My husband is what's known as a lapsed Catholic. He's been lapsed since age 18, when he graduated from Father Serra High School and his parents could no longer make him go to church on Sunday. Despite years of religious education, the dear man seems to have amnesia about the entire experience, so much so that he can't answer the simplest questions about the liturgy, the lives of the saints or church hierarchy. If you were to ask him to name the current pope, he'd probably draw a blank. This is the sum total of what he remembers from catechism:
"If a little bird flew low around the planet, tracing a circle in the ground with the tip of his wing, the time it would take him to slice the earth in half is but a second on the face of eternity. And eternity, of course, IS HOW LONG YOU WILL SPEND IN HELL IF YOU DON'T BEHAVE!"
I guess that would make an impression. Especially on the bird.
As for me, I'm not a lapsed anything. My father is a non-practicing Jew and my mother was raised culturally Catholic by parents who each had a Catholic mother and an Armenian Orthodox father. My father was barmitzva'd because that was the thing to do, and my mother had a first communion because she wanted to be like her girlfriends.
Over the years, people have occasionally asked me "Do you celebrate Christmas?" Sometimes, it's just conversation. Sometimes it's code for "Are you Jewish?". I grew up celebrating Christmas, sort of. There was a tree which my mother liked to put up alone, on Christmas Eve, after the children were in bed. The next day, there were gifts from Santa - not anything excessive, mind you, just the right amount. Once or twice my mother made my father drive us around the neighborhood to see Christmas lights. It was a bit of an anthropological experience - Oh these people do this and we don't and isn't it pretty. Despite having a Jewish family, I attended exactly one seder, at my father's uncle Jack's. I think I was about 15.
I am a secular person by nature and education. I have just enough of a sense of awe at nature's more inexplicable wonders that I can call myself an agnostic. My Armenian ancestors fled to France to escape the genocide. Some kept moving, and I have found distant cousins in Britain, France, Texas and Australia. The Jewish side of my family was not so lucky. Every single one of my Grandmother's old country relatives was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto. I am leery of people who thinks their God is better than someone else's.
My children are inherently skeptical as well. When my daughter was four, she determined quite logically that Santa Claus did not exist. She explained to me that reindeer couldn't fly - they don't have wings. And it was logistically impossible for Santa to hit that many homes in one night. She was so reasonable in her thinking, I didn't have the heart to lie to her. I swore her to secrecy and told her the truth. But every time we would pass a department store Santa, she would look at the kids waiting in line, shake her head and say "Look at that fake guy. If they only knew."
So what does Christmas mean to a secular family like us? A time to count your blessings and enjoy your quirky, entertaining loved ones? A reminder to give more to people and organizations who need it? An opportunity to cook an elaborate family dinner and enjoy it together? An excuse to buy stuff? And how does Jesus' birthday fit into all this?
For years, people have advertised their tolerance by reminding each other that "Jesus was Jewish." And you could technically call him the first Christian. But I would also say that Jesus was a humanist. Not a secular one perhaps, but a humanist just the same. A man who taught such humanist values as love, non-violence, forgiveness, tolerance, self-sacrifice and respect for human dignity. Whether you believe Jesus was a visionary and extraordinarily gifted spiritual leader or the actual son of God, celebrating his birthday is a chance to reflect upon and honor our shared humanity. That is what is known as "the spirit of Christmas" and you don't have to be Mike Huckabee to get it. So while you probably won't run into me in church tomorrow, I will be celebrating Christmas, in my own secular, Jewish, French and Armenian way. And I wish you and yours a happy holiday and a healthy and prosperous new year.