The Christmas season doesn’t start until my grandmother’s kitschy cross-stitch nativity scene is on our table, with kitschy little baby Jesus in his kitschy little baby trough. It’s not Christmas until “O Holy Night” bellows from my stereo. It’s not Christmas until, late on the 24th, we stand in a church sanctuary, dark — save the light from the candles in our hands. I am an atheist, but boy, do I love Christmas.
My friends tell me that I’m the most church-going atheist they’ve ever known. I’ve visited different churches to take in services from different faiths and viewpoints. I’ve gone to Buddhist temples, attended mass in Catholic cathedrals, heard the Lord’s Prayer sung in an Episcopalian Church at night and listened to Japanese chants at dawn. I don’t believe in any of it. I do believe in the beauty — the distilled beauty — of humanity.
We don’t need a book, a person, a deity, a God, a spirit to tell us how to live. We know how to live.
“You don’t believe in heaven, Dad?” My daughter asks this sometimes. She’s a teenager now and developing thoughts of her own about what’s beyond her. It takes some time to think beyond yourself, to think about things being, quite literally, boundless.
“I believe it’s right here, right now.” We laugh, eating a giant cheese ball at a holiday family gathering.
“Right now.” We sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” bombastically on the way to her grandmother’s house for Christmas morning.
“Right now.” We silently watch snow falling in the pines before we zip up our coats and walk into it. There is majesty in such small moments. They astound me all the time.
“Right now.” We drink eggnog as we open gifts to the other — tokens, just simple tokens, of what’s in our hearts.
We don’t need a book, a person, a deity, a God, a spirit to tell us how to live. We know how to live. Stories are good. Stories are beautiful. Religion is story. Stories can illuminate, teach, guide, give one hope or make one pause. Give satisfaction. Give truth. Give a sense that you belong. I do. We all do.
This very story, as poor as it is, can do the same thing. Treat others well. Treat yourself well. Treat the earth well. That’s all there is to it. It’s easy to be good, or at least strive to be. It’s not hard to have a soft heart. Give, and in return, you get everything you've ever hoped for: contentment.
“I’m not sure yet,” my daughter says of her own beliefs about heaven and God. “I don’t quite know what to believe.”
“You don’t have to know,” I say. “You just have to search.”
It’s Christmas Eve dinner and her grandmother has cooked up that Brussels sprouts dish with all the bacon in it. The presents are nearby, under a giant tree festooned with lights, waiting to be opened. The candles are lit. Nat King Cole croons on the stereo. Baby Jesus, and the rest, are sitting quietly by the hearth. My family gathers. Before we eat, we hold hands and say grace. My daughter smiles because that’s also her name.