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When your season is not about believing

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When I came out to Colorado to go house-hunting, I noticed three things at nearly every house I viewed:

Xeriscape – What’s with all the rocks?

Front-facing, three-car garages – Is the house really just one big garage?

Displays of religion – Crucifixes, sculptures, framed scripture, and more (although not a single mezuzah, which wasn’t much of a surprise).

I now understand the reason for the rocks, and I was just initially overwhelmed by the garages, considering we had only one car and no lawnmower to store. But the homogeneity and pervasiveness of religion…well, it still makes me uncomfortable.

Any fellow atheists out there? Bueller?

For most of the year, it rarely comes up. Sometimes I’ll meet someone new who will ask, completely offhand, where we go to church. Sometimes I’ll be chatting with the women in my Bunco group about current events, and some will lament a recent tragedy, ascribing it to a lack of religion. Sometimes I’ll catch a glance when someone sneezes and I don’t bless them, or when I take the Lord’s name in vain.

But this will be the third year that we’ve lived in Colorado during the holidays, and I’m steeling myself for the inevitable questions.

Yes, we celebrate Christmas. Yes, we get a tree (a real one, in fact – that’s important to us). Yes, we take the girls to see Santa. Yes, we send cards (when I remember to do so).

And yes, we think it’s important to teach them about the meaning of Christmas. That it’s not all about presents and Santa, but that it’s a celebration of treating each other well. That it began with a celebration of the first day of winter, eventually becoming a celebration of the birth of Jesus. That the story of Jesus’s birth told in many beautiful songs. But for us, it’s just as fictional as Santa himself. Lovely and inspirational, but fictional.

My husband and I have answered our older daughter’s questions about God and Jesus and Christmas with as much honesty and as little prejudice as possible. That is, we’ve told her what we believe, but we’ve also told her that many people – most people, in fact – believe differently, and that she must respect that. We don’t criticize others’ beliefs.

Fortunately, we’ve seen little criticism of our beliefs. Mostly, people with whom we’ve shared our beliefs have been incredulous; atheism is a curiosity here.

Last year in pre-school, our older daughter’s class was discussing the holidays, and one boy stated that Christmas was Jesus’s birthday and that he was the son of God. I got a call from the teacher that afternoon to let me know that my daughter had reacted strongly to her classmate’s assertions, standing up and telling him that she didn’t believe God wasn’t real.

The teacher handled the situation well, so much so that when I picked up my daughter from school, she made no mention of the incident. When I brought it up, she was quite matter-of-fact about it.

I had to admire that. Even though, like all kids her age, she was still too young to have fully analyzed the information and reached her own conclusions, she had enough courage to speak up in a group and voice her dissent. Frankly, I couldn’t even manage to tell my husband’s boss’s wife that no, I didn’t agree with her that people should say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” I think I feigned momentary deafness.

So while the holidays will most likely be uneventful – no crosses burning on the front lawn, but possibly a call from the kindergarten teacher about our heathen-in-training – I’m looking at them as a warm-up for the elections, because I’m pretty sure our politics differ from those of the rest of the town too.

Any fellow Libertarians out there? Bueller?

Julie Marsh is a Denver mom of three. She is the VP of Operations at Cool Mom Picks and an award-winning blogger. This post was originally published at Mile High Mamas in 2007.

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  • comment avatar oktree December 4, 2007

    I grew up in Denver and at that time, religion did not seem to be pervasive, so I wonder if it is sign of the increasing popularity of religion. Now that I live in Tulsa, it is amazing. Just this morning on the radio was an ad for a lighting store that concluded, “the Lord lights up your soul, let us light up your life.”

    As a fellow atheist, it astonishes me and, I admit, worries me.

    We recently had an interesting conversation about evolution with our 6 yo son. He opened the door with a question about apes and man and we took the opportunity to explain basic evolution to him, going so far as to find some information on the internet. He understood it and has commented on it a few times.

    I am proud of your daughter for saying something and not accepting the statement. Each person is allowed to believe what he or she wants.

  • comment avatar OMSH December 4, 2007

    I’m not an atheist, believe Jesus is more than a story, and yea, our politics differ, but I figured I’d come over from your blog and stick around long enough to make sure you don’t need rescuing from any possible lynchings.

    heh heh

  • comment avatar Anonymous December 4, 2007

    Nice post. I don’t think anyone has EVER asked me where I go to church. Maybe I give off a strong atheist vibe? Or maybe it’s that I’m from the NYC area.

    I love Christmas, for all the winter solstice, celebratory things.

  • comment avatar kate December 4, 2007

    I’m Jewish, vegetarian, and liberal. I also practice Buddhism – so maybe that makes me a JewBu? And I just moved to Colorado Springs.


    I’m surrounded by a particular denomination of Christianity and I haven’t quite figured them out yet. I’m open minded and friendly. But the more pressure I feel to conform (both overt and covert) the happier I am to belong to a different tribe.

    Anyway, good to know I’m not completely alone out here.

  • comment avatar Catherine Dix December 4, 2007

    I loved this post! Mostly because I can relate to the discomfort when asked what church I attend. I don’t subscribe to any religion. But I do remain open and curious about the universe and its wonders. A reluctant atheist maybe?

  • comment avatar Aimee December 6, 2007

    Great post. Also shows how many different Colorados there are.

    While we are not completely atheist, as you know, we are agnostic, but the subject feels so different up here in the ‘hood.

  • comment avatar Lizzy December 6, 2007

    Not an athiest, and not from Colorado, so my response is probably moot. Just thought I’d say that religion can be touchy no matter where you go. I was recently called to God by someone who thought I wasn’t Christian enough, and I’ve been asked by others why I brain wash my children because they pray with us. I’ve heard so many opinions on my religion that I wonder what parents are teaching their children in regard to other people’s beliefs. My hope is that parents teach their children about all religions, help them as they find their own beliefs, and set a good example of treating others with the respect that they would like in return.

  • comment avatar Julie December 6, 2007

    Lizzy, your response is certainly valuable! I agree – religion can be touchy no matter where you are. The most vitriolic reaction I’ve ever encountered to my atheism was in the military, from my supervisor, no less.

    And what you described – your hope that parents will teach their children that many different belief systems exist and are very important to those who accept them – is exactly how we have been parenting our children.

  • comment avatar Ted Haggard December 6, 2007

    I completely disagree with you. If you don’t accept the word of xeriscaping and three car garages, you will suffer eternity in hell.

  • comment avatar Julie December 6, 2007

    I accept xeriscaping as the savior of my water bill and three car garages as the miraculous housing for two cars, one lawnmower, one wagon, a half-dozen bikes, and more sidewalk chalk than my children will ever use.

    (LMAO “Ted”!!)

  • comment avatar imaginary sarah December 9, 2007

    I’ll have to agree with Aimee on this. There are many different Colorados. I live in the West Highlands area just west of downtown, and I guess we’re a pretty liberal bunch over here. Rarely do I hear conversations about religion, and when I do, they really stick out. (We also tend to lack the three car garages because of all of the old houses around here.)

    I could be wrong, but I’ve noticed more of a push toward religion in the ‘burbs. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’ve just noticed that demographics of certain areas tend to reflect various beliefs. Maybe?

  • comment avatar Anonymous December 16, 2007

    “didn’t believe God WAS real” (or IS real) I think it’s just a minor typo.

  • comment avatar Candace December 21, 2011

    Thanks for this post. It’s a great reminder to be sensitive to people from ALL backgrounds during the holiday!

  • comment avatar knightmomma December 21, 2011

    We are agnostic and believe in some truth in all religion and lack of truth in all religion (if that makes some sense? kinda a smorgasbord of what we like and contemplating and reasoning what we dont). But for religious identifying purposes and ethnically we identify ourselves as Jewish (I can go into a long lists of why besides I was born into it but that is another topic) but that said this makes for 4 very confused children growing up in our house. Well and more confused kiddos friends. But be proud your daughter is able to stand up and say IM DIFFERENT! because it took a long time for my daughter to be comfortable enough to do this. In fact she just has recently, for the first time, in 3rd grade and the teachers were more than receptive of this at her school (thank goodness!) and really chastised the kids who were making fun of kids who didn’t believe in Jesus. I think what helped is she finally found a friend in her class whos’ family has similar beliefs (all our other atheist/agnostic/non christian friends are not in school with her or in her grade level). I wish this was how we have found Girl Scouts to be in Colorado. We now had issues with joining 2 troops because of religious differences and the fact they bring prayer and Jesus into the friendship circle. One troop we were part of for a year and then they dropped us after a big Xmas problem (the leader signaled out my daughter for not celebrating xmas when we have a 10 ft tree in the living room. She came home in tears) and finding half the troop stockpile of craft supplies were Christ or cross oriented. The second troop my daughter found at her new school this year and the girl told her she cant join because she is Jewish. I didn’t even approach the mom. What was the point. To this kid she finally got her hutzpah and told her that its illegal to only let xtain kids join and her mom was breaking the law. I was proud of that moment and it took alot of work for her to get there and be comfortable with herself and us to do so. We never had issues like this in the time we lived in Boulder. And I never had issues growing up in NJ. So this was crazy and new to me but its something we are learning to deal with. We now live in the northern tip of Westminster (Broomfield really) and its been a night and day difference when it comes to acceptance of this difference.

  • comment avatar cherz December 21, 2011

    Thanks for this post. I believe in god, have been baptized, but I’m not a church go-er and I go through some of the same things you go through. I believe in god, but I also am Hawaiian so I believe in the Hawaiian Gods which devout christians find horrifying and blasphemous. I believe in creationism and evolution. God created man and the universe to evolve. At least that’s my personal belief.

    I’m tired of my husband’s family thinking i’m a heathen because I don’t want to go to their church which I find to be in conflict with my beliefs. Luckily my husband isn’t a church go-er either. We get those looks because our children aren’t baptized.

    My best friend grew up Catholic (school and all) and now is an atheist but her children took up the catholic religion. She left the door open for them to decide much like you have.

    But my new neighborhood is driving me crazy. One family keeps inviting us to their church, another family knocks on our door once a month to talk about jevovah, then yet another talks about Mormonism. It’s driving me crazy and I wish I had the strength that your brave daughter did to tell people my beliefs. Instead I try my hardest to avoid the subject or make something up. She’s my little inspiration.

  • comment avatar GenePH December 21, 2013

    Mama of whatever.

  • comment avatar up north nancy December 21, 2013

    I’m an atheist who lives in a small town in northern Michigan. It’s amazing to me that when I tell people I’m an atheist they immediately try to convince me that I must believe. What? I don’t try to convince them that the whole Jesus thing is really unbelievable. The virgin Mary? Who can actually believe that far fetched story? It’s as unbelievable as Santa and the Easter Bunny. I never say Merry Christmas but mainly because I feel it leaves out a whole lot of other people. Jewish people, those who believe in Buddha and atheists. Just to name a few. Some times I respond with Happy Hanukah. That really gets them. Happy Holidays seems to work the best for me.

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