Ask Mommy: How Do I Explain Christmas To My Kids?

ChristmasAdult humans do some weird things. Dragging a dead tree into our living room and throwing balls all over it is definitely one of them. It’s fun and we love it, but it’s fucking weird and you come to realize just how strange it all is when you’re asked how to explain Christmas to someone who doesn’t know what it is.

I got an email from a reader recently asking me for advice in explaining our winter holiday to her kids. As I thought about it, I realized, I’d never really explained it to my son. Rather, we have just gone through the festive motions every year and now it’s normal to him. There is no association between Christmas and Jesus to him, and I wonder if he’d be shocked to find out there is a connection. I wonder if he even knows it’s considered a religious holiday by many?

Here in Canada, Christmas is pretty secular. There are small pockets of people who do a little more cross cuddling around this time of year, but for the most part, Christmas in Canada is about family, friends, great food, awesome gifts and just having fun. I’ve never had the inclination to explain the religious origins of Christmas to my son, because it’s just not religious anymore. Explaining the origins of Christmas to him is like explaining how the Browns were once the Rams – it’s a conversation we’ll have one day, solely for the purposes of preparing him to dominate at Trivial Pursuit.

I suppose if I was going to sit down with him and inject Jeeby into something that is otherwise the highlight of my son’s year, this is how I imagine the conversation would go :

“So, you know how some people believe in Jesus and God and go to church and stuff, right?” I’d ask him.

“Yeah.” He would inevitably struggle to pay attention.

“Well, some people believe that Christmas Day was Jesus’ birthday. That’s why they celebrate Christmas.”

“But Jesus isn’t real, Mom!”

“Well, I don’t think he’s real and I know you don’t think he’s real, but some people believe he’s real and celebrate Christmas as his birthday.”

“Why don’t we?” I assume he might ask.

“Because, to us, Christmas is just about being with your family and having a good time. Over the many years humans have been celebrating Christmas, the religious meaning of the holiday has slowly disappeared. We celebrate now mostly because it is a fun tradition. None of us believe December 25th was Jesus’ birthday.”

“What if it really is his birthday?” I raised him, so of course, every answer will be met with another question.

“Well, I think it’s pretty far fetched. People who believed in Jesus adopted an older holiday called Saturnalia. It was celebrated by ancient Romans who believed in the God, Saturn, for whom the planet was named. The Christians took over Saturnalia and used the last day of the Roman holiday as Jesus’ birthday. There are good reasons to believe Jesus was born in spring, but without any real evidence, we shouldn’t believe either.”

“What if I wanted to believe it was Jesus’ birthday?”

“Then you can go right ahead and believe that. I’d still love you just as much!” This is the point in the conversation where the talking would likely stop and the tickle fight would probably begin and we’d leave it at that.

If I didn’t live in Canada, though, and maybe I lived in the Southern U.S., I might consider more of an explanation. I might say something like:

“On Christmas, religious people sometimes go to church to pay their respects to Jesus.”

“Church on Christmas? That would suck!” No doubt he would express his distaste for this ritual.

“It would for us, but to some, it’s a tradition they look forward to every year.”

“I wouldn’t want to do that.”

“Me neither, little dude, but we can’t be rude or mean to people who think otherwise. It’s just like how I love to swim and you love to play baseball. Everyone is different. Not better or worse.”

“I know, Mom!” He would definitely say, rolling his eyes. This is something that gets repeated a lot in our house.

I might get into what a nativity scene is, and tell him about the myth of Jesus’ birth in a manger. Perhaps tell him about the Star of Bethlehem and talk about the three wise men. Then I’d liken it to the story of Rumpelstiltskin or the Three Little Pigs to illustrate the fact that it is, in fact, just a story. Perhaps I’d talk a little bit about where decorating a tree originated, or why we give gifts, but I think if I rambled on too long, I might lose his attention.

Besides, in our house, religion is not important. It is a non-thing and until a member of my family becomes religious, it’ll always be a non-thing. I keep my explanations of religious concepts short and sweet so we can get on with the business of having an awesome, secular, Christmas.

How do you explain Christmas to your kids? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Margaret Tombs

    We don’t have a dead tree, we have a live pot grown tree which can be planted out in the garden afterwards, it drops a lot less needles. 🙂

  • MrOzAtheist

    I don’t think I ever explained it to my kids either. It was/is just something we did. I think by now they probably realise it’s to do with the alleged date of the Jesus’ alleged birth, but ol’ JC is never mentioned at Christmas for us. This include the big extended family of Catholics which I’m part of. One or two might mention they were at midnight mass (can you think of anything worse??? You can, but you know what I mean) but no one ever says ‘and happy birthday Jesus’. More likely to hear ‘Happy Birthday Aunty Noel’ whose birthday it also is that day.

    • Yeah, I don’t see the purpose, to be honest, unless he asks. Christmas is just not about Jesus here.


    I’ve pretty well given up trying to explain anything. I find everything about Christmas weird. The music, the lights, the dead trees, the obligatory joy, and there is simply no escaping it. Worst of all, in my view, are the people who get their humanity out of the closet for a few days every December and pronounce themselves wonderful for having done so.

    • Sounds like you need to surround yourself with better people!

  • bronte nelson

    The better explanation is that the holiday celebration has and always will be to mark the winter solstice. Not one historian actually believes it was actually the birth date of anyone momentous. Christians superimposed their celebration on an already existing one to give it a jump start. The year of Jesus birth is actually 4 years after Herrod died, if they cannot get the year right you know full well the date is not right.

    • Great points! Thanks for reading. I think I’d definitely include the winter solstice explanation.

      • Margaret Tombs

        Yes, that’s the one I always went for.

  • I have found it fun to alternate between the various traditions. This year is Hanukkah, the sufganiyot(jelly doughnut wholes) are a hit. We learn about the separate traditions by experiencing them. Next year gonna try to put together a Saturnalia Feast where the kids bring the food to the adults table.