For many families Christmas isn’t about the birth of Jesus. Angela Cuming explains why she chooses to have a life, and Christmas, without religion.
I was five years old when the Catholic Church told me I’d never get into heaven.
An unbaptised child of two Roman Catholic parents, it had been a great aunt’s dying wish to see my soul was saved before she left this world. So my face was scrubbed clean and a dress pulled over my head and off I went with my parents to see the local parish priest. It was all going well, dates of the actual baptism had been pencilled in, when Father Whitty turned to Mum and Dad and said: “One last thing, what church were you two married in?”
My parents, both journalists, had met in a newsroom in the late 1970s and, probably during a beer-soaked afternoon in the pub, decided to get married in a registry office with a couple of sub-editors as witnesses. Theirs was a wonderful, stable, love-filled marriage that only ended with my father’s death. They created for me a happy and safe home and blissful childhood.
But when Mum and Dad confessed they hadn’t signed on the dotted line in a Catholic church the priest told them no uncertain terms their daughter was not going to be baptised. He told them this in front of me.
This was at a time when the Catholic Church was very vocal in its belief that unbaptised children would never go to heaven and the best they could hope for was limbo, where my soul would float about for an eternity.
I don’t think my father ever set foot in a church again. Neither did I.
My lack of God, and my atheism, had never bothered me until now. I’d rarely, if at all, given it thought. But now I am a mum to three little boys, knee-deep in all things Christmas, and it’s getting harder to avoid the big, shiny Christian elephant in the room.
For me, and my boys, Christmas is a time for Santa and magic and excitement and presents. But God has already started to creep in, from the nativity scene on the front of their advent calendar to the religious carols they will hear on my much-loved Bing Crosby record.
But what do I tell them, what do I say, if and when the G word comes up? I’ve decided the answer is nothing, because there is to be no religion, no God, in our house.
I can lie about Santa because, to me, Santa represents wonder and love for an all-too brief period in our childhood.
I can tell them Christmas, like Easter, started as a Pagan festival, that our Christmas tree has its roots in their midwinter festival, and that Santa himself most likely comes from a Germanic midwinter festival called Yule.
But I can’t lie to my children and tell them we live on a planet created in six days that is only 6000 years old, or that being gay is a sin, or that dinosaurs were on a floating ark or that my soul can’t be saved because my parents didn’t get married in a church.
When they are older, and more curious, they can seek out religion for themselves. I won’t stop them, hell I’ll buy them all the books they want to read, but I’ll make sure they do so with an open mind.
And one, or all of them, may find religion, may start to believe in Christianity or Islam or Judaism. And then, they may ask me why I am still not on a religious path.
And I shall them them this:
When my eldest son Charlie was a baby we were living in Northern Ireland and thought it might be nice, personal beliefs aside, to have him baptised into the Protestant Church of Ireland, in front of family, at Christmas time.
I will tell them it was all going well until the minister asked where Charlie’s parents had been married. As we were only engaged at the time (Charlie being the spanner in the works of our original planned wedding) we were politely told thanks but no thanks. That the church only baptised children of married parents. Charlie wasn’t good enough for the church because my husband and I hadn’t said ‘I do’ yet.
God, even if he turns out to be real, didn’t want my beautiful boy. So he’s never going to be good enough for me.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.