For secular parents, celebrating the holiday season inevitably requires educating their kids on belief systems they don’t subscribe to.
My three-year-old son Emile came home from daycare the other day singing, “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel / I made it out of clay.” My first reaction was, “Oh great, Chanukah is early this year!” (What? The date changes, like, every time.) My second was, “Oh God—when he’s gonna start asking about God?”
Earlier, he’d come home saying “hallelujah,” a simple word he picked up from another pre-schooler, but one requiring a rather complex explanation—and that’s but the tip of the religious iceberg, especially this time of year.
We’re a proud Chrismukkah family, but neither myself nor my lapsed-Catholic wife are religious. We love the culture and traditions that our families bestowed upon us, many of which are, yes, tied to religion. But unlike our toddler, we’re both rationalists who believe in science, not magic or miracles.
Since Halloween passed, Emile has been fixated on the upcoming Judeo-Christian celebrations. I’ve kept our holiday-book reading relatively secular thanks to the Grinch, 12 Days of Christmas, and Let’s Nosh. But we’ve been also playing a lot of carols, which invariably include references to God, Jesus, and angels we have heard on high. He hasn’t asked about those guys yet, remaining quite firmly focused on Santa, but at some point he will. (I’m actually surprised he hasn’t inquired about our Portuguese neighbour’s lit-up Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, and anachronistically adult Jesus.)
It’s a particularly contemporary parenting issue. Back in the day, you were raised by whatever religion your parents were. My folks were hippies, but they were Jewish hippies—so, even though we didn’t go to temple often, we had Sabbath dinners on Fridays, I had a bar mitzvah (my sister opted out of her bat), and we celebrated most of the holidays. But we did Christmas, too, because we were basically the only Jews in our B.C. town and it would’ve been unfair to not have a tree and stockings and chimney visit from the fat man.
My wife actually attended Catholic school, and did all the holidays, of course, but neither of our upbringings provided us with faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good deity.
And, as I get older, the whole concept of belief in any god, much less one true God, seems ever more peculiar to me. Before you dismiss me as a heartless heretic, please know I’ve done the legwork on this subject. I’ve taken religious-studies courses in university, spent Easter in Vatican City, saw the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, bathed in the Ganges with tens of millions during the Maha Kumbh Mela, visited Tunisia during Ramadan, travelled to ancient and modern holy sites in Egypt, and met Buddhist monks in Laos and Tibet. I once spent a month criss-crossing Israel, staying in a nunnery in Galilee, picnicking at Armageddon (known locally as Tel Megiddo), and sleeping on a rooftop in Jerusalem’s Arab Quarter right on the Via Dolorosa, minutes from the Western Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I even visited the Tomb of Saint Nicholas (yes, that St. Nick) in Bari, Italy.
I also recently had the good fortune to discuss religious fundamentalism with with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who assured me “it is not the faith that is the problem, it is the faithful.” An interesting argument, but not one that gets me past the literalism that drives both, a literalism predicated on the existence of a supernatural being. Two-thirds of Canadians profess a belief in God, albeit that number dwindles the younger the respondent. It’s hard to know how many take The Word at its word but, as a National Post writer argued, in response to a Globe column questioning the influence of Stephen Harper’s evangelical beliefs on his anti-science public policy, religion demands that you do.
“The belief in the real presence of Christ in the communion wafer is the absolute height of Catholic worship,” Charles Lewis wrote. “It is not an option, nor is it an option to believe in the resurrection, the ascension into Heaven and the final judgment.”
That’s what makes me wary of how to address the subject of religion with my extremely literal toddler. (Emile loves dinosaurs, so you’d think at least Creationism would be off the table, but a 2007 poll found 42 per cent of Canadians believe dinosaurs and humans co-existed.) And I do intend to introduce Emile to the bible—I actually still have my Children’s Old Testament from when I was a kid—as it is a great and influential book with historical and cultural import. But I would never teach it as anything but Aesop-like allegory.
Perhaps the blurred line between religious, cultural, and ethnic Judaism allows me to thread this needle easier than some. We’ll be lighting the menorah candles and decorating our Christmas tree this weekend because we deeply enjoy the cultural continuum of religion-based holidays, regardless of my personal belief that Jehovah is no more or less real than Zeus and the stories of his prophets/offspring are not much more or less non-fictional than, say, Robin Hood, no matter how righteous their teachings.
I could just pretend. After all, I’m already pretending that Santa Claus is real. Like Jesus and Moses, Santa is based on an actual historical figure and, personally, I find rising from the dead or parting the Red Sea about as believable as delivering millions of presents down millions of chimneys in a single night. (Though I do believe St. Nick was nice to kids, Jesus was a revolutionary, and Moses likely led Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, if in less epic fashion.)
Last December, I published an interview with Justin Bieber that went viral because he admitted, “My mom always told me there wasn’t a Santa. This was her logic: She thought if I grew up knowing about Santa then finding out he wasn’t real, that it would be like she was lying to me. And then when she told me about God, I maybe wouldn’t believe her.”
I’m of the opposite position, but Biebs makes me realize how similar Santa and God are—if you believe in them, then they encourage you to be a good person. But childhood belief requires parental participation. I’m fine with the great Santa deception because it’s temporary and is about delight without the threat of damnation—a lump of coal hardly compares to hellfire. But it’s my job as a parent to teach Emile morality, regardless of supernatural opinions on the matter.
Oh, and if he does becomes interested God on his own, we’re certainly not going to discourage him (same goes for hockey) because something we do believe in is free will.