It was bedtime on Christmas Eve 2018. I was sitting outside my 6-year-old daughter’s bedroom, head in my hands, as I listened to her cry about us not celebrating Christmas.
We’ve always tried to be age-appropriately honest with our kids about everything. So although we had taken them shopping for a few toys with gift money they’d received from Nana, when my daughter started talking about having presents under a decorated tree the next morning, we gently let her know that wouldn’t be happening.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when my husband and I decided to leave Christianity, but 2017 was when it fully became our reality. That year, we spent Christmas at my mom’s house, so the kids were able to follow along with all of the traditions that come with the holidays. I, meanwhile, spent my time trying to quiet my anxious thoughts about what we’d do when December rolled around next year and we were in our own home.
Now the time had come. We had just moved into a new house, which was still mostly empty except for boxes stacked in corners. I had convinced myself that this in and of itself was a good enough reason to once again postpone the huge task of trying to define Christmas now that we no longer identified as devout Christians. In the meantime, we’d just opt out of celebrating.
I honestly didn’t think my kids would even notice, but maybe that was my own wishful thinking. My 4-year-old-son and my 2-year-old daughter took it in stride, but my oldest was heartbroken.
My own childhood memories of Christmas were bright and beautiful. My family and I drove around different neighborhoods to hunt for the best Christmas light displays. My mom made homemade cookies in festive shapes that everyone gathered around the table to decorate together. The nativity scene that pre-dated me was always displayed somewhere prominent. When I got older, I called dibs on being the one to set it up and found new and inventive ways to hang the angel above the manger.
When I was growing up, the presence of God and Jesus in my home felt like a warm blanket. It was comforting to believe they were watching over me. We identified as Christians, but I didn’t fully understand what that meant. It included a lot of kindness and love without a lot of the specific formalities that many people who practice include.
When I was invited by my middle school best friend to attend church with her family, I jumped at the opportunity. Practicing Christianity more formally offered me a way to belong to something, especially after my family moved overseas the summer before my freshman year of high school. Days after arriving in Japan, I looked up the chapel on our small Air Force base and walked straight into its youth group building, which was dimly lit and full of second-hand furniture. I was instantly accepted as one of them, and it was a relief to have a group of people to share my life with. But I soon discovered that in many fundamentalist Christian circles, if you want to be accepted, you have to conform, and you can quickly lose yourself in the process.
I spent much of my life feeling like I was the odd one out, so when I finally felt I had found a way to belong, I went above and beyond to make sure I was doing everything the way I was “supposed” to do it. When I decided to attend a Christian college to get a degree in elementary education, the admissions officer gushed about how selfless it was for me to be a teacher even though I had “high enough scores to be anything I wanted.” Later, when I went in for an admittance interview, I told them how I had found their school by Googling “what college does God want me to go to?” That story continued to be repeated by staff as inspiration for other students even after I had graduated.
I only attended for a year before I got married at 19. Girls who go to Christian colleges and are looking to get married call it getting their “MRS” degrees. Despite hating that idea, I got married before anyone I knew. I met my husband when my family moved to Arkansas before my senior year of high school. He wasn’t allowed to date because of his family’s Christian values, but after over a year of knowing each other, his family acknowledged our courting relationship. Six months after that, we were engaged. Four months later we were married.
All my husband and I wanted was to be together, and marriage allowed us to do that. Our relationship and the family we would make together gave me a place to belong other than church. When we decided to have our first child, I was still excited to raise her as a Christian with all the celebratory occasions and milestones I knew that would include.
I remembered how my mom cried tears of joy when I had fully welcomed Jesus into my life. She felt secure in the knowledge that I would go to heaven with her. After we promoted her to Nana, she gave me that nativity I loved so much as a kid to decorate my own home. While having children added an extra dose of nostalgia to the holidays, it also brought on a whole new level of wanting to do everything “right.” I felt immense pressure to fully embrace the idea of Christmas being a celebration of Christ rather than a commercial holiday.
I met this problem head-on by reading Bible passages aloud and going to all the Christmas services my church offered. But that wasn’t enough. Each year our traditions became more and more rigid. By our last Christian Christmas, we listened exclusively to religious-themed music and removed Santa from the picture entirely. Everything we did had to have a Godly motivation: We gave presents because of the three wise men’s gifts, our decorations had to be religiously themed, not secular, and even our big dinner was considered “Jesus’ birthday banquet.” Still, it didn’t feel like any of it was ever enough. Every time I thought I had succeeded in satisfying all of the requirements for a pious Christmas, our friends, who were all Christian, would point out something else I was doing that was wrong.
Even though church and the community that came with it had been such a big part of my life for so long, other doubts started to creep in as well ― especially when it came to my kids. As I rocked my eldest child in my arms in the pink glow of her nursery, I knew I could never discipline her in a way our Christian circles would accept. I couldn’t tell her she was fundamentally flawed and sinful ― and I certainly couldn’t spank her, which I was constantly told was the only way to raise her. This was the first true crack in my religious worldview.
It certainly wasn’t the last. The more I began to question what my religion was really saying ― and what practicing it demanded ― the harder it was for me to imagine raising my children with those beliefs. Up until then, I had been able to go along with so much of it because of the things that Christianity gave me: The way it made me feel accepted. I loved reading the nativity story to my daughter and teaching her about Jesus’ love. Praying with her brought tears to my eyes. But as everything that was required of me ― and would be required of my kids ― became clearer, I knew deep down it was time to step away.
So, because taking my kids to church became incompatible with teaching them kindness, we stopped going. Because being around our Christian friends exposed my kids to things I could not abide by ― like bigotry and spanking ― we withdrew from those relationships.
It wasn’t long before the rest of my fundamentalist Christian beliefs ― and friends ― were gone. The cracks had multiplied with every month that passed, and every harsh comment and judgment I faced, until my idea of religion finally shattered. I realized that the values I most cherished and had attempted to express through practicing Christianity could flourish without its confines. But the comfort of it was gone, too, along with the bulk of my support system. All except my mom. She did cry (sad tears this time) when I told her I was leaving the faith we had shared. But she also said, “I just want you to be happy,” and she meant it.
As our new life without Christianity became more and more real, I thought I had a good grasp on how it would affect me. So I was surprised when breaking from religion broke Christmas for me, too. I could no longer use those “Christian values” to make decisions about our holiday traditions. I felt myself moving full-speed in the other direction in an attempt not to acknowledge a holiday that was the foundation for Christianity. I began cringing at any Christmas song that even vaguely referenced Jesus’ birth. I gave my childhood nativity scene back to my mom. I was lost and completely unsure of how to preserve the magic of Christmas that I had grown up with while removing the religiosity that I no longer believed in or felt offered anything positive for my family.
That Christmas Eve in 2018, I cried along with my daughter. I listened as my husband laid next to her and empathetically acknowledged her feelings, and I tried to take what he said to her into my own aching heart. That was the start of my very own Christmas miracle: I realized I didn’t have to have all the answers. I finally understood that it didn’t have to be all or nothing ― that there could be a way to take the parts of religion that drew me in, like acceptance and generosity and unconditional love, and reject the parts that were harmful. We were free to make our own traditions, whatever that looked like. We could find our own way forward.
The next day, Christmas Day, we got out our bin of holiday decorations, and I let my kids play with them. We watched old Christmas movies I’d loved as a kid, but hadn’t ever had the joy of sharing with my own children.
Now our family takes a page out of the Christian handbook and borrows pagan traditions for our celebrations. Our winter holiday is a mashup of Winter Solstice and Christmas, celebrated whenever is best for our family. We get a tree ― one we cut down ourselves with hot apple cider in-hand or that we rescue from the hardware store parking lot. We listen to whatever music is on the biggest Spotify Christmas playlist, talking openly with our kids about what the religious ones mean. We tell them that some people believe in the Christian Christmas (like Nana), but Mom and Dad don’t. They know Nana is a Christian, with crosses and Bible verses decorating her walls, but what is truer and more real to them is the depth of her love (and snack stash).
We go on winter walks to look at how nature is changing and thank the Earth for being a good home. We bake cookies with my mom’s recipe and go hunting for holiday lights. We get cozy pajamas that don’t match. We string lights all over the house to brighten our hearts during the dark of winter. Our traditions are just that: ours. Like a patchwork quilt, we sew them together to create something one-of-a-kind: A warm blanket that not only wraps around our family, but grows along with us.
My oldest daughter is 10 now. When we open up our winter decorations this year, instead of anxiety, I’ll feel the same excitement I did when I was her age. Unsurprisingly, she loves going all out for the holidays. But she knows that this season is really about bringing light, love and hope to those around us ― and she didn’t learn that from religion. She learned it from her family.
Holly Henderson has lived all over the world but currently resides in central Georgia (the state, not the country). She has over 10 years of experience in parenting, education and mental health that she draws upon in her work. As a writer, her words come in many forms, from essays and articles to poems and stories. Connect with her on LinkedIn.