Op-Ed

You don't have to be religious to revel in the holiday season

I'm not a believer in God, but that's never stopped me from reveling in holiday cheer. Jewish by birth, I've never met a latke I didn't love. I've found that lighting a menorah and attending a midnight Mass afford me an opportunity to meditate on the humanist values I hold dear: inclusiveness, empathy and a sense of humor. Still, I'm heartened to discover the abundance of merrymaking and gifts perfectly suited to the secular celebrant.

For my lapsed Christian friends blessed with a sweet tooth and a soft spot for puns: wickedly refreshing peppermint-flavored Atone-Mints or devilishly red-hot Sin-o-Mints. There's even a felt stocking festooned with a depiction of man's evolutionary journey from ape to Santa-hatted Homo sapiens to put them in. For the ecumenically minded I can spread Chrismukkah cheer with Oy to the World greeting cards.

In Los Angeles, atheists, agnostics and apostates will commune at the annual Atheists United winter solstice shindig. This year's concert features “Rhythm of Life” from “Sweet Charity.” Once you've gotten the image of dance hall girls out of your mind, it does conjure something of a Whitmanesque humanist message, if a bit on the brassy side. Millennials undeterred by the prospect of shortening their life span without hope of an afterlife can order bacon-wrapped burgers at the Generation Atheist December meet-up at the Oinkster Restaurant.

I kicked off the season by supporting religious freedom in the form of freedom from religion. I signed up to participate in a service project sponsored by the Sunday Assembly L.A., a chapter of the self-described “godless community” that's sprung up in 68 cities around the globe. The activity happened to be assembling care packages for atheists in foxholes.

Our group enthusiastically stuffed boxes with playing cards, the moral dilemma board game Scruples, snacks and offerings by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. But how exactly were we to address the gift tags? Dear fellow human? Happy winter solstice? Greetings heroic biped, I'm saying a secular hosanna that you'll remain safe in the new year? It all felt a bit silly. But it turns out that the 22% of active-duty service members who are unaffiliated with a religion genuinely appreciate the support.

Curious about who might be on the receiving end, I reached out to one of the members of the Military Assn. of Atheists and Freethinkers, Army Staff Sgt. Gen. Sawyer Braun, 28, who had “transitioned” from his Roman Catholic upbringing while binge-watching George Carlin videos during a tour in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005. He joined MAAF, a privately run organization, to connect with like-minded troops through the online registry it maintains. In our armed forces, where prayer breakfasts and chaplain-sponsored activities are the norm, he explained, it's common to feel marginalized. “Humanism isn't recognized by the military, so we can't officially congregate as a group on base.”

Still, he and the group successfully petitioned to participate in the holiday parade at Fort Campbell, Tenn., where he's currently stationed. They showcased their sense of humor with a banner reading “Oh, Come All Ye Faithless,” accompanied by crowd-pleasing perennials like “Frosty the Snowman.” “Aside from a few passive-aggressive ‘God bless yous,' it was pretty well received,” he told me. “We got a lot of high-fives from the crowd.”

I was scrounging around my kitchen, trying to scare up my motley supply of Hanukkah candles, when I got a call from Marine and fellow MAAF member Master Gunnery Sgt. Cody Heaps. He'd heard I was asking about the gifts and phoned me to say how much he had valued getting his package last year in Bahrain. He was 15 months into a deployment and feeling isolated. “Many well-meaning people send us religious propaganda, and I was so happy to receive something from ‘my people.'”

After we hung up, I decided I'd never again take for granted the privilege of gathering around a proverbial hearth for skeptical fellowship. I even felt inspired to include “our people” in my holiday decor. I ordered a Christopher Hitchens bobblehead online. Hitch looks terribly festive, jauntily posed with a tumbler of whiskey. He's going to look great in a place of honor, right under my Hanukkah bush.

Annabelle Gurwitch's latest book is "I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories From the Edge of 50."

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on December 17, 2015, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Merry everything, happy everyone" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
EDITION: California | U.S. & World