Merry Christmas from an Atheist

People who know I’m an atheist are often surprised to hear that not only do I celebrate Christmas, but that to me it is the most important time of the year. It saddens me that some other atheists resort to petty stone-throwing when it comes to the holiday. Such blatant “I’m right and you’re wrong” campaigns make the rest of us look bad. There is no need to resort to name calling when it comes to other faiths (or lack thereof).

However, what concerns me more are the people out there who think they can’t celebrate the holiday just because they don’t believe in the Christianity behind it. I once stumbled upon a post online from some poor guy trying to justify celebrating the holiday. He rationalized that the Christmas tree could be seen as a big “A” shape for atheism, but was at a loss for what to do about other Christmas traditions. Really? You can’t just enjoy the holiday for your own reasons?

I am an atheist, and this is my Christmas.

My mother’s family is pure Slovak, which carries with it many traditions, though every family’s is different. On Christmas Eve we all gather together for a feast. When I was growing up this took place at my grandparent’s house, but moved to my mother’s once they got older. All day long my mom, uncle and grandfather would prepare the food.

The ceremony is supposed to begin at sunset, when the first star appears in the sky. All family members gather around the table. A place is supposed to also be set for deceased or absent family members, but we’ve never honored this tradition as our family is just too darn big to have blank places set. The lights are turned down, and the eldest members of the family (now myself and my mother) enter with a single candle. My mother then explains the traditions to everyone as they are carried out. When my grandparents were alive my grandfather would say a prayer in Slovak, then start crying while my grandmother railed on him for getting emotional. Now that they are both gone we read a prayer in English.

The first item served is oplatky, an unleavened bread stamped with nativity scenes. When the Jews left Egypt they didn’t have time to pack and so they brought unleavened bread with them. Oplatky commemorates this event. The bread itself tastes like cardboard, but luckily it’s garnished with honey, which is meant to symbolize the sweetness of life. At one point it became very difficult to obtain the oplatky and we had to order it from some tiny convent in Illinois. While the oplatky is served the oldest member of the family uses honey to draw a cross on the forehead of the youngest child. This is to bless the youngest and keep them from harm. My youngest sister used to hate this part of the ceremony, but her daughter absolutely loves it. I’m not sure how she’s going to take it when she realizes that she’s no longer the youngest this year.

Oplatky (on the left in the star wrapper).

My neice enjoys her oplatky.

The next item served is sauerkraut soup. It’s basically an onion soup with sauerkraut juice in it. Our version also includes potatoes and mushrooms. My uncle was an expert on mushrooms and collected edible ones from the wild for the soup. However, my grandmother was always terrified that he’d get his species wrong one day and poison us. So every year we had to have two batches of soup- one with wild mushrooms and one with store-bought.

The most important ingredient in the soup is the sauerkraut juice. Our biggest problem over the years has been obtaining enough of it. The soup is supposed to be very tart, as it symbolizes the bitterness of life. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get just the juice. You can buy kraut and use the juice it’s sitting in, but it takes a TON (like three regular cans of straight juice). Funnily enough, kraut juice is now recognized by a lot of people as a health food.

Read the health benefits. See the third line? Here, let me help you out.

Oh yes. It’s no wonder that my mother’s side of the family has such delicate digestive systems. This stuff is mighty strong and results in the most potent gas ever. Also check out the meat tenderizer line. Kraut juice is so powerful that we’ve seen it eat through the can after a year of storage. Canned juice is now difficult to come by, though kraut juice is sold everywhere as a health drink. The problem is that it’s extremely watered down (I don’t know who would want to drink the straight stuff) and just doesn’t have enough potency for the soup. I’m tempted to learn how to make kraut myself just for the juice.

After the soup there is a brief break while the rest of the meal is prepared (all regular stuff). My grandmother used to make bobalki for dessert, but it was never much of a hit though we do still make it on occasion. Gifts are exchanged either before or after dinner.

I’m sure you noticed that many of our traditions have a strong basis in Christianity: we say a prayer, the start of the meal coincides with the star of Bethlehem, most of the food is symbolic and some of it even has nativity scenes printed on it. Why oh why would an atheist ever bother with such archaic nonsense? The answer is simple: because to me Christmas is about family. It’s a time for us to gather together as a family to celebrate our heritage and ancestry, to give thanks to one another for being together, and to renew bonds between the young and the old. Faith has nothing to do with it. Yes, my grandmother was Catholic. To her the traditions obviously meant something different, as they do to my uncle’s family (also Catholic). But to me and my immediate family, atheists and agnostics all, it is simply the coming together of family to share in an honored tradition. Family always has been and always will be the most important thing in the world to me, and thus December 24th is my favorite day of the year. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

Merry Christmas.

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    1. Reconnecting with Family « Still Leveling
    2. Things I Want to Teach my Kids (That I Regret Not Learning as a Kid Myself) « Still Leveling

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