Is it right to celebrate a holiday for a religion you don't believe in? I'm not a Muslim, so I've never fasted for Ramadan. And because I'm not a Jew, Rosh Hashanah has been little more to me than the annoying nickname my 1st-grade classmates derived from a song in our music class.
I've also never been baptized, can't name the Ten Commandments and only know the Bible stories alluded to in books and poems. Yet I'm among the majority of Americans who celebrate Christmas.
I come from a largely agnostic extended family. Beyond watching The Preacher's Wife and being told Jesus and Santa Claus had something to do with us getting presents, I had little religion injected into my holiday season as a child. Some family members don't care for organized religion, and some are lax Christians like me. My uncle, Steve, once put it this way: "I know there's something, but I don't know what it is."
I've always considered myself a Christian for the simple fact that I was exposed to Christianity growing up. I own a Bible—two, actually—and read it every day for a few years. I also pray. I considered myself a Baptist for a time because on weekends spent with my aunt, Cynthia, I went to a Baptist church. Heck if I knew the difference between a Baptist and a Methodist.
But besides those scattered Sundays throughout my childhood and a few trips up the hill at Howard University to chapel, I haven't gone to church much. I quit going to chapel because I felt out of place and began to think I only went to hear the likes of Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson—not the Word.
That's not to say I'm unfamiliar with the nativity story. I know a bit more than Jazmine Dubois, the little girl on The Boondockswho's convinced that "Christmas is about how Santa died for our gifts, and rose from the dead and moved to the North Pole."
My family celebrates Christmas in all its commercial glory. We put up the Christmas tree (with a different color scheme each year), take to the mall and, if anyone feels like getting on a ladder and it's not too cold, hang some lights out front.
As a kid, I had making my Christmas list down to a science. I pored over Toys "R" Us, Target and JCPenney toy books as soon as they arrived. I knew that if I asked for too much, I'd look greedy, and that if I asked for too little, I'd end up with more unwanted trinkets and tiny Avon bottles than I could ever use. I even ranked the items on my list to make sure I got my favorites.
I know I'm not alone in my observance of America's commercialized pseudo-Christmas, but I do wonder how many others feel the same twinge of guilt about it that I do. There's a certain strangeness in claiming a religious holiday without the religion.
I like to think my family has maintained the "spirit of the holidays," albeit without the religious underpinnings. My dad's family gathers every Christmas Eve for a potluck dinner. While almost everyone lives within a couple of hours of one another, it's the only time of year I get to see so many of my seven paternal aunts and uncles and their families in one place. We eat, play Christmas-themed games and exchange gifts. There's no mention of Mary and Joseph or the Christ Child.
The Mitchner family gathering is part of a tradition I've come to love. I stay up late on Christmas Eve watching A Christmas Story and vintage claymation movies. I open gifts and have a big breakfast at home Christmas morning, and then make the 90-mile journey to Detroit to see my mom's family.
Since my aunt, Jacqui, took over my grandma's cooking duties several years ago, everyone anticipates her notoriously-late-evening-but-totally-worth-it holiday meals. Before digging in, everyone holds hands in a circle to bless the food and say what they're grateful for. It's as close to a religious ceremony as things get. The younger kids usually mumble something about family to hurry the process along, but occasionally there are gems. There's the inevitable tiff that's hashed out or at least put aside for the day, and everyone leaves with a plate or two.
It's times like these that make a secular Christmas more than an insipid exercise in spending. My faith is a work in progress, but Christmas with my family remains a constant, as contradictory as that may be.