Give the Gift of Chill: Letting Your Black Atheist Family Live on Christmas

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I used to love Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t hate Christmas now, and this isn’t one of those melancholic “ghost of Christmas magic” essays. My eyes still light up when I see a beautiful holiday display, and it’s the only time you’ll ever get me to admit that snow can be beautiful. I still aggressively curate Christmas playlists, choosing only the very best version of every song (the Temptations version of “Give Love on Christmas Day,” for example). I still sit and watch the Christmas Story marathon on TBS all fucking night, every year. RALPHIIIIEEEE!

Christmas is OK for me—fun sometimes, even. Christmas is fine.

What is true is that Christmas has been complicated for me, for years now. While my family is fairly religious, we, like many, always used the time more as an excuse to get everyone together and have food and laughs and a few overescalated spades arguments with Stevie and the Temptations and Donny and everyone else playing in the background—bells and snow and love and bullshitting.

So it wasn’t too difficult for me to lay low as an atheist. I’d just kind of sit through any prayers that might happen—never quite a tradition, but frequently on a whim of my mom, who might be energized with the spirit every now and then—the way you might sit through train schedule announcements, waiting for the tedium to break and the moves to be made. Awkward because we never otherwise really had moments like this, and because the hand holding, for my family—not an affectionate one—was about as much contact as we generally ever had outside the occasionally “I haven’t seen you in a while hug.”

But then I made the decision one day to tell my mom I no longer believed in God, and in her mind, all hell broke loose. I’ve written about this before—it was during a car ride, I’d just gotten Arby’s, tense silence with curly fries, etc. But because my mom still felt, and tended to feel, like she had a say in my personal choices—not just a say, but a commanding imperative—my way of flying under the radar during the holidays slowly but surely disintegrated.

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It was small things at first—the slapdash, whenever-I-happen-to-remember prayer turned into something much more consistent, and for me, much more difficult to skate through. In addition to that, a couple of my siblings were stepping further into their own religious beliefs and teaching them to their kids, and the atmosphere around the holiday rapidly and drastically became less welcoming for me. My mom’s actions around prayer and worship had long since turned a little more pointed around me; a glut of Christian programming when I first told her I was an atheist, a glare here and there, a genuinely kind but still uncomfortable invitation to go to her church (which I never understood—even outside of not believing, I had always vocally hated her particular church, which was populated by dust mites and the elderly).

And as they always tend to do, things with my mom escalated. One year, the topic of religion and Christmas came up—in the room was a mix of my mom, siblings, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews. In a way I would have found adorable had it not looked to me like indoctrination, my nephew piped up and shared that God was important, that God loves us, and essentially gave an impromptu Easter speech. Knowing full well my atheism would bring up conversations my sisters don’t want to have with their kids, and conversations I don’t want to have with them, I generally don’t talk about it now that they know.

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So I’d been playing what I believe was a 3DS game—I can’t remember which one—and had quietly and politely phased out of the conversation. My mother took it upon herself to loudly ask me, in front of everyone in the room, to stop and listen to what my nephew was saying. I stopped, I looked, I listened to what was essentially an Easter speech, wondering what my mother thought I could take from it that I hadn’t taken from years wasted on church and reading the Bible and praying. But it was clear to me that she thought she could guilt me into… something, I’m not sure what, by having me in front of my young nephew as he passionately, almost tearfully, told me about God. Maybe she just wanted to force me to lie—maybe she just needed to hear me say I’d reconsider, even if it was resoundingly false.

After some years of disagreeing on it, it’s finally filed itself into the same folder we resolve everything into: “We don’t talk about it anymore.” I didn’t, and I never have. We’ve gone nuclear a few times as a result. I always “joke” with people that my mom was more upset when I came out as an atheist than when I came out as queer, but it’s not really true—though I wonder sometimes if my queerness just got filed away a little faster, waiting to be plucked out one year when one of the kids says something homophobic and I have to ask who taught them that. Or maybe it’s actually just fine—I’ll probably never know.

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But the silence is what it is, and I don’t always have the energy to fight back—that’s the last thing I need on these days, and I’m fine with that—happy with it, even. I always feel a little hyper-vigilant around Christmas, and I hate watching my family gleefully pretend I never told them who I am—but at least I can enjoy the holidays the way I used to, if only a little bit, if only for a little while.

“It’s that once of year when the world’s sincere, and you’d like to find a way to show the things that words can’t say.”

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Give love on Christmas Day, y’all—and if you can, just give your loved ones some peace. That’s not always enough—but it is sometimes.

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About the author

Natalie Degraffinried

Natalie Degraffinried is a staff editor for Kotaku.