George Juillerat of Edmonds is an atheist who loves Christmas — and he’s hardly alone. During Seattle’s dark December, you might see him shuttling his 8-year-old son to Christmas parties, carrying a hot dish into a holiday potluck or picking out the perfect tree. His family’s holiday mer-riment includes presents, parties and family. But tales of baby Jesus in a manger or traditional trappings of Advent? Not so much.
Nationwide, nearly a quarter of Americans aren’t affiliated with any religious practice; the total (which includes atheists, agnostics and those who identify as “nothing in particular”) is up 6.7 percent since 2007, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics and Protestants — the most widely practiced religions in America — continues to fall, a trend since the 1980s.
The number of those without a religious affiliation is even higher locally. Seattle is home to one of the country’s largest nonreligious populations, followed closely by San Francisco and Boston. Thirty-seven percent of Seattleites report no spiritual affiliation. Even those who do practice a certain faith buck national trends; Seattle’s religious population has fewer practicing Christians than other major metropolitan areas and nearly double the rate of people adhering to non-Christian faiths.
The negative views that come with [the word ‘atheists’] will only shift if more people admit to being atheists.
More adults eschewing faith communities means more kids are growing up without the rituals of religion, from regular weekend services to first Communions to church camps — rituals not likely to be mourned by kids who’ve never experienced them. But what about traditionally religious holidays with undeniable kid appeal, like Christmas and Hanukkah? Can parents who opt out of organized religion create a meaningful, memorable holiday season for their children without compromising core beliefs?
The answer is yes, say local families. We talked with several about building festive, meaningful holiday traditions without a faith-based narrative — and about rolling religious ceremony into secular celebrations to keep family traditions strong.
Stepping outside the faith
The share of religiously unaffiliated Americans is growing faster than any church’s roster, with formerly religious adults increasingly opting out. Many of today’s atheists and agnostics were brought up following a faith (18 percent of U.S. adults). Such was the case for Gitit Banai of Redmond.
Banai was a parent of three when she decided that the Jewish faith of her youth no longer fit. She felt like an atheist, she says, and decided to start identifying as one and discussing the choice with her kids.
“The negative views that come with [the word ‘atheists’] will only shift if more people admit to being atheists,” she says of her choice to become an active volunteer with Seattle Atheists, a local nonprofit group of nonbelievers.
As for Juillerat, he says he grew up as a “casual Christian” but didn’t feel connected to the faith, particularly after becoming a parent. “It wasn’t until the birth of my son that I became concerned about the many harms caused by false beliefs,” says Juillerat, who serves as vice president of Seattle Atheists. “I looked for ways to help people transition away from religion.”
Those harms? While some studies show that religion can benefit childhood development, increasing pro-social behavior like self-control and interpersonal skills, other findings show that a religious upbringing can have unintended effects on a child.
A recent study showed religion can predict teen birth rates, even when controlling for factors like income, and research from the University of Chicago found that children raised with religion tend to share less than those from non-religious homes. One 2015 study published in Science found that nonreligious kids were no less moral than their religious counterparts. In fact, they were often more so.
Of course, this isn’t about elevating one option — traditionally religious or atheist — over another. Rather, it’s about recognizing that religion doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with every family’s holiday traditions and that nonreligious celebrations can be every bit as rich and meaningful as those tied to a certain faith.
But does transitioning away from religion as a family mean turning away from community and tradition? In the 1970s and '80s, when fewer than one in 10 Americans claimed no religious affiliation, a set place of worship often provided both a moral and social framework. The typical church calendar brimmed with opportunities for like-minded families to interact.
With more of today’s families skipping organized religion, many are seeking that type of community — think potlucks, community service and holiday shindigs — but minus the God part.
A geographical melting pot of spiritual thought, Seattle seems like just the city for this type of community. The reality, though, is more complicated: Local atheists and agnostics run the gamut from spiritual-but-not-religious to mystics to completely secular, with most agnostic and atheist groups — like Seattle Atheists, the Society for Sensible Explanations and Bellevue Free-thinkers & Atheists — organized around a shared desire to eschew organized religion.
So gathering to celebrate holidays laden with religious meaning isn’t typically a high priority for these groups. Not to mention, atheists can be hard to shepherd, says Seattle Atheists president Lisa*, mom to a teenage son. “Atheists don’t tend to do much as a group!” she says.
But that’s changing. Juillerat’s “transition away from religion” meant joining Seattle Atheists and its spin-off group, Atheist/Agnostic Parents of Seattle. He’s helping organize speaking events, debates, book club discussions, game nights and Darwin Day, an annual celebration of Charles Darwin’s contributions to science, including evolution. Also on the calendar: winter holidays.
Local Atheist and Agnostic Groups
Inclusive holiday traditions
The idea behind local agnostic and atheist holiday celebrations is to build tradition around shared values that include rather than exclude. Like many atheists and agnostic groups, Seattle Atheists embraces winter solstice (this year’s is on Thursday, Dec. 21) as a winter holiday with historical and cultural meanings. While some members may celebrate certain religious holidays as family traditions, the group doesn’t observe them.
Together with Humanists of Washington and University Unitarian Humanists, Seattle Atheists has organized a winter solstice celebration for most Decembers, says Lisa. Minus the religion part, that gathering doesn’t look so different from a holiday celebration you’d see at a house of worship, she adds.
An active Seattle Atheists member and volunteer, Banai says, “Solstice and our other winter holiday parties give us an opportunity to bring community together, check in on friends and they usually include socializing, present exchanges and lots of food.”
Atheist communities might also celebrate Yule and New Year’s, along with newer, less traditional holidays. Some hold festive spaghetti potlucks to celebrate the winter holiday of the Pastafarian anti-creationism social movement. You may have spotted the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the group’s “deity,” on everything from T-shirts to bumper stickers.
“We celebrate the Pastafarian holiday every year at our home, and open this event to the local atheist community,” says Gitit’s husband Yossi. “We’ve been doing that for several years now and this was a great opportunity to meet new friends and eat good food.”
Although local atheist groups don’t usually mark the big Dec. 25 holiday, its members don’t necessarily skip it.
“Christmas is huge for kids in the U.S. and who would want to deny a kid all that fun?” says Juillerat. “We do the full-blown holiday celebration with all the foods and decorations, just not the baby Jesus and actually trying to convince the child that Santa really is real. The anticipation and excitement of Christmas morning is still there without the exercise in credulity.”
Others go for personal rituals. Tacoma mom of three Shannon Edwards doesn’t identify with any religion and doesn’t attend services at Christmas, but she decorates a tree and exchanges gifts with family. Her favorite tradition, though, is baking gingerbread cookies on Christmas Eve and taking them to neighbors. The holidays are about investing time in your community, whatever that means to you, she says. “It’s a way to stay connected to the neighborhood during the long winter months.”
Some atheist families want to blend religious holiday customs into their secular celebrations, to connect kids to family traditions practiced in previous generations. Gitit and Yossi want their children to understand the religious and cultural significance of Jewish holiday traditions, even if they don’t practice the faith themselves.
The family repeats a kiddush, a traditional Jewish blessing often recited in Hebrew, during Shabbat dinner or Passover Seder, says Yossi. “Our kids know that when we celebrate a religious holiday or perform what others perceive as a religious ceremony, it’s not because we believe in God or because it’s our religious duty, but because it’s our family tradition.”
Religious customs can become part of a family tradition not centered around a belief in God, he adds. “We talk about the fact that we don’t share these beliefs, and therefore don’t follow these traditions and customs as religious people do. The traditions and customs we follow are a choice we make because they’re part of our heritage”
Juillerat doesn’t attend church with his son, but religion is a frequent topic of discussion — particularly around the holidays. Religion is inescapable, he says, and many of his son’s peers believe in God. So he and his son talk about gospel and mythology and how religion helps “fill in the blanks in the running story that people like to weave for themselves about their life and why things happen,” he says.
But for them, holidays are about family, not faith. This refusal to dress the holidays in dogma means they can appreciate their annual Christmas celebrations for what they are: sparkly seasonal soirees meant to bring comfort and joy. n
*Name has been changed.
Light up: Celebrate the sun’s comeback at Winter Solstice
Solstice parties offer a low-key alternative to the commercialism of Christmas, whether you belong to a faith tradition or not. Here’s how to get one going: