An Atheist Christmas Family Survival Guide
This post could also have been titled, “On Not Strangling Uncle Bob Over the Christmas Goose.” That’s right: atheist Christmas angst is almost upon us again.
Because, let’s face it – even if you’re an atheist who still likes Christmas, there’s a lot of angst and family stress that can pop up during your winter trek home. If your family knows you’re an atheist, that stress is compounded.
Let me paint a picture from my own life for you, and see if it sounds familiar: My mother is not the confrontational sort, preferring passive aggression to outright aggression. For most of the year, she’s content to just leave it be, but something happens at Christmas. I feel like I’m walking on eggshells – if I express too much happiness over a nostalgic Christmas song, or take too much joy in watching my niece open her presents, my mother gets all misty-eyed. “My daughter isn’t completely lost!” might as well be tattooed on her forehead.
But if I show a little too much disinterest, or stay in the other room for the pre-meal prayer, or beg off the 957th annual showing of White Christmas, then the tragic sighs start. My grandmother was the reigning Queen of the Guilt Trip, and my mother learned from the best.
It Shouldn’t Have to Be This Way
I am one of those atheists who enjoys parts of Christmas. I like looking at pretty twinkle lights as much as the next person, but I can’t be bothered to decorate my own house. I like the excitement my niece still shows in opening her gifts (though that window’s probably closing since she’s a *gasp* teenager now), but I don’t shop for anyone else and don’t encourage others to shop for me. I like a lot of Christmas music (but whoever came up with Feliz Navidad needs to be locked in a room with a Bieber album playing on repeat for a solid decade).
Why can’t it be okay to enjoy those parts of Christmas without buying into the religious nonsense?
And we haven’t even started talking about extended family yet – that’s a whole new level of crap. Most of my extended family doesn’t know I’m an atheist, and I don’t know if they ever will. I keep it under wraps, mostly for my mother’s sake. When we are around the family members who know, things get tense, fast.
For those of you who have to deal with whole housefuls of religious relatives at the holidays, I’ve learned a few coping skills that might help.
5 Coping Mechanisms for Dealing with Religious Family
1. Hold on to your compassion.
It’s not always the case, but most of the time family members who seem hostile to your lack of belief are doing so because they’re scared for you or hurt by your perceived rejection of what they hold dear. When Mom makes those passive aggressive comments, I try to remember that this is a woman who loves her children with all her heart and is genuinely terrified that I will end up in Hell.
It might sound like woo, but focusing on your breathing for a few minutes is a very effective way of bringing your stress levels down. If you can find a pocket of quiet amongst the family chaos, try closing your eyes and breathing in for a 5- or 10-count, holding it for a moment, then breathing out on a 5- or a 10-count. After a few repetitions, you should feel a little calmer, ready to deal with the next round of socialization.
3. Steer the conversation away from hot-button topics.
This isn’t always possible, I know. But if you can, try to direct conversations away from dangerous territory. That might mean changing the subject if Aunt Carol starts pushing Jesus at you or politely excusing yourself if talk turns to politics and Uncle Bob singing the praises of the PEOTUS. On the other hand…
4. Don’t be a doormat.
Remember, it’s up to you to decide where your boundaries are, and to decide how far across the boundary you’ll let family members wander before you firmly direct them back. In my case, I tend to be fairly non-confrontational by nature. I let a lot of crap pass by before I’ll speak up. But what I don’t allow is racist talk (Uncle Bob again) or direct personal attacks – “You’re such a hypocrite for being here when you don’t even believe in Our Lord Jesus™!”
It’s hard to keep your cool in those situations, but try to aim for a polite-but-firm approach. “You’re right that I don’t believe in Jesus, but I do believe in family and I’m here to be with the people I love.”
Unfortunately, there always seems to be that one family member who refuses to let things go quietly. In that case, you may have to…
5. Remove yourself temporarily.
Go for a walk or a drive around town. Invite friendlier family members along if you’d like (this will take some of the sting out and not look so much like the angry atheist stomping off in a huff). Taking a few minutes away from the conflict gives both of you time to breathe and collect yourselves. This can reduce the chance of either of you saying something you’ll regret.
Holidays can be stressful for atheists from religious families, but that stress doesn’t have to build into an epic explosion. Try to remember some of these coping mechanisms this Christmas, and everyone might make it out unscathed. 😉