A Unitarian Universalist family rejects, then embraces, holiday season rituals and traditions.
(© iStockphoto/Gordana Jovanovic)
When my husband and I got married, we talked a lot about expectations and did a lot of negotiating. We agreed that we did not want to celebrate Christmas. We were unequivocal as we shared this news with our families.
It wasn’t just that our theology didn’t quite gel with the thought of celebrating a baby Jesus. For us it was also all the wrapping paper, boxes, and plastic containers that end up in landfills, and the artificial inflation of the economy. We thought of the children whose dreams of a bicycle from Santa Claus would, year after year, go unanswered, making them think they must have done something to be on the “naughty” list.
It never occurred to us how selfish this no-compromise situation was for our extended families. Our mere absence changed the holiday for them. While we dreaded the idea of receiving gifts when so many others were much more needy, our decision to reject their presents was like rejecting their love and affection.
Then along came the kids.
When my daughter, who was our firstborn, came, everything changed. Now we were not only depriving our extended family of our presence during a special holiday, we were keeping them from showering gifts on a beloved grandchild. And we were making decisions on her behalf long before she knew what she would be missing or could decide on her own.
The questions from others were tough: “What did Santa bring you?” “Did you see Santa at the mall?” When she started preschool, we heard, “How does your family celebrate Christmas?” In school she made ornaments for a Christmas tree that did not get displayed in our household.
There was no understanding or right to “pass” on the holiday because we were Jewish or Muslim. Despite all the cultural trappings, it is a Christian holiday. Many Unitarian Universalists celebrate Christmas. It was just our family, and for a four-year-old that brought on more questions: “Why don’t we put up a Christmas tree?” “Is Santa Claus real?” “Why don’t we go to the church Christmas party?”
I began to wonder: How was it that other Unitarian Universalist families celebrated the holiday—especially if their theology didn’t “fit” cultural expectations of keeping Christ in Christmas?
I discovered that many of the rituals of the holiday originate from pagan traditions. Most crucially, at least for us, I unearthed the importance—indeed, the deep need—for many people to have rituals and traditions during this time of year. I thought of our family’s ancient ancestors who came from northern Europe, in regions where it might be dark for months at a time. For them, a celebration of the return of the light must have been sustaining.
For my daughter, who questioned the lack of the tree and Christmas lights in our home, we found ways to celebrate the winter solstice solely by candlelight, a practice that eventually evolved into using no electricity (except for heat—we do, after all, live in northern Indiana). As my son came along and grew into an extension of his electronic devices, it became even more meaningful to have a night without electricity or electronics of any kind.
We did decide to incorporate gift giving; we also adopted a ritual where each member of the family lights a candle and makes a wish for each of the others. As our children have grown, this ritual has taken on more meaning for our family. Some of us spend a lot of time crafting what we will say in the weeks leading up to the solstice.
Because our family’s holiday is the night of the winter solstice, we didn’t put up a Christmas tree. When we visited our children’s grandparents’ homes, there were traditional Christmas things. The grandparents had special times and built memories with my children they wouldn’t have had, had we not changed our mind about the holiday season.
As Unitarian Universalists, we could talk about the baby Jesus, and the important person he grew up to be. It has provided a way into conversation about how our faith believes that all babies are special and have the potential for greatness. Our extended families still have questions about our faith and beliefs. Over the years, though, we have come to be more accepted by our families—and accepting of traditions that are not our own. We are Unitarian Universalists who found a way to celebrate the winter holidays in ways that fit our family.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).
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