Friday, December 6, 2013

A Tour Around Ye Ol' (Godless) Tannenbaum

I almost didn't put up a tree this year. The kids (ages 2 and 4) have ignited a whole new wave of over-analyzing and agonizing over whether to celebrate the holiday season or not, and if so, how to celebrate in a manner which is true to our family's secular worldview. For now, let's just focus on the issue of the tree.

First of all, what do I call it? A Christmas tree? Maybe spell it X-mas, or KrismasTannenbaum just means fir tree and sounds reasonably festive; that's good, right? But walking around calling our tacky, miniature tree a tannenbaum feels pretentious. Holiday tree sounds forced. We started calling it a Cricky tree. That's what (I've been told) my husband called it as a kid. And let's face it, in an atheist home, it's basically there because of my (somewhat shallow) attachment to my childhood.

So we have a religious symbol in our house from a religion we don't practice. That's not unusual for middle class Americans, right? Plenty of non-Buddhists have statues of Buddha on their shelves. Same with non-Hindus and statues of  Shiva and Ganesha. People read and enjoy stories of the religious myths from cultures around the world. Still, decorating the tree in December makes me feel silly and a bit like a phony, but whatever. The kids like it. Okay, okay, I like it, too.

This is no elaborate tradition in our house. It took no more than twenty minutes to bring the box of ornaments labeled "Hippy Tree Balls" in big, black marker by my cynical husband, up from the basement and hang them on the three foot high tree I bought on a whim at ACME. Twenty minutes of bouncing back and forth between nostalgic bliss and wistful torment.

Strung the lights on first. It is the same string of lights Will and I purchased seven years ago for our first holiday season in our new house. (Okay, Will had nothing to do with it. He could give a shit about anything holiday season related.) I had run out to the Family Dollar and purchased $40 of cheap ornaments, mini candy canes, a 3 ft fake tree, and a single string of lights - the gaudy, multicolored, large bulbs that went out of fashion a long time ago. I like those lights the best because they are most like the ones from my childhood Christmases. It is a sappy explanation, and every year those memories wear more thin.

Will's favorite ornament reflects his cynicism about the holidays. It was handmade by an artist friend of ours who works in polymer clay, and seems innocent enough: a dinosaur hugging a car. Except it's really a dirty inside joke, and that's not really hugging. With a smirk, I hang it in a prominent location on our tree.

I have several ornaments from the two years I worked in a small, private, progressive school. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. There was practically no hierarchy and both students and faculty were encouraged to take risks and be creative. Every teacher seemed to regard his or her position as a calling. I taught grade school students who involved themselves in political action, public service, who questioned and knew how to research. But it was part time, the pay low, and the commute long. More than that, the job left me with little creative energy for my own artwork and writing. The job wasn't my calling, so I quit. Every year I look at these ornaments, these gifts from amazing former students, and briefly ponder the path not taken. It's not regret; I like where I've ended up. But there's deep melancholy in it.

There's one ornament which splits me right in two. The ornament itself is rather cheap and dull. It's merely a white, glass bulb with the HumanLight holiday logo printed on the front. HumanLight was invented to give secular humanists something meaningful and our own to celebrate in late December. I have jokingly described it to friends as a sort of atheist Kwanzaa. I used to encourage my humanist friends to adopt HumanLight. I wrote a promotional article about it for Humanist magazine. I had my oldest daughter light a candle and open her presents from us on December 23rd (the official date of HumanLight.) For the record, my husband rolls his eyes at all this.

Two guys in New Jersey created HumanLight in 2001. They got not only their local chapter to throw a HumanLight party, but quickly persuaded many others, even some abroad, to adopt the holiday. A couple songs were even written. Not great songs, mind you. "HumanLight" by Sonny Meadows sounds a bit too much like the Spiderman theme song (this was pointed out by some college students who attended our party one year, and they all got a good laugh out of it.) So not great songs, but at least they were our songs. As long as we were earnest about it all, it meant something. My local chapter got Paul Kurtz to be our keynote speaker less than a year before the prominent philosopher passed away. Even the "father of secular humanism" couldn't help but get a bit sentimental around the holidays, and for part of his talk he had all of us in the audience stand and hug each other.

One of those guys in New Jersey who created HumanLight was my friend, and in 2012, to the shock of all of us who knew and loved him, he took his own life. It took five months for my rage over his suicide to burn out. Since then, when I think of him and anything associated with him or even organized humanism, there is a quiet undercurrent of despair. I realize that my involvement in organized humanism all these years was never really about the ideas. I mean, I agree with the ideas, sure. But I can live the humanist philosophy just fine on my own. The organization was about the people. It's often difficult for us nerdy, cynical, godless folk to find others who want to watch lectures, documentaries, read heavy nonfiction, and sit around discussing religion, philosophy, and politics. I didn't celebrate HumanLight because of the message or meaning of the holiday. I celebrated it because it was something to share with my friends. So with my friend who was the most enthusiastic about celebrating HumanLight gone, I'm just not that into it anymore.

The ornaments with pics of my kids, one for each year of their lives, these are what evoke the nostalgic bliss. I look at images of their adorable expressions and reminisce over the best moments of their infancy and entrance into childhood. All the sleepless nights, poop explosions, and shrieks are out-shined by memories of first cradling them in my arms, the stuffed animals they slept with and carried around, the silly ways they first pronounced the word orange, and so on. Considering these ornaments against the rest of what hangs on our Cricky tree, it occurs to me that I could just hang photographs of my kids as they age in the stairwell in decorative frames and achieve the same effect. Why record their growth with tree ornaments?

It's just a tree.

But it's more than a tree! It's a symbol, right? A symbol of, of... oh you know. Family togetherness. We decorate it with memories, surround it with gifts for those we love. An evergreen, the leaves don't turn brown and crumble. They endure the cold darkness of the winter. It's about hope. Another chance to do better, to do more in this world. To improve ourselves. Argh, but that's still so vague, somewhat trite. I can do better. It's, it's...

Just a tree. A tree that makes me feel... A tree that makes me feel.

I realize that no matter how much I try to recapture (or perhaps reinvent) some transcendent wonderfulness of the holiday season, and which can be shared by people of all faiths and no faith, it's all cold comfort. Being a religious skeptic means forever being on the outside looking in. It means exchanging the elation of faith for the sober courage of doubt.

As another year ends, this passage of time is emphasized. I set new goals for the coming year while growing more and more weighted down by memories of what I achieved and failed to achieve in the past. Eventually, there will be no rebirth, no spring. The wicked will go unpunished, the good will pass away without adequate reward.

We top our tree with a finger puppet of Isaac Newton.
I will ride this carousel. Hopefully I'll take more pleasure in the beauty and craft of the wooden horses I ride than I will feel disappointment over the lifelessness of their shiny, painted eyes. I'll try to enjoy the music without worrying about when it will end.

Yes, my daughter, we put up a tree. You can call it a Christmas tree if you want. But we don't really celebrate Christmas because we're not Christians. What do we celebrate? That's a good question. Not that I've found a satisfying answer. There's nothing special about December, really. Only that, if we must face the impending darkness, it's comforting to have a little artificial light.


  1. If I remember right the tree is evergreen which symbolizes the hope of the coming spring in the dead of winter. People didn't always use a tree some would have boughs on the mantel of their fireplace for the same reason

  2. Right. We light a little light each year at this time, at the darkest time of the year, against the night. We know we won't win, not in the long run -- no one does. But this year, for this moment, we have won.

  3. Hi,
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    Carnival for Atheist Parenting

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