Atheists at Christmas — what are we thinking?

By Georgina Guedes

I was sitting with a couple of my friends enjoying a year-end lunch. Caryn, one of my besties, is Jewish. She asked how the Christmas planning was going, and I went into a long and complicated story about a gift that my son had asked for that cost a fair bit more than I had planned to spend.

We discussed whether it would be possible to implement a strategy of explaining to a four year old that he could have the one big gift, but that meant he wouldn’t get as many little ones as his sister got to unwrap.

We tried to think of ways to illustrate value — beads perhaps, or actual money. My husband’s contention was that while my son might be able to grasp the concept ahead of Christmas morning, there might be disappointment at the actual point of frenzy when he only gets to unwrap the one big thing — even if it was one big thing that he really wanted (a play kitchen, in case you’re wondering).

Caryn joined in gamely — she’s very polite and receptive to other cultures. And I have no idea whether she was thinking it, or I was inferring it, but I imagine that somewhere beneath her calm interest was a level of bafflement: “What is all this nonsense really about?”

You see, Caryn knows I am an atheist. So to her, who keeps a kosher kitchen, it must be very odd to watch me go through the expense and complexity of Christmas planning, when I don’t even believe in the religious significance of the day.

Given that this is my reality, it is understandable that every year, when I plan and shop for my children’s Christmas presents, I get a sinking feeling in my stomach and a roaring in my ears. Essentially, all I am celebrating is consumerism. I am giving my children a pile of plastic crap to whip them up into a frenzy of excitement on a day that doesn’t mean anything to any of us.

Although that’s not strictly true. I have wonderful memories of Christmas at my grandparents’ house, eating all the appropriate food and singing the right songs, and generally celebrating something that is part of my cultural history. Even if I don’t believe in it, there’s something to be said for tradition and festivity.

And I guess that’s something I am trying to do for my children — give them a sense of wonder about their lives, the possibility of magic, and a reason for their families to come together and show them how much we love them. By buying them an impossibly teetering pile of presents.

Unfortunately, whichever way I look at it, it feels tacky. And even if I were religious, I imagine it would still feel indulgent and unnecessary.

As silly as I think it is, can I kick the Christmas habit? No, sir. I can’t. I can’t even seem to cut back a little bit. Christmas is a full-throttle thing. My children’s stockings overfloweth every Christmas morning.

There’s that lekker poem about what you should give children for Christmas: Something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. It’s a nice little rule of thumb that should still bring them pleasure on Christmas morning. And since the Gauteng Education Department has decreed that my six-year-old daughter “needs” an iPad next year, we’ve already got that point covered.

Here are some other tips for reducing the madness of consumerism:

  • Make a list BEFORE you shop — don’t just go and see what’s in the stores.
  • Plan who you are going to buy for — set a limit on recipients.
  • Discuss not exchanging presents among adults (couples are obviously exempt), and play the Secret Santa game instead.
  • Make presents if you can — paint and bead a photo frame or bake your famous biscuits or make a jar of pickles (only do this if these things are really good, though).
  • Give gifts of time rather than physical objects. Seriously, what husband or boyfriend would turn down a foot rub voucher?
  • Invite your Jewish or Muslim friends on the big day. Their polite bafflement will surely serve to temper some of our consumerist spirit.

But finally, give yourself a break. If you celebrate Christmas by handing over a whopping pile of gifts to your kids, that’s something done with love. I know that I spend my entire year feeling guilty about how little attention that my two get from their working mum, and to make up for it, every December, they get three weeks of undiluted focus. And a big pile of loot. So while I think it’s always a good idea to be budget conscious and frugal wherever possible, It’s also fine to indulge your kids and smother them with attention and gifts once a year.

My son is probably going to get that play kitchen — and some other stocking-fillers besides — isn’t he?

Photo by: Loren Kerns, Day 356: Christmas visit via Flickr. CC by 20.

Originally published at on December 17, 2015.

Thoughts, observations and insights. About money, life and 22seven. Visit

Thoughts, observations and insights. About money, life and 22seven. Visit