I don’t remember when I first learned about the connection between Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ but I would guess that I was much older than most kids. Growing up, my family celebrated Christmas just like almost everyone else we knew with one big difference: We were atheists, so there was no mention of “our Lord Jesus Christ,” his birth, the nativity scene or the Three Wise Men. In fact, everything I know that is associated with Christmas in my family has nothing to do with the “Christ” in Christmas.
For as long as I can remember my family has happily celebrated Christmas despite being atheists and growing up in an atheist state.
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My father comes from Cuba and my mother is from Russia. I spent most of my childhood living in one country or the other, both of which were officially communist in the 80s and therefore had no recognized religion. In fact, unlike in the United States of America where religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, Cuba upheld state atheism until 1992. This means that the “socialist state… bases its activity on, and educates the people in, the scientific materialist concept of the universe.” There was no religion and religion wasn’t recognized. In fact, in the 1960s, shortly after Fidel Castro took power, the Cuban government imprisoned countless Catholic clergy and confiscated Catholic schools.
That’s the environment that my papi grew up in, so his family was atheist just like the rest of the Cuban people had to be. Both my abuelo and abuela were also scientifically-minded people. They had PhDs in mathematics and they encouraged similar pursuits in their children: My dad became an engineer, my uncle a doctor and my aunt a biochemist.
There are a lot of Cubans who hid their religion from the government, but that was never my family. We were always atheist.
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So when my parents met, nothing much changed. My mom was agnostic (having also grown up in state atheism) and rarely set foot in a church, though she did have me baptized when I was born. Still, Christmas celebrations in our house were primarily secular.
Before we moved to the United States of America when I was eight years old, we celebrated Noche Buena and New Year’s Eve with all of the same Christmas traditions that most people know: An evergreen fir tree decorated with twinkly lights, lots of sparkly balls and a star on top. We exchanged presents (that came from a version of Santa Claus) and had the entire over for a big dinner. What we didn’t do is say grace, mention Jesus or go to church.
Honestly, I’m not even sure what else I missed out on because my family doesn’t believe in Jesus — and that’s because my Christmases were always filled with such joy and wonder that I never felt like I was missing out on anything at all.
I have a million tiny memories of the special Christmases my parents gave to me and my younger brother, and one particularly tough Christmas that turned out to be pretty great, too. There are countless memories I have of helping my mami in the kitchen, either preparingmoros y cristianos arroz, flan and platanitos maduros fritos. Those memories are always accompanied by the warm memories of my family gathered around a Christmas table, feasting and happily arguing about whatever it was that we were arguing about that year.
These Christmas memories have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with family.
Now that I am an adult, not much has changed. My family, despite having escaped the communist regime of Cuba and now happily living in the United States which was built on the idea of “religious freedom” are still mostly atheist or agnostic. We’re not the only ones, either.
Although I’ve only met two kinds of Cubans for my entire life, those who are atheist like my family or those who are heavily Catholic (and had to hide it during Castro’s regime), Latinxs, in general, are embracing atheism and non-religion in growing numbers. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of U.S. Latinos identify as Christian. However, young Latinos are leaving Catholicism (which accounts for 48% of Christian Latinos), according to NBC News. The latest Pew Poll found that Latinx millennials ages 18-29 who are unaffiliated with a religion are growing in numbers, said Jessica Martinez who authored a Pew study on the topic in 2014.
Although my family was never religious, I can relate to those who are leaving the church today. When my now-atheist husband, who grew up Catholic, tells me childhood stories of going to church on Christmas eve, saying grace and taking communion, I just can’t relate. But I can relate to the overall feeling of Christmas and the holidays: The joy of smelling mom’s first batch of baked goods this season. The fun of playing “Home Alone” in the background as the family gathers around to trim the tree. Secretly shaking presents under the tree to see if we could figure out what they were before we were allowed to open them at midnight on Noche Buena.
And that’s what I hope to teach my kids someday about Christmas, in a secular way: That we can spend enjoying the holidays and time with family above all.
After all, every family has their own Christmas traditions. My family traditions were just a bit more unusual than those of others, with less Jesus and more cookies. But my parents still communicated the spirit of the holidays to me growing up, despite being atheists themselves. It was all about the beauty and wonder of this season, about caring for our fellow human beings by taking part in charitable acts and lots of time spent with the ones I loved.