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The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

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As I understand it, the crux of Christmas is giving and sharing. Isn’t that nice? It is — and a lot of people would do well to remember these sentimental verbs as they traverse the financially frightening hustle and bustle of this holiday season.

Festivals of old celebrated the return of longer days and shorter nights with community meals and fellowship. Nowadays we regard these traditions as quaint, reserving them for the poorest and most unfortunate among us. As more of us become poorer and more unfortunate with each passing foreclosure, tradition might be the escape valve we need.

Those who might suffer for lack of what they used to have are the people who used Christmas to compete with their neighbors (although, if I know the male psyche, the competition will revolve around who has it worse), those whose rituals revolved solely around gifts, and those who upped the ante with each passing year by making things ever more extravagant.

The Grinch had it right when he said, even before his heart grew three sizes, “It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags!” Indeed it did, and always has. It also came without credit. It came without banks. It came without financing, savings, or angst.

While the hungry and homeless are a modern-day focus, it’s worth giving a bit of thought to what else is needed after we’ve dressed, eaten, and found a place to sleep. Such was the intent behind Christ’s birth, the story of St. Nicholas (regardless of whether you believe these are stories of fact or fiction) and the Yule: everyone contributes. Not most to the rest, but rather everyone to each other.

We’ve buried the concept of giving under heaps of commercialism and political correctness to the point that no one seems to remember how it all started, but what lies beneath has not rotted away. It’s waiting to be found in much the same way and for much the same reason we squeal with delight (even if just on the inside) to see our stockings full and things poking out the top.

Tumultuous times remind us of how little we have on the outside. These times are also an opportunity to remember how much we have on the inside. There are many venues for giving that require little or no financial output, the most gracious of which is giving of ourselves to those we don’t even know — yet.

While a homeless, single mother many years ago, I volunteered to serve meals to other homeless people for one reason only: I was provided a place to keep my children safe and warm as well as a way to feed them. I felt selfish, insincere, and a little deceptive. Oh well, it was my kids and me against the world. By the end of the first week I felt honest, helpful, and accomplished. That was most unexpected. When I shared this with others at the shelter, I was told I’d underestimated my own value while understandably focused on making sure my children were protected.

They were right – and inquisitive. Those who ran the shelter sought to find out what else I could do. As it turns out, my mastery of calligraphy — a skill rendered useless by computerized fonts — was a way to delight children (and adults) by personalizing articles of clothing, books, and in one case, a baseball. Donated yarn and my ability to crotchet provided others another layer of warmth. My writing talent helped secure grants.

Every moment spent giving to others gave me something I didn't know I needed: distraction. Left to my own devices, I had plenty of time to worry about the future and berate myself for not being a better parent. Thankfully, the gift of giving has a lot of momentum, and it doesn’t turn on a dime in front of someone others don’t think of as deserving or when the thing most needed isn’t concrete. The people I’ve worked with over the years know the value of recognizing when someone needs to be reminded that they belong and are of value.

My desperate need for laughter is fulfilled whenever I read to children. My longing to remember where I came from is satiated when visiting the elderly. As a military wife who has moved many times, the desire to feel like I belong no matter where I am is helped along every time I facilitate or teach a class about anything of which I’m knowledgeable (writing a resume or boxing up a household with a minimum of packing supplies).

My time in the poorhouse was shared by a man who couldn’t read, write or speak well. No one knew how he might help out until the dishes of food ran low. Much like the story of Christ and the fishes and loaves, he took the sparse remains of the cupboard and somehow managed to whip up a tasty — and ample — feast. He was friends with an equally illiterate woman who’d found a sewing kit in a box of donations. She sat in the corner of the dining area and mended every loose seam, torn fabric, and stray button brought to her attention.

The beauty of giving is that in most cases you don’t have to be invited to attend – and you won’t be turned away when you show up. No matter who you are or what you don’t have, that itself is a nice gift.

We could spend the holidays lamenting our lacks, but unless you asked Santa for a spiraling sense of loss and hopelessness, that’s not going to cut it. The time-honored tradition of sharing is where it all started, so perhaps that’s where we should go: back to the beginning.

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • Mark Buckingham

    Very good piece, Diana. Identifies with this series perfectly, and conveys a message the world could stand to hear more often.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Beautiful to see the true spirit of Christmas shining through so brightly in this commentary from an atheist perspective.

    Too many who call themselves Christians are using this time to complain about the horrific oppression of hearing people great each other with the phrase “Happy Holidays,” or to whip themselves into a frenzy of fear about the communist revolution they imagine is about to occur in the White House. Yet the ancient power of human love and togetherness is still alive.

    Perhaps, while there is yet time in this holiday season, many of those fearful Christians will lay aside their fears and come back to the higher values of charity and hope that have empowered their faith to better the lives of millions across the globe.

  • Clavos

    Excellent, well written piece, Diana.

    You beautifully evoke what should be, but too often isn’t, the real meaning and spirit of the holiday season.

    Thanks for a very enjoyable interlude.

  • http://www.indyboomer46.blogspot.com Baritone

    My wife and I were a bit chagrined when, during the past couple of weeks, we sought somewhere to volunteer our time for Thanksgiving. There are a number of organizations that provide meals and other services to the poor and homeless in the Indy community.

    We could find none that wanted any help. However, they all wanted money. I am hardly opposed to giving money to charitable and/or non-profit groups. We do so with some regularly. However, as our business has been in the dumpers for some time owing to the economy and the housing mess, we have curtailed most of our monetary giving, at least until things get better and money starts flowing more readily again. I even had one woman hang up on me when I repeatedly deflected her requests for money.

    I don’t know if any of this really means anything, but its a bit deflating to know that our time, our abilities have no value even to charities, that the only thing of value we can give is money.

    B

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/diana_hartman Diana Hartman

    Mr. B, it’s sad to hear anyone would turn you and your wife away when offering what is in shortest supply: manpower.

    Fortunately, Volunteer Match and Interfaith Ministries both have ample need of someone willing to donate their time.

    It’s worth noting that the best volunteer opportunities (most fun, look really good on a resume) are often offered to (read: made known to) those who volunteer throughout the year – not just around the holidays. Even a couple of hours a month all year long will get you more “in” than limiting one’s time to the month of December.

  • http://www.stripes.com/go/spousecalls Terri Barnes

    Diana: This is beautiful! I’m proud to call you my friend.