Christmas With the Atheists!

12/10/2015 04:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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It's a question I'm asked every year. "Since you grew up without religion, what did you do on Christmas?" When I was younger the query surprised me so much that I drew a blank, probably because "go on a North Pole-looting spree" or "boil flying-reindeer hearts" seemed an inappropriate holiday response.

There's been a lot of religious talk these days, in case you haven't noticed, so I decided this would be a good time to set the record straight. Herewith, then, my childhood Christmas with an atheist mother in a single-parent household.

Growing up, I didn't much care for my hometown of Pleasant Hill, California, except in the summer months and December. I was endlessly made fun of at school, but the last 31 days of the year made everything else disappear. Christmas arrived and candy cane heaven came down to earth.

The store decorations went up first. Sun Valley Mall had the best displays, with those hanging, sparkling stars and snowflakes and every shop displaying some sort of Christmas wonder. Most homes' colored lights appeared around that time, and our family, my two older sisters then two older brothers, and me, the youngest, would beg Mom to drive us around town on a Christmas lights tour. She always obliged, often ending the trip with a visit to Baskin-Robbins, where I'd get a Peppermint Stick double scoop. I might have forgotten to mention that I was a tad overweight.

Our lights went up too, with the expected tangles and burnt-out bulbs and climbing on the roof and fights and my older brothers doing most of the work. I still remember the year we got innovative and extended the lights so they also looped around the tree next to the front porch. Clever!

Then there was the Christmas tree. We got ours at the same place, the Co-Op store in Walnut Creek. They had an annual one-day sale, and our family got up at dawn to find what was destined to be the most importance piece of furniture in our home. The perfumed, evergreen smell when entering that lot is the same smell you get when you walk through a Manhattan Tree Corner stand, but puffed-up like scent-misted clouds.

After the grueling, democratic process of agreeing on the perfect tree and strapping it on our Ford Country Squire station wagon, then managing to get all the sap off our hands, we went inside the store's coffee shop, where they served a special pancake breakfast. The maple syrup treats were the reward for the early hour. It felt like everyone you knew was there, and it was Christmas, which meant greetings and hugs and warm eyes under frost-layered scarves and jackets. The cold weather just felt right. Mom would see people she hadn't seen all year, and they'd insist we come over, and there would be party invites and gift talk and Christmas plans shared. And no matter what people were doing on the day, it was over the red and green ether.

Decorating the tree was the job we fought for. Everyone wanted to place their favorite ornament themselves, and there was this red ballet girl that somehow became the family favorite. I have no idea where that ornament came from, and when I look at it now I realize (blasphemy!) it's tacky, but she might as well have been the star at the top.

Once the tree was decorated and presents started to appear underneath, I would run home from school each day and go straight to the living room, then just sit under the lights and soak it all up. I never believed in Santa Claus, as my mom was tired of pulling off that trick after going through it with my four older siblings. And I never felt like I missed anything.

Presents would appear slowly, my brothers and sisters adding theirs, as well as packages from friends and relatives. A new gift with your name scribbled on top was like finding the Holy Grail. Tradition was important, however, so Mom's presents never appeared till Christmas morning. The stockings, which we lined up the same day as the tree, were also empty until December 25. Our black Lab often sat under the tree with me, and I still remember the year she ate my eldest brother's gift to me, Beef Jerky. I also remember that my brother never replaced it. We can forgive...

Every time you stepped outside, every time you saw a friend, every time you opened the mailbox, a whoosh of snowflakes seemed to rush by, in a city that never really saw such a thing. Every time you turned on the TV magic appeared.

Back then the Christmas specials were once-a-year events, and we devoured them like the Christmas cookies Mom made. My favorite was Rudolph, and I loved The Grinch, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty; all of them. Rudolph had that half-cartoon, half-real look, those songs, the horrifying-yet-loveable monster, the misfit toys, and that reindeer. It was an epic event, comparable only to The Wizard of Oz in its stuck-on enchantment. As far as movies, March of the Wooden Soldiers started the season off, and we always went to a special screening of Scrooge at a nearby theater. It's the musical version of A Christmas Carol, with Albert Finney learning the hard way about the true meaning of Christmas, complete with some scary ghosts and great songs.

The thing about that movie and the specials is that they all taught wonderful childhood lessons; to accept other people, to be tolerant and loving, and not to be afraid of the unknown. Rudolph hit home for any misfit like myself. I knew my life had as much value as everyone else's, and the show was a gift to be remembered all year. I wished my schoolmates took it to heart.

There were the Christmas songs that rang out from our radio and inside every store, the family way up on a hill somewhere that had an annual party that featured candy and cookies and cake at every turn--we made sure to go on an empty stomach, and to avoid the fruitcake--and my own quest to find the perfect gift for each member of the family. One of my finer childhood moments was spending five dollars on a Spencer's Gifts mood ring for a sibling, and having enough money left over to get one for myself. Laugh all you want, but those things were truly magical.

On Christmas Eve, after it was all about to happen, we sat down near the tree to hear Mom read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. She used the same antique copy every year, a red-hardback book that was falling apart. Then we put out our own sugar cookies and milk because we knew Mom, er, Santa would appreciate it. Sometimes you don't have to believe a story to appreciate the sentiment.

I'm fairly certain I was the last to go to sleep at night, and I know I was the first to get up. I ran around our house like a madman in pajamas, banging on bedroom doors and hollering at everyone to get up. When an elder sister of mine grew into her evil teen years, she slipped me some Nyquil the night before to help me sleep longer. Had she learned nothing from Cyndi Lou Who?

When everyone was awake and dressed, we were allowed to enter the living room, where the new presents were laid out, under and around the tree. It was a bit like entering the Chocolate Factory, if you replaced Willy Wonka's wonders with Christmas gifts. There were two staples that Mom loved: We each got a Book of Life Savers (Life Savers, in a book!), and a family game for all of us to play. The rest was a mecca of wished-for delights.

Morning turned to day, day turned to night, and Christmas was over for another year. December the 25th still holds a special place in my heart, even if it's just a sliver of sparkle in that place where love takes over logic.

I'd be a liar to say that presents were not the best part of my childhood Christmas, but it was also a time, as my mother taught us, and as those specials taught us, as that book taught us, to remember our loved ones, to be kind, to care about the poor and the sick, to make our hearts extra Grinch big, to think twice before uttering a hurtful word. It was a wonderful month because it was heavenly in origin.

I don't know precisely how my atheist Christmas compared with other families', except that we didn't go to church, on that day or any other, and there were no bibles in our house or images of Jesus. And there were no prayers before a meal. Sometimes a relative would send a card that had a very religious message and illustration, but I always thought they were kind of ugly. Santa, ribbons, presents, snowflakes; they made for much better cards. I don't remember when I learned what the word "Christmas" actually meant, I just know it didn't resonate with our holiday.

Some people have told me that, as a non-religious family, we were wrong to celebrate Christmas, and I respect that view. But I believe we took the best of what Christmas stood for, and stands for, and were the better for it. When Christians add a mythical creature living at the North Pole to their festivities, reindeer with magical powers, and a decorated tree in their living room, my guess is they are doing the same thing. As long as peace on earth ends up being both the message and the messenger, it's all jingle bells to me.

Did I miss anything?