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Several years ago, a coworker and I were discussing our plans for the upcoming holidays. I mentioned that, although I was agnostic, I still celebrated Christmas out of a sense of tradition. I come from a large family (eight kids), and Christmas was a major affair in our household. All the usual practices—tree and house decorating, hanging stockings, leaving cookies for Santa, and gift-opening bonanzas—were ingrained in me, so I continued those traditions with my own children, even as I moved away from my Southern Baptist roots in my mid-twenties.

My coworker laughed at me.

He found it ludicrous that I continued to observe a holiday celebrating a religion to which I no longer ascribed. I don’t think he meant to be inconsiderate; he just couldn’t wrap his mind around my situation. Unintended offense or not, I wasn’t predisposed to explain the point of a secular Christmas to him. We ended the conversation and went about our day.

Five siblings standing on a staircase in pajamas, with christmas decorations all around.

Family Christmas in Missouri, 1978ish

I think about that exchange every holiday season. At a time when non-religious affiliation in the United States is on the rise, I doubt the secular celebration of Christmas and Easter are all that uncommon. Discussions about the true and co-opted pagan roots of the major Christian holidays aside, the Christmas season has grown beyond a religious celebration into one that is about the spirit of generosity, community, festivity, family, and love. If I’m to be jaded about it, it’s also about commercial profit and greed, but there are already plenty of posts out there that stand on that soapbox.

If I’m honest, even when I was an adolescent and pre-teen—at the height of my religiosity—the birth of Christ was never the main attraction of the Christmas season. Sure, we went to church services, set out nativity scenes, and sang carols about the holy birth, but those activities were rote practice. A necessary observance to get to the most important part of the holiday: seeing what gifts Santa left for us under the tree. We were raised to whole-heartedly believe in the magic of Saint Nick and the importance of writing wish lists and being good for goodness sake (but really, for the sake of getting the items on our lists.) Take a look at the prominently advertised persona of Christmas today, and tell me I misinterpreted the message.

I’m sure some people will see this as a failure on the part of my parents. They clearly didn’t emphasize the true “reason for the season.” While strict Christian moralists, my parents were not overly dogmatic about their religious beliefs. They never attended church except for Christmas and Easter services, but they sure as hell celebrated with all the pomp and circumstance of the Griswolds. As I matured, the religion didn’t stick (much to their displeasure) but the love of the holiday spirit did. I embraced the non-religious aspects of the season—decorating, gift exchanges, spending time with family, serving festive meals, watching holidays shows, establishing Christmas morning traditions—and looked forward to the holidays every December.

Front door decoated with black and red plaid wrapping paper in the style of flannel pajamas, with black paper plate buttons.

The height of our holiday decorating this year. Snazzy AND festive, right?

These days, my joie de vivre for the holidays weakens with each passing year. I decorate a bit less. Spend less time at the stores searching for gifts and stocking stuffers. Feel less excited about fancy holiday dinners. This year, we didn’t even put up a tree, though I decorated our front door with festive plaid pajamas. I hate to think I’m turning into a Grinch, Scrooge, Burgermeister Meisterburger, or any of those Christmas story villains who serve as cautionary tales against spurning the sacred spirit of the holidays. I still cherish the secular aspects of the season, but the pressure and stress weighs more heavily on me these days than the joy and warmth buoys me. Maybe my mirth is drained without a sacred anchor to moor me to the holiday observance. Or maybe I just need a break from years of hardcore Christmasing.

Either way, I balk at the idea that such festivity, goodwill, and celebration should still be claimed as the property of one religion, one culture, or one day. This is also the season of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, and the New Year. In my mind, the term “Happy Holidays” is the most Christmas Spirit-like greeting you can offer. Now, I know what you’re thinking: was this entire post just a roundabout way for me to advocate for the use of “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas?” Is this really just a one-writer war on Christmas? Absolutely not. I have no problem with people wishing me a “Merry Christmas” and my response is always a cheerful, “Happy Holidays.”

The point is that, just as there are many reasons people worldwide celebrate this season, there are many valid reasons and ways people celebrate the holidays of their youth and culture, be those celebrations secular or religious, traditional or reinvented, subtle or over-the-top. Whatever the reason, the common elements are the joy, love, goodwill, and cheer inherent in the celebrations, and those are the rightful property of everyone.