Holiday Tips for the Post-Religious

Psychologist and writer Valerie Tarico has made a name for herself writing about her journey growing up in a staunchly religious family and being a former fundamentalist Christian to now being an ex-Christian speaker on morality and religion. And she’s written an intriguing piece offering suggestions for non-religious (or “post-religious”) people looking to get through a holiday season full of religious connotations.

As someone who was raised Presbyterian Christian but ultimately didn’t find that any organized religion really spoke to me, I found it to be an intriguing read.

The full entry is available online, and I encourage you to read it, assuming that you are able to calmly accept the perspective of someone who is not religious and is supportive of others with similar beliefs. But here’s a quick summary highlighting the main points, as I interpreted them:

  1. Remind yourself that our celebrations from December 21 through January 1 are not Christian in origin. As Tarico points out, late December was originally the Winter Solstice long before the birth of Jesus was attached to the 25th day of the month.
  2. Discover the magical, mystical origins of the Christmas story. The author raises great questions that could make fascinating study for the inquisitive: “Why was the virgin birth added late to the Jesus story? Why were stories of dying and rising gods so common in the ancient Near East? What can these ancient stories tell us about who we are as human beings?”
  3. Claim what fits. In a season of celebration, people should feel free to mix-and-match from their cherished traditions, and not feel obligated to continue every holiday tradition they experienced growing up if not all of them still fit. As Tarico says: “So, pick what you cherish from your tradition or others and do your own mixing. One wonderful thing about moving beyond dogma is the quest for meaning is yours. You and only you know which old traditions are still meaningful.”
  4. Don’t be afraid to embrace explicitly Christian elements. Rather than getting caught up in one’s own bitter resentment about Christian holiday traditions, choose instead “to treat Christianity just like you would any other mythic or cultural tradition. … All contain a mixture of wisdom and foolishness and downright immorality. Take what seems timeless and wise and move on.”
  5. Get creative. Put simply, feel free to create your own rituals, celebrating the things you want to celebrate with the people that are meaningful to you. It may not be a centuries-old tradition, but if it works for you, start making it a tradition here and now.
  6. Find common ground with visiting relatives. This is probably one that’s more difficult for me than other items on this list… I have some family members and friends that are deeply religious, and it’s often difficult for me to bite my tongue and not respond negatively to their religious comments. But as Tarico says, “Your family may not share your skepticism, curiosity, or desire for personal growth. If not, don’t go there, and don’t let them draw the conversations into your areas of disagreement. Take deep breaths, exercise self control, and change topics.” What’s more important is the common ground we do have, the moral and cultural values that we share, and our genuine love and affection for one another.
  7. Be a little wicked if you like. Here the author talks about being open, and even a little evangelical (sort of) about one’s own non-religious beliefs. She encourages readers to, “Send solstice cards. Invite even religious friends to your celebrations” and to send literature about Christianity to those who may be receptive to moving away from it. This one I have a little more caution about… In keeping with #6 above, I’m reluctant to be seen as trying to force my non-religious views onto people in the same way that I dislike them forcing their religious views onto me. I think the key to this one is clearly knowing your audience.
  8. Balance your gift giving. Addressing the topic of gift giving during the holidays: “Face it, certain kinds of gifts don’t mean much, but not giving them does.” A great call out — giving gifts to Christians in mid-to-late December doesn’t mean you’re selling out your personal integrity for other people’s religious beliefs, it just means you’re making a simple gesture that will probably not hurt you in the least and may mean the world to someone else. “Tell people you wish them well—because you do–and be done with it.” Terrific advice.
  9. Pay attention to your deeper values. Advice around incorporating your own values in the spirit of gift giving, such as making charitable donations in someone’s name and pairing the gift certificate with “a really good bar of chocolate.” It’s not the sort of thing that I would consider to be a meaningful gift, but that’s just ’cause I’m a little too focused on gifts as a statement about someone else, not about my favorite causes. (Now, a gift to someone that is a donation to their favorite charity, cause, or movement — as long as it’s one that you can support in good conscience — is a great way to show that you know what’s important to them and want to help support.)
  10. Immerse yourself in the real gifts of the season – love, light, joy, generosity, kindness, gratitude, wonder and shared hope. Summed up nicely by Tarico: “In the end, what else is there?”

Again, feel free to check out the full entry, because I did take out some detail from each bullet in the interests of brevity. But for me, the key message is to enjoy the holiday season, focus on the pieces of it that are meaningful to me, and to not get so caught up in the religious undertones (or overtones) that I lose sight of what’s really important:

Presents. (I kid, I kid!)

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