Op-Ed: As a nonbeliever, I tried to teach my kids the real meaning of Christmas

(Karlotta Freier / For The Times)


For the past three weeks, every morning at around 6 a.m., my 8-year-old son bolts out of bed and races downstairs to his Advent calendar. He’s a Lego fiend, so behind each of the calendar’s 24 doors is a little bag of plastic bricks. By the time I stumble down, he’s already got the set built and has slotted it into a vaguely seasonal narrative. Usually, he’s too busy to talk, but the other morning, he asked a question I’ve been dreading for the last couple years.

“Daddy, what happens on 25?”

Now, at some level he knows the answer. The 25th is Christmas. Yes, it’s the day Santa comes, but it’s also Jesus’ birthday. I remind him, but he’s onto something deeper:

“I know. But why does everybody celebrate Jesus’s birthday?”

I pause uncomfortably, because here’s the sticking point. I don’t know what to tell him because I don’t know the answer anymore. And I feel guilty because my father always did.

My dad’s a Lutheran pastor. Every December in my childhood, our house ran to the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. There was the Advent wreath on the dinner table, midweek services and more choir rehearsals than you could count.

Like lots of other families, we were big on the real meaning of Christmas, as distinct from the capitalist, commercialized, Santa-fied one on TV. Why does everybody celebrate Jesus’ birthday? Because he is the flesh-and-blood only Son of God. Because he’s humanity’s Redeemer and the child who will grow up to save the whole blessed world.


All of this is well and good, but here’s the problem: I don’t believe these things anymore, and I’m not sure I want my kids to believe them either. But I do want them to know what Christmas is really all about.

I want them one day to dig into all the surprising, grisly, strange details of the story of Christ’s birth in Scripture. Though I’ve drifted away from the church, the Bible is central to my life. I’ve written a book on it and teach it in my college courses whenever I can. One day, I’ll tell my children what I tell my students: that the Bible is a treasure of world literature, that it’s as beautiful and confounding a text as I’ve ever read, and that you can’t not know the Bible in a nation as devout as our own.

Yet my son is in third grade, and his sister is 5, and they’re not really ready for all that. Further, they’re not ready for the Gospels’ Christmas either. Sure, there’s your standard holiday pageant fare: angels, shepherds and wise men “from the East.” But their gathering around the manger doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if Jesus isn’t the Messiah. And they’re also the linchpins of the most sanitized version of the Christmas story, one that leaves out the most fascinating, troubling pieces, like Joseph’s thoughts of abandoning Mary, Herod’s mass murder of Bethlehemite toddlers, the family’s flight to Egypt, and the rise of Archelaus.

And then there’s all the proto-theological stuff I don’t even want to get into. The Gospel of Matthew introduces Jesus as a child “conceived … from the Holy Spirit” who will “save his people from their sins” (1:20-21). We haven’t begun talking about conception in our house yet — much less immaculate conception — and I’m not sure we’ll ever get around to sins you have to be saved from.

So what’s a dad to do? Well, I think I came up with an answer. On a recent night, we sat down as a family and read Luke 1:46-57. In this passage, the evangelist gives us what some call the Magnificat, the song Mary sings when she learns she’s pregnant. There are lots of great reasons I’m thrilled to teach it to my kids — it’s one of the most beautiful poems in the Bible, it’s spoken by a woman of color, and it inspires all sorts of great music. (We listened to Arvo Pärt’s choral rendering while we read.)

But most important, it gives me the best possible answer to my son’s question — why do people celebrate Jesus’ birthday? Here is Mary:

God … has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant …

He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

And sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:48, 51-53)

We celebrate because the Christmas story shows us that God is on the side of the downtrodden — that he prefers poverty to wealth, humility to pride, service to power. And it tells us that we should feed the hungry. It’s a powerful, concise call for social justice that should hit us even harder today in a time of staggering economic inequality.

Or so I tell my kids. My daughter is quiet, and then replies, “Daddy, what is God?”

We’ll save that for Easter.

Joshua Pederson is an associate professor of humanities at Boston University and the author of “Sin Sick: Moral Injury in War and Literature.” @joshua_pederson