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By Timothy H. Kepple

I don’t observe many holiday traditions.

Well this surprises no one, I’m sure. My interest in holidays continues to decrease the older I become. Without children, I think many adults tend to let the ‘specialness’ of holidays fade, along with any traditions they may have practiced. It’s certainly true for me, at least, and I’m the only one for whom I can truly speak. Years ago, I also came to the realization that ‘tradition’ is just a convenient label to apply to a practice that is repeated in a timely way in perpetuity, no matter how meaningless that practice may be.

Since that doesn’t really roll off the tongue, I’ll put it this way: Tradition is nothing more than an excuse to repeat stupid behavior on a regular basis. That’s a lot smoother, I think. While not all traditions are stupid, I suppose (I do rather like … um … I’ll get back to you), it seems like a common excuse for stupid behavior comes down to, “but it’s a tradition!”

Or maybe I’m just a grouch. Or maybe it’s because growing up, my family really didn’t have many holiday traditions, other than hoping the power wouldn’t go out. Again. Many Christmas mornings were spent without power, with presents being unwrapped by the light of oil lamps after a late-night snow storm. I’d probably remember this more fondly if the heat hadn’t also gone out along with the power.

I think traditions can only occur once an event is observed more than two times. Which is good, because at least twice on a Christmas day, I was sick. I don’t think this counts as a tradition, thankfully, because I’d hate to spend every December 25th throwing up onto the back of a sheep.

I suppose my biggest childhood memory of Christmas is the scent of opening the boxes of stored ornaments and decorations with their unique musty smell of candle wax and forgotten candy canes with coniferous overtones. And of getting up far too early, after not being able to sleep due to anticipational excitement.

Which reminds me of one childhood tradition we had- my parents would give my brother and I their Little Ben alarm clock and a flashlight. We were not allowed to get up before 6 a.m. Christmas morning. At least once an hour if not more during the entire night, we would wake up and shine the flashlight across the room to check the time. We must have actually slept at one point, since the presents materialized beneath the tree unnoticed, but for the most part, we merely dozed and checked the clock. By 5 a.m., we were daring each other to sneak downstairs to just look at the presents. Obviously, we weren’t nearly as quiet as we thought we were, since the rest of the family usually joined us fairly soon after. In the spirit of the season, we never got in trouble. Except for the one time we broke the handle off my mother’s favorite hair brush by playing catch with it while waiting for everyone else to wake up.

We weren’t much for singing carols, either, although I’ll always like the Singing Dogs’ version of Jingle Bells because of the memory of our dog barking back at it from the basement whenever it came on the radio.

As an atheist now, I don’t celebrate Christmas for the traditional reasons. The quandary is that I like giving presents to people, and doing it after Christmas just seems to be too obstinate, even for me. A number of years ago, I hit upon the perfect solution- considering a number of holidays are celebrated during December, and furthermore, how often December 25th itself has been used to celebrate different things by different belief systems, I’d just do the same thing! And so, C.H.R.I.S.T.M.A.S. was born, an acronym for Cheery Holiday Revelry In Secular Togetherness Marking Atheistic Sincerity.

I could probably sell that on t-shirts.

I also have a tree! Every year, I draw one out on paper, label it as ‘TREE’, and tape it to the wall, where it watches over my C.H.R.I.S.T.M.A.S. presents until December 25th, C.H.R.I.S.T.M.A.S. Day. I’ve been doing this for five years now, so it’s definitely a tradition.

New Year’s Eve has never been overly important to me, either. I think I’ve been to a total of two New Year’s Eve parties in my life, never seen the purpose (or desire for) the traditional midnight kiss, and I never really understood the excitement others feel about watching the ball drop. Perhaps it’s because my family did not have a television until I was fourteen, so the biggest excitement I had New Year’s Eve was staying awake until midnight and watching the date on my digital watch change to a new year.

I’m not sure why this tradition of mine never caught on with other people, considering the depths of its excitement, but it certainly proves my earlier postulate: Tradition is nothing more than an excuse to repeat stupid behavior on a regular basis. And I did at least once a year for a number of years.

Of course, another New Year’s tradition is the making, and eventual breaking, of resolutions. As in all things, I try to be realistic whenever I make resolutions for the new year. For the past 15 years, I’ve been making the same one- to make the new year better than the last.

Unlike many other resolutions, this is one I’ve mostly been able to keep. 2003 messed up my track record, however, for reasons I will not go into. Just use your imagination.

It seems a number of holiday traditions are influenced by a desire to be with a large group of people in pursuit of the same goal (this could also explain the curious habit of watching football in groups.) This is not a desire I have (football or otherwise); my biggest wish on a holiday is to simply be left alone.

I think I’ll make that my holiday tradition, no matter what the holiday may be: to quietly spend time at home by myself.

I know most people will think this is stupid, which simply proves what I pointed out in the first place: it’s what traditions are all about.

Here are my holiday trees, starting from the first one in 2008.

Tree 2010 Tree 2011 Tree 2012

I don’t celebrate Christmas; I’m not Christian. I don’t celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanza or the Solstice or Yule or Saint Nicholas day or Saturnalia or even Festivus for the same reason. I’m an atheist, and do not celebrate holidays for religious reasons.

To some people, this makes me lacking. I’m not offended by holidays. I don’t want to get rid of holidays, no matter why they’re celebrated. I’m not waging a “war on Christmas.” I’m not even sure how I could. I don’t get angry if someone says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” to me. I don’t own the holidays and I don’t care what is celebrated or how or why or by whom.

This doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate holidays, especially at this time of year. I can celebrate the spirit of giving, and the feeling of brotherhood that comes with the season. Cards from friends make me smile whether there is a Christmas Star or a snowman on the front. I can see and appreciate the beauty in a nativity scene just as I do in a menorah or a Christmas parade. I like lights in trees and carols on the radio and the thought of people dancing in the moonlight in the woods on the night of the Winter solstice. It makes me happy to watch my dog enjoy his extra can of dog food.

Holidays for me mean more than just a day off from work; there’s the spirit of the season that I can lose myself in; the feasting; the personal reflection; the giving and receiving of gifts. I like presents just as much as anyone else, and I’ve always enjoyed finding the perfect gift for a person in my life, something special; something meaningful. Like the time in my youth when I finally settled the argument I had with my brother over who the family dog loved best by presenting him on behalf of said dog with a holiday box full of brownies I’d squeezed into the shape of dog poo.

There’s also the pleasure of seeing the gifts that others receive, like the year my father told my mother that for Christmas he wanted to spend a weekend with a strange woman … so she put a dress on a coal shovel with his name on it.

The annual issue of avoiding the commercialism of the holidays and returning to the “reason for the season” does not escape me, either. Granted, while my own personal reason for the season may be far different than what many would intend, escaping rampant commercialism is easy when you simply have no money to spend; a situation I found myself in a number of years ago. Out of work and flat broke, far from home, my holiday gifts that year were letters to each member of my family and some close friends detailing exactly what I really thought of them and just what they meant to me. They were the kind of letter that I would be embarrassed by if anyone else were to read them. I wasn’t there when the recipients received them; I was eating my holiday dinner in a truck stop at the time, but it’s just as well. I didn’t need to be there; I’d said what I needed to say. Someday, no matter how much money I have, I know I can say it again.

There’s a sense of freedom in not being tied down to a holiday. I am not required to please anyone but myself. I can ignore the holidays if I choose; but I choose not to. So if anyone has ever wondered how an atheist can feel the holiday spirit- celebrate your way, and I’ll celebrate mine- by feeling them all.

Happy Holidays!