of any Christmas celebration is comparing your family to other families. I love my family but let's be honest, these guys seem like a lot more fun.

5. Drinks

An important ingredient for making all family events go smoothly, or at least interestingly, is alcohol. For some standard recipes, check out the Bay Area Bites holiday drink guide. My drink of choice for a happy holiday time is what I call "The Special Smiley Hot Toddy" which, unlike a margarita, you can drink even when you have a fever and can't breathe out of your nose, without people suggesting you hit up a meeting.

Here's how you make it: squeeze 2 small segments of lemon into a cup, add 2 tablespoons of honey and 5 tablespoons of whiskey and fill the cup the rest of the way up with hot Good Earth Decaffeinated tea.

One of those is equal to 2 hours of Christmas caroling in gently falling snow, in terms of getting you into a Christmas spirit.

Celebrating Hanukah alone in my kitchen last year.

6. A Menorah

As a one-quarter Jew, I took up the tradition of lighting a menorah in college. I also go to the equal-opportunity menorah lighting ceremonies at work, which take place every single day of Hanukah. When you are celebrating SHC, it's important to be inclusive and to take all opportunities you can to leave your desk. Also, I think candles are fun and related to the whole Christmas lights/darkness in winter/pagan thing. I also love trying to chant the prayers and I always feel like people think I am part of something cool when they think I am Jewish, kind of like I am one of those kids back in high school with a huge family and five super hot older brothers.

7. Gift Tags

My family has never gone in for lavish gifts. When I was 10, my brother and I both received new pillows as gifts from Santa Claus. Most gifts under our tree are equally functional. However, we do try to spice the whole thing up by writing on the gift tags vague and esoteric hints about what is inside. One example of a memorable tag was the year my dad wrote to my mom, "Get ready to join the pod people." She was openly excited about the iPod she was clearly about to receive and very politely excited when it turned out to be a small tripod for her digital camera.

8. The Nutcracker

In terms of SHC entertainment, always choose The Nutcracker over A Christmas Carol. For one thing, The Nutcracker involves dancing and music and no Dickensian moralizing. For another, the magic is more creepy (mice army??). If possible, participate in The Nutcracker. For example, I was a baby mouse in a local production when I was six. My mask fell off on stage and the humiliation ended my ballet career. But it was all very Christmas-y.

See it for yourself at the San Francisco Ballet through December 27.

9. Movies

I know I just told you to avoid A Christmas Carol but that does not extend to the brilliant 1988 film version Scrooged, which stars Bill Murray as a modern-day Scrooge. Forget Love Actually, Bill Murray is a comic genius and Scrooged is the BEST CHRISTMAS MOVIE OF ALL TIME.

Do not let the Christmas hats distract you. This is about to be a war zone.

10. Fighting

It goes with the music and the tree cutting and the drinking: you will get in a fight with your little brother about the truck you stole from him when you were 18. Your uncle will make you cry when the dinner discussion turns to trade unions. But look at holiday fighting as a way to reinforce those bonds of family, that special something that makes these people with whom you share the most DNA the only people in the world you can scream at and insult who will still buy you a present and eat the weird food you prepared and love you, no matter what.

11. Christmas Morning

It is important that you wake up early on SHC. If you are the first one up, make sure the lights are plugged in on the tree and that the stockings at least look full. You might also want to wake up siblings by sitting on top of them and poking their faces while they lie in bed. If this leads to a fight, see number 10. It might be just what you need to jump start the Christmas magic.

World's cutest family: mine.

12. Family


For me, being an atheist or an agnostic or, as I prefer to call it, a secular humanist, isn't about the absence of a God, it's about the presence of life on Earth, at this exact moment. Celebrating Christmas comes down to that, being so grateful for the people I love and the chance to see their faces, even if we all only get to be in the same room with my aging kitty cat once a year. Even if it's a "tight Christmas"(what my parents used to tell us it was going to be, yearly, when our consumerist natures took hold in late November and we started demanding things like skateboards and American Girl bedroom sets and trips to Disneyland), it's always a little magical to be with the same people, doing the same things around different Christmas trees every year. So go find some people you love. Merry Christmas!