How to Survive the Holidays: A Guide for Secular Families April 22, 2015

How to Survive the Holidays: A Guide for Secular Families

This is a guest post by Maria Polonchek

When I let go of my childhood religion as a young adult — the religion held by much of my family — I knew it was a game-changer. Not long after that, I experienced another milestone: having kids. Twin boys, to be exact, and then a little girl. What wasn’t so obvious to me back then was that those two things, losing religion and having kids, would intersect in ways I can rarely anticipate. It wasn’t difficult to keep my evolving belief system private before I had children, but kids are decidedly not private. They are curious, questioning, social creatures who force us out of our heads and into the world, and we are wise to let them.

I often feel that convergence most strongly during holidays — all of them, not just Christmas — as, by definition, they usually evoke religion and tradition.

There’s no lack of articles and advice on surviving holidays. They bring up how to handle stress, relationships, and communication, but they rarely address a major underlying reason for the complications on my end: differences in belief. Through my first decade with a family of my own, I’ve experimented with everything from jumping right back into religious tradition to adjusting with secular modifications to ignoring certain holidays all together.

In this time, I’ve come to accept that the holidays, like the religion from which many of them are based, aren’t going to disappear just because I ignore them. It’s really in my best interest, as a nonbeliever raising freethinkers, to help my children navigate the inevitable. In fact, I’ve realized that recurring celebrations are an invaluable way to mark time, encourage reflection, and inspire new traditions.

To that end, here are some suggestions for parents looking to “repackage” traditional holidays as more secular celebrations:

  • Find gems in the nonsense: It seems pretty impossible for Americans to continue with the Thanksgiving narrative I was taught as a child: that the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth to find uncivilized natives waiting with open arms, ready to experience their first can of Reddi-Wip. (My children are already learning the revised Thanksgiving narrative at school, with references to the abuse and exploitation of people involved.) At home, we talk about the ways legends aren’t always accurate. We also find value in taking an entire day to prepare nourishing food and dedicating that meal to those we are grateful for.
  • Borrow or re-define traditions as needed: As I was growing up, I remember how debilitating the abrupt end of the drawn-out Christmas season felt. For a long time, I actually dreaded the New Year, as it felt like a let-down, a disillusionment to the anticipatory Christmas season. But a friend recently reminded me that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” is more than just a confusing song about birds and instruments. The time between Christmas Eve and “Epiphany” used to be a time of celebration and feasting. This bridge from the winter solstice into the New Year is so appealing to me. I looked into customs for the Twelfth Night and found that pre-Christian Europe celebrated the Twelfth Night as the end of the Lord of Misrule: a winter celebration beginning on Halloween that symbolizes the world being turned upside down. This inspired a new custom for our family: a Twelfth Night celebration, when we take down the Christmas decorations and have a dinner where kids are in charge and grown-ups misbehave.
  • Start from scratch: Even though I love Halloween now, I didn’t celebrate it much as a child. It was only as an adult that I realized how much fun I had transforming myself with elaborate costumes. Having kids gave me a reason to dip my toes into the tradition. We have slowly ramped up our Halloween celebration to include and embrace the darkest, goriest elements: the yard-turned-cemetery, with howling music and bloody stumps littering the entrance. I used to be hesitant with my children around this type of gore, but rather than experiencing some type of trauma, they’ve become empowered and irreverent towards fear, curious and informed about death. My littlest one sometimes drags the skeleton bones out to play with instead of her dolls!
  • Say no: Even though I have no dramatic story or baggage, I still hate Valentine’s Day. I can’t get it to work for me. My husband and I don’t celebrate it as a couple, and while I help the kids make homemade cards for school every year, they don’t expect candy or special treatment at home. It’s a holiday others enjoy that, by saying “no” to, makes the days I do celebrate for my own reasons all the more meaningful.
  • Lighten up: You have to pick your battles. I’ll take a stand against someone teaching myths as historically accurate, for example, but I won’t argue with my sister-in-law over prayers before the holiday meal. I’ve found that, in between making meaning through certain customs and being ethically opposed to others, there are many that I’m simply neutral about. When you’re rocking the boat as my family does, you have to be willing to let other’s traditions slide.

That same sister-in-law once told me, “Tradition can be nice because you don’t have to think about it, but tradition doesn’t allow for change. And people change.”

Yes, they do. For that reason, sometimes the best tradition is no tradition at all.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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