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Christmas for nonbelievers: Look to the written word Traditions: Faith and secular good will can be merged to accommodate apparently unresolvable conflict.

For me Christmas is a definingly religious holiday with deep spiritual meaning. Yet those closest to me - my two best friends, my partner of 11 years - are all declaratively agnostic. Is a lasting Christmas tradition possible on such a secular foundation? I believe so - and that the possibility stands firmly on books. For more than two decades I have spent every Christmas Eve with the same friend. Lovers, partners, even family have come and gone, but Roberta and I share Christmas Eve, regardless of who else might be in our lives or included in the celebration. It's a tradition, one I hope will continue until we are both doddering old ladies.

Christmas and tradition are joined by history. Yet despite the global efforts of Martha Stewart, for many people, Christmas raises worrisome questions about how to establish or sustain traditions - especially if one is not religious. Conflicts between observers of the undeniably religious holiday and agnostics' secular celebrations can add to the stress rather than joy of the season.

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My friend Roberta is very spiritual, but not religious; she would happily excise the Christian element from Christmas altogether. I am a Roman Catholic for whom faith deepens each year, despite conflicts between my politics and the tenets of my church.

Several Christmases ago Roberta and I and our respective partners became embroiled in heated debate over dinner: Is Christmas a secular or religious holiday? The three agnostics at the table felt Christmas - the celebration of the beginning of Christianity-had become a secular holiday with a spiritual meaning beyond the birth of Christ.

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How can agnostics celebrate in the midst of a religious season? Is Christmas only for Christian believers? For years, I attempted to drag everyone off to Mass with me, hoping they would enjoy the ritual if not its spiritual essence. I finally realized this only served to make me tense as they fidgeted uncomfortably once the initial carol-singing was over. I now attend Mass alone.

How then can one establish traditions that somehow embrace both the secular and the sacred so that friends can share in this most festive and splendid season?

The answer is rooted in the concept of belief and faith - and in the written word. For me the true Christmas story is told in the verses of Luke in the New Testament. But consider other books, what many consider Christmas classics, like Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" or my great-great-great uncle's prose poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (now titled "Twas the Night Before Christmas") or even the story of the Tchaikovsky ballet "The Nutcracker" - all are inherently secular tales that hold spiritual messages. These and other Christmas stories offer alternative meaning to the holiday and thus how to share it with those who don't share one's faith. I have come to realize that my agnostic friends' argument holds weight. For those without strong

religious convictions, Christmas can wield a spiritual power that does not necessarily lead one to church or singing carols. For a Catholic like myself, Christmas defines renewal, celebration and deepening of faith.

However, agnostics needn't miss out on this replenishing of the soul, as the most beloved Christmas classics explain. Christmas renews our faith in humanity, in community, reminding us of our own spiritual power totally irrespective of religion. Understanding how that power can effect change here and now is as defining as the power of Jesus' birth.

Classic essence

One can walk through any book store at this time of year, from the struggling independents to the monolithic superstores, and find hundreds of "gift" books arrayed for holiday consumption. Some of these are declaratively Christmas books - about the history of Christmas or Christianity or with some other definingly religious tone to them. But our favorites, the classic tales told at Christmas, are all curiously devoid of the obvious religious connections. They are about the essence of Christmas, the kind of secularized suffusion of holiday spirit my friends argued for so strongly as I readied myself for Mass.

Is there anyone in the English-speaking world who doesn't know the story of Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (Troll Communications, 328 pages, $2.95) or who can't recite at least part of Clement C. Moore's "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" (Dover, 52 pages, $2.50) Even Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (Random House, 64 pages, $8.25) has become archetypal. What do these stories convey, why do they resonate regardless of faith or agnosticism?

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They are about magic and wonder and the immense power of community, of sharing. "'Twas the Night" reconstructs the childlike wonderment we all feel at Christmas; the poem, narrated by an adult, expresses renewal of that sense of magic.

Scrooge and the Grinch experience that same revelatory moment as they revamp themselves into nouvelle prototypes of Moore's St. Nick. The message in these tales is defining: there is something wondrous in giving, something that makes us, as we see in Scrooge, near giddy with pleasure, restoring us to a place of innocence.

There are more bittersweet Christmas tales than these, of course, that also focus on the secular, my favorites being O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" (Dramatic Publishers, 20 pages, $3.75) and Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" (Random House, 148 pages, $15). Yet even more than "A Christmas Carol," in which all resolves happily, these tales evoke that essence of Christmas spirit: to give completely and unselfishly to those we love as well as to strangers.

Capote's memories are painfully compelling; his is no joyous Rockwellian or even Dickensian Christmas - more like the dysfunctionality we are all familiar with, full of unmet expectations. And yet it is deeply, inalterably about the lasting power of love and giving.

Such tremendous sadness attends O. Henry's tale: the locks shorn to buy the watch fob, the watch pawned to buy the beautiful hair clip. And yet our hearts melt for these lovers because we know they could do nothing less, as this is what the season demands: the one tradition that supersedes religion or agnosticism - to give without resistance or rectitude, to give to bring joy to others.

After the Grinch has stolen everything from the Whos down in Whoville, they are still caroling and celebrating despite the dearth of gifts or even the last can of Who Hash to feast upon. The Grinch contemplates the scene, noting: "Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, he thought, means a little bit more."

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Christmas, even the most secular, devoid of any taint of religiosity, is an antidote to the cynicism and alienation inveighed by the daily strife and perils of a secular world. Christmas reintroduces us, like Scrooge and the Grinch, to a world of innocence where all things magical are possible, if only briefly.

Recaptured joy

We can divest ourselves of the poverty of spirit that attends us so much of the year. As these classic and very secularized tales illumine for us, there is room, in fact a deep, often inchoate desire, to recapture our joyous wonderment in the power of giving, to immerse ourselves in the innocent excitement of the world as we first experienced it.

For some, that will mean looking toward the Star in the East. For others it will mean looking across a dinner table to one's friend of more than two decades and celebrating all we share. But at Christmas we all have the power to explore and devise traditions that warm our hearts and give meaning to our lives throughout the year. Belief in each other has its own radical - and intensely spiritual - power.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of several books. Her most recent book is Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors (Seal Press), co-authored with filmmaker Judith M.Redding. Her maternal great-great-great uncle was the theologian Clement C. Moore, author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Pub Date: 12/21/97


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