A Humanist Holiday Countdown

Credit: Friedrich Böhringer CC BY 2.5

In my quest to prove that the winter holidays can be just as meaningful for us heathens as they are for the religious, I was turned on to the idea, very popular on the internet for the past few years, of the Christmas Countdown. Each day you present your kids with a little note with an idea or activity related to the holidays. These paper notes can be put into store-bought or homemade Advent Calendars (or Countdown Calendars, as I like to call them, for obvious reasons...), made into a paper chain to be dismantled one link per day, or delivered by any Elves that may be occupying your shelves at this time of year. 

The wonderful thing about this idea is that it can be entirely customized to fit your family, because ideas for what to write on the note are endless. Some of the activities can be regular holiday things you would be doing anyway: decorating a Christmas tree, driving around the neighborhood to see light displays, eating latkes, etc. Christian families often include bible passages that tell the story of Christmas throughout the month, or instructions to pray for someone in need. Because I was raised in a culturally Christian household, the ideas presented below mostly have a focus on secular Christmas ideas, but this idea can work with any traditions you enjoy at this time of year. 

Okay, so...what if you’re a Humanist parent, and you’re maybe kind of new at this stuff--either parenting or humanism or both? What are some ideas that can take your values and turn them into fun and edifying activities that convey to your kids the meaning you and your family ascribe to the darkest days of the year, independent of the ideas of those who want to “keep Christ in Christmas?”

Know Yourself 

You can begin by considering what the holidays mean to you. I thought long and hard about what Christmas has meant to me as a (culturally Christian) atheist. For me it boils down to three main things:

  1. A sense of wonder about the universe, the earth, and the remarkable fact that humans evolved, unguided, from the products of physics, chemistry, and biology. 
  2. A desire to connect with family and friends and light up the dark and cold days with festive good cheer. 
  3. A belief that this desire to support and help should extend beyond both my close friends and family and into the community and world, and beyond the cold, dark season and into the warmer and sunnier parts of the year. 

Once you have identified personal meaning and significance that you'd like to share with your family, you can begin thinking of how to put that into action over the month of December. 

A Sense of Wonder

Geminid Meteor Shower. Credit: Asim Patel CC BY 3.0

Geminid Meteor Shower. Credit: Asim Patel CC BY 3.0

For sharing a sense of wonder about the universe and the earth, you might go out and watch the Geminid meteor shower, or use a telescope to look at the stars. You can learn about axial tilt and “the real reason for the season” using a globe or an orange and a flashlight. Re-watch your favorite episode of Cosmos. A science-oriented present on the solstice is a way some humanist families promote an appreciation of the natural world while acknowledging the arbitrariness of December 25 as the date for Christmas. And on some days, instead of bible verses, you could include inspirational quotations from Carl Sagan or Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Spreading Good Cheer

Supporting and cheering up those we love through the cold and dark days is, for me, the most essential part of the holidays. You could probably fill an entire year with ideas in this category--many things in this category are probably things you and your kids do every day--but this activity shines a special light on the value of connecting with those around us. Bake cookies and drop them off at the fire station; write a note to thank your school bus driver for her tireless efforts to keep you safe; shovel an elderly neighbor’s driveway;  tell a friend at school that you think they’re cool; host a cookie-decorating party for your friends. This is a good place to fit in what are often referred as Random Acts of Kindness: saying “hi” to someone you see often but never acknowledge; leaving a gift card in a shopping cart with a note of explanation; feeding someone’s parking meter; etc. And instead of praying for someone you haven't talked to in a while, why not call them up and tell them you love them?

Reaching Out to Help

An Advent Calendar. Credit: Andrea Schaufler CC BY 2.5

For me, a global perspective and insight into how other people live are essential parts of being a humanist, and a desire to help others naturally follows. You can help your child identify his or her own outgrown winter clothes or toys to donate to people whose families can't afford to buy them. Encourage them to save energy and "help to keep the Earth clean and healthy" by turning off the lights (or closing the door or turning off the water) every time they leave a room (or leave the house or use the sink). Because, as humanists know, taking action to help the world has a greater impact than waiting for gods to do it.

Another idea, that I got from a friend who is a Montessori teacher, is to sprinkle little tasks throughout the month that focus on the things we in the developed world take for granted but that would be considered great luxuries to many people in the world. In your note, instruct the kids to count how many books (or faucets, or heating vents) there are in your house, and have them set aside a penny or nickel for each. If you are like me, you may want to frame it with an overtly didactic message, such as: "Many people in other parts of the world do not have clean water. They have to walk far to get water, and sometimes the water can make them sick. We are very lucky to have clean, healthy water delivered directly to our home. Count how many faucets there are in the house. For each faucet, put aside a nickel." Or: "We are fortunate to have so many books in our house. Many kids don't have any books of their own. Count all of the books in your house, and for each one, put one cent in the wooden bowl in the dining room."

Central New York Humanists at the Light the Night Walk, 2014. Credit: Heather A. Henderson CC BY 4.0

At the end of the month, you can sit down with your kids and help them decide what to do with the money they have put aside. Perhaps donate to a local food bank or Hikers for the HomelessMercy Corps has a great site where donations are assigned to specific “gifts” for a family in another part of the world, such as a cooking stove or a goat. The site explains the problem the gift solves, and often includes a video, educating you and your kids about the hardships encountered humans around the world. And, as you may know, Foundation Beyond Belief gives detailed descriptions of the work done by their featured charities that could spark discussion and allow kids to choose a use for their money that they feel will do the most good.

Know Your Kids

In addition to identifying the meaning you want to share, think about your kids. What activities might keep their interest throughout the month? What do they enjoy? Are they animal lovers? Collecting blankets and towels and bringing them to an animal shelter, feeding the birds (e.g.: Feed our cousins! Millions of years ago, we shared common ancestors with birds. Fill the bird feeders today after school and help them fill their bellies for the winter!), or adopting an animal at the zoo are all options that could tailor the experience for a kid who loves animals. Do they love being outside? "We really enjoy living near nature, with woods, parks, birds, and animals all around us. We have places to swim, hike, ride bikes, ski, sled, and canoe all nearby. Go for a hike outdoors with your family today!" Or perhaps baking, or socializing, or crafts are their thing?

Do they enjoy independent activities, or will they want to do things with you by their side? Some kids will enjoy more complicated activities, while others will probably lose interest if the the notes are too long or the idea for that day too complex. Do they have an aversion to numbers and math? If so, counting books and coins may not be the way to go.

This should be an enjoyable way to put the holidays into a meaningful context, so keep it fun and enjoy some time sharing your values with your kids!

Credit: Heather A. Henderson CC BY 4.0

Heather A. Henderson is an erstwhile archivist, copy editor, massage therapist, and barista who has lived in Connecticut, Texas, Northern California, and Cleveland, OH. She now lives in Syracuse, NY, with her professor husband and two awesome kids. She is a stay-at-home mom and the Social Media gal for the CNY Humanists.