How nonbelievers create holiday magic and bring joy to their world — without Jesus and, sometimes, Santa

For many, the Christmas season is about giving and getting and gathering and drinking and loving — without the whole Christian story.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christmas decorations in Erin Jo Kieffer-Allen's Layton home on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.

Mette Harrison used to hate Santa.

As a devout Latter-day Saint, the novelist says, she felt that Santa was “a bastardization of Jesus.”

After Harrison gave up literal belief in the Christian Savior as the son of God, though, she came to see the jolly bearded man as “representing all the things of Jesus that I could carry — like secret gift-giving.”

She remembers fondly her father’s tradition of buying presents for a neighbor and then assigning one child in her large family to run to the door, ring the bell, and dash back to the car.

When it was her turn, Harrison felt especially important, thinking, “My dad trusts me to run fast and be secretive.”

Still, as a poet and writer, she says, the story of the babe in a manger — celebrated by shepherds, wise men, angels and heaven — holds within it universal themes of peace, hope and faith for a better future.

These days, self-identified Christians make up 63% of the U.S. population, down from 75% a decade ago, according to a just-released Pew poll, so lots of former believers have grappled with whether to create a feeling of wonder, anticipation and delight during this time without espousing the supernatural elements of religion.

Some do it by drawing on older traditions — like Celtic and Nordic customs — about the return of the light. Some find meaning in stories like Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” or poetry.

Some appreciate music like Handel’s “Messiah” without accepting its specific message or stick with the secular songs of “Frosty” and “Rudolph.”

They can relate, some say, to the lyrics of Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun”:

“I really like Christmas

It’s sentimental, I know,

But I just really like it…

And, yes, I have all of the usual objections

To consumerism, the commercialization of an ancient religion

To the Westernization of a dead Palestinian

Press-ganged into selling PlayStations and beer

But I still really like it

I’m looking forward to Christmas

Though I’m not expecting a visit from Jesus

I’ll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun…”

For many nonbelievers, then, Christmas is about giving and getting and gathering and drinking and loving — not about what they see as a myth from long ago about a birth far away.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“We left Christianity before any of our kids could really be indoctrinated with that story,” says Layton resident Erin Jo Kieffer-Allen. “When we were in Germany, my 11-year-old came home and asked me what that manger scene was all about. I told him the story and he said, ‘Well, that’s a dumb story.’”

The mom laughed, she says, but was proud “that I didn’t raise my kids to believe the silly stories that even children know makes zero sense.”

She doesn’t subscribe to any religion, but that hasn’t stopped her family from enjoying the festivities.

“Trees are nice and gift-giving is nice,” she says. “Food is good and decorating is fun. It really doesn’t have to be any more than that.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of the Santas in Erin Jo Kieffer-Allen's collection at her Layton home on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.

Nathan Bigler of Salt Lake City is an atheist with teen children.

“I like to inform them about what people believe. We have close friends who are part of each major religion,” he says. “And we talk about Jesus, different Christian beliefs and Hindu and Muslim practices that we learn about.”

They did invoke Santa, he says, when his children were young “because it’s a fun idea.”

Now he wants to make sure his kids are “very skeptical of magical claims.”

Even playful ones.

The Santa substitute

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Santa waves to shoppers at the Outlets at Traverse Mountain on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021.

For many like Harrison, the Santa yarn has always seemed to be a secular version of the Jesus story for kids. It has been an imaginative way to teach kids about generosity and excitement.

For others, though, it’s a nonstarter.

“We talk a lot about different beliefs and cultures,” says Chelsea Griffith Watts of Round Hill, Va. “I find a lot of meaning in the themes and traditions of Christmas even if I’m not a literal believer anymore.”

But the family has never been big fans of Santa.

“Our oldest was terrified of him as a little kid (weird old guy who watches you all year and then sneaks into your house while you’re asleep),” she says. “No thank you.”

Jim Christensen of Longview, Wash., has lived on four continents and seen Christmas in many different settings. He once got to read from the Bible during an Anglican service in Peshawar, Pakistan.

But telling kids “any religion’s magic is real is a lie that in no way needs to be done to invoke awe, inspiration and joy,” Christensen says. It is enough to have “a close family, awesome kids, wonderful Christmases and being honest.”

David Sigmon of Kansas City, Mo., has three children, ages 15, 13 and 10. All of them know the Christmas story in which their extended family believes.

Sigmon puts up a Christmas tree and gives presents, but he has made sure that none of them ever bought into the Santa tale.

“The decision to never lie to my kids about Santa stems from a vow I made when I found out my mom, who I trusted so much, had lied to me about Santa,” he says. “I was insanely obedient as a child. I believed my parents completely. It rocked my world as a 6- or 7-year- old to discover Mom had lied to me for years. I know I am strange, but I think even my atheism today is an outgrowth of my integrity and loyalty to truth.”

‘Turning of the seasons’

Dec. 25 remains “an appropriate time to celebrate the winter solstice, as countless cultures have done through millennia,” says Nick Literski of Tigard, Ore. “The choice of that date for a celebration of the birth of Jesus was dependent on those preexisting traditions, not the other way around.”

The enchantment, he says, “is in the return of the light.”

Many former Christians find pleasure — and natural wonder — in various ancient Irish winter stories about a battle between the Oak King, who represented the light, and the Holly King, who represented the dark.

Then there’s Odin, one of the principal gods in Norse mythology, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. He could fly through the night on his otherworldly horse, pulling a sleigh and was known for giving gifts.

“Odin is Santa Claus,” says Northern California resident Lamont Holm. “Odin’s horse had eight legs…. Santa has eight reindeer.”

For his gathering, Holm “brings back the true mythology of the midwinter celebration of Yuletide, gathering with friends and family, decorations, trees, mingled with gifts to celebrate American consumerism and a Jewish philosopher who wasn’t born in December.”

Jeanine Ockey’s views didn’t evolve away from religion until she was an adult, so she taught her children the traditional Christmas story.

“If I had it to do over again, I think we would spend the holidays exploring different religious traditions and choosing those things that resonated the most with us, with an emphasis on not claiming one story as superior, but rather focus on the value of myth and seeing stories for what they can teach us about how to be better humans,” says the Bonney Lake, Wash., mother. “I find the most meaning in seeking out what my ancient ancestors believed in and celebrating my roots and the changing of nature through the seasons. My kids, now older teenagers, share in some new traditions celebrating the return of the light (winter solstice) and some of the traditions that go with the season in our part of the natural world.”

They still do “Christmas morning,” Ockey says, “but we’re honest about what it does and doesn’t mean. I don’t teach them myths as fact, and I encourage them to find what resonates with them and pursue it, with respect for the equality of beliefs across a wide spectrum of humanity.”

Missouri mom Kai Hikaru celebrates the solstice with her son as “a time for warmth, relaxation, family, gratitude and charity,” she says. “We discuss the turning of the seasons and new beginnings. Cocoa, books, fireplaces, board games and puzzles.”

They review what they have and are grateful for, while thinking about how to “do more to help others in need,” Kikaru says, including volunteering at food banks and soup kitchens.

She teaches her son about Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other celebrations from other religions, but “they aren’t the focus of our holiday,” she says. “It just helps him understand what others believe and the customs and traditions they have so he can be respectful of them.”

Embracing a metaphor

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mette Harrison, Utah novelist, shown in May 2021.

Mette Harrison, too, has had to reinvent her identity and beliefs after moving away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I see all of the ideas of Christianity as metaphors,” she writes in a series of Facebook posts titled “Agnostic Christmas Advent,” “and because they are beautiful poetry, I can interpret them how I want.”

At its core, the Nativity is about motherhood and giving birth, she says, “and how glorious it is to have this new life come from nowhere.”

Most of her six children were born at home, not in a hospital, Harrison says. “We didn’t have a manger, but we were really poor.”

In her poem, “Nativity,” she writes:

“I believe in the hope of newborn love

And in the joy of new motherhood

After months of pregnancy

And hours of labor

To see a new face looking back at you

A human life you have actually grown inside yourself

That always looks like the face of God.”

Where once she saw Advent as the hope to “be worthy of God’s love,” now she hopes for “someone to figure out how to stop global warming.” Once she saw Advent as anticipation of Christ’s return, now she is learning about waiting and patience.

“I have never liked surprises because I want to be in control. I want to know what is coming,” Harrison writes. “But this is a time for not knowing, for hoping, for believing in things you have no proof of.”

A star guiding the Magi to the baby?

“Stars in the sky aren’t immovable. They can fall. And when they do, we have to find new stars, maybe more than one,” she writes. “Maybe we can become the star? I don’t know.”

She doubts Jesus and Christianity are the “one right way,” Harrison writes. “But I also don’t want to give up looking up into the skies and finding — something — there.”