I've been an atheist since I was 4 or 5, when my mother told me the "true" story of Easter and I said something like "I don't think that really happened." Every Christmas season from there on out has had some level of conflict and confusion for me. Why did everyone want us to go to church on Christmas Eve? Why did the old ladies give us mean looks when we slept on the pews? Who'd want to drink the blood of Christ? Why do grown-ups even like Christmas when they hardly get any presents? What if you really like Christmas songs but you don't believe? Is it still okay to sing along? What is the point of caroling when you can just sing in your apartment where it's warm?
My brother and I were fascinated with caroling. There must be something to it if white people were always doing it on TV. We once saw someone busking in the street and a lady tossed a dollar in his guitar case, so we figured that must be the secret: Caroling must be a way to get money. When I was 11 and he was 10, my brother and I went door-to-door in our seedy apartment complex singing the only two Christmas songs we knew—"Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Those who were willing to open their doors stared at us awkwardly while we belted out our out-of-tune carols. Then we commenced to stare at them in silence, expectantly, until they got uncomfortable and shut the door. When we knocked on one door and saw, behind the skinhead who opened it, black walls with the numbers "666" written in spray paint, we ran home screaming. We made no money.
What I remember most about Christmas, though, was not the boring church services or our failed attempt at holiday moneymaking. It was the letters.
Every year around the holidays, from about third grade on, I'd find a letter in my backpack. While the handwriting and signature changed and improved over the years, the message was mostly the same: You're going to hell.
These messages were not written out of malice; they were written out of love. They were written by fellow third or fourth graders who had been told that their friends who had not been saved would burn for eternity. "Joma, I need you to believe in Jesus," they said in a pleading tone. As I got into high school, the letters didn't stop. One friend wrote me four whole pages, front and back, filled with Bible quotes and "evidence" that there were no good deeds I could do that would make up for the fact that I had rejected God and would be punished. For the holidays, in Christ's name, could I just try to find my way to God's love?
These letters transferred the terror that these friends had felt in their evangelical services to me. While I didn't believe in God or hell, I was a child, and horror stories still scared me. What if I was wrong and there was an evil, sadistic God prepared to watch me burn for eternity? Just in case, I would close my eyes and try my best to believe, but I couldn't.
I received my last letter when I was 17, and I cried even then.
The holidays were always a mix of excitement over what gifts might be under the tree and dread at the word "Christ." Stories like A Christmas Carol became even more terrifying to me than they objectively already are. Talk of being "saved" abounded, reminding me that I had not been. There was no "war on Christmas" back then, but Christmas had declared war on me.
It was a funny surprise to me a few weeks ago when my son's dad said to me: "We need to talk to Marcus about being nicer to the Christians. We're going to have a bunch of elementary-school parents mad at us."
We had discovered, earlier in the year, when Marcus announced to his class that the tooth fairy doesn't exist, that parents don't like it when 7-year-olds reveal them to be liars. This was long after he'd determined God wasn't real. "There's no random dude in the sky watching us while we kill each other," he'd announced.
"Oh, um, okay," I answered while thinking, Damn, that's dark.
Months after announcing his atheism, Marcus came into my room—wearing the expression of a scientist on the cusp of a breakthrough—and said, "Mom, you know how God doesn't exist."
He said this as a statement, not a question. I nodded.
"Well, I'm thinking if there's no 'dude in the sky,' the tooth fairy probably isn't real."
"Yeah?" I asked, trying not to nudge him in either direction.
"Yeah," he added. "I mean, what a weird thing to do—take random strangers' teeth? I think it's just parents who want your teeth for some reason."
"Oh," I said noncommittally. "Yeah, it does sound weird, huh."
"Okay, so also, Santa," Marcus continued. "I'm pretty sure he's also not real. I mean, if there's no guy in the sky watching everything we do, I'm pretty sure there's no other dude flying all around the world in one night giving presents to people. I'm pretty sure he's just a creepy guy in the mall."
Honestly, my first thought was: This is going to save me so much money.
I'm raising my sons in our family religion of Don't Be an Asshole, and I'm counting on them figuring out the rest. I wasn't expecting my youngest to have declared himself an atheist at 6, but Marcus isn't your typical kid. For his 8th birthday, for example, he requested a suit and tie.
So as the holidays approached, I found myself trying to think of ways to avoid an even bigger scandal than the tooth-fairy debacle. How do you tell your kid that he's not allowed to tell other kids at school the truth? That their holiday and their God is a work of fiction? This was Marcus's truth, I hadn't talked him into it, and I wasn't going to talk him out of it.
After Marcus asked why we celebrate Christmas if Santa isn't real, his older brother Malcolm replied, "It's Christ's birthday." My 8-year-old literally rolled his eyes. There was no letter in his backpack that was going to make him cry with fear and shame, and if one ever showed up, he'd likely laugh at it. Instead of having to console my son from the rejection of his Christian classmates, or reassure him that he's not going to hell while he clutches a letter announcing his doom (as my mom had to do for me), I have to get creative to keep my son from leaving notes in his classmates' backpacks stating "God is dead."
He's launched the very "war on Christmas" that the hacks on Fox News warn about. He's launched a war on the fearmongering, the peer pressure, the demands of blind allegiance. He's launched a war on sitting bored in church pews at midnight to celebrate the birthday of a random stranger on the wrong day. He's decided that Christmas is about two things—family and presents. But mostly presents. The joy that only hedonistic consumerism and overeating can bring—that's what the holidays are about for Marcus. Nothing more. He has taken the Christ out of Christmas.