Happy Anni-birth-mas!

In my family, December is about more than just Christmas.  The succession of special days in December has been dubbed “anni-birth-mas,” and our traditions have come to be about all of us–Ladybug’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, then Christmas.  It’s a jumble, at least for now.  We try to give each day its due attention, but we don’t draw too many lines between the celebrations.

As I wrote last year, we have our own take on holiday traditions:

“To be honest, I still trip over the words to Christmas carols I’ve heard a million times but only recently started to sing.  I didn’t manage to get Christmas cards out before the holiday (or the new year), and I’m quite sure no one had a Christmas tree like ours.  Our Christmas was ‘us,’ and I loved it.”

Our DIY tree is far from most people’s idea of traditional, but it makes me smile every time I see it.  It represents our influences from Christianity and Buddhism, as well as our anti-consumerist tendencies.  The most important thing to me is that it be fun.  It’s also kind of funny, but that is just a bonus.

If you can’t tell from the photo, the Buddha sits in the middle of our “tree” this year–flashing the peace sign.  It is part shrine, part art project, part holiday celebration.  Completely ours.

Not that I don’t want Ladybug to know what a more traditional holiday looks like.  That’s what books are for.  We read Celebrate Christmas for context and The Perfect Christmas to emphasize that everyone celebrates differently.  Then we read A Christmas Tree for Pyn to talk about family and simplicity.  (FWIW, this is one of my favorite picture books this year.  Read the review at Waking Brain Cells for more details.)

This is what works for us.  I hope your family has found what works for you.  Merry holidays!

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

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Our Secular Bedtime

“May I have a blessing?” Ladybug asked at bedtime one night.

I have to admit, I was thrown.  How would she even know the word “blessing”?  A few questions revealed a bedtime blessing she had heard at a recent sleepover, and while I wasn’t opposed to a general blessing-type-thing, the one Ladybug recited about angels protecting us as we sleep wasn’t going to fly at our house.

So began my somewhat reluctant search for a bedtime blessing (or whatever) that fit our family.  It’s a difficult task for a non-religious family for whom the word “blessing” is a little too far from our comfort zone.  I felt a bit less reluctant about the idea of a blessing after reading Raising Happiness (which I mentioned in this post about gratitude) since it included a recommendation to say a mealtime prayer (or prayer-like thing, the author notes for non-religious families) as a way of modeling shared optimism and gratitude.

My requirements were as follows:

  • Express empowerment or optimism
  • No reference to anything supernatural

Sounds pretty simple, right?  That’s what I thought, but nothing I found in books of children’s prayers and blessings were secular enough for us–even the Unitarian prayers still felt like they were invoking something in a way that wouldn’t feel right for us.

Then one night before bedtime, we found what we were looking for as we finished our bedtime story for the night.  The story had a little bear looking to put off bedtime with request for one more story, one more prayer, one more anything that would mean not sleeping for a few more minutes.  It’s a familiar routine at our house, but it was the end of the story stood out that night.

The final words to Sleepyhead by Karma Wilson are now our bedtime “blessing”:

“Sleepyhead, Sleepyhead

Sleep tight, sleep tight.

Tomorrow’s play is just ahead.

I love you so. Now rest your head.”

That felt right.

I’ve since discovered this post about secular bedtime prayers from Kelly Naturally that might have something that feels right for you.

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

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Finding a World Greater Than Ourselves

“I take of my hat on the walk

down to the park

because it feels like a church

and I want to feel

connected to the sky, and I realize

it is a church–

it contains my religion:

the trees, the birds, the air so smooth

into my lungs. This is my cross,

my prayers, my communion.

I take off my hat because the trees

tell me to. They say, you

walk in a greater world than yourself;

show respect to this powerful world which you

might leave at any time.”


This excerpt of a poem by Nicole Guenther is from the anthology Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25.  The anthology is full of youthful passion, but this thoughtful meditation on religion is the poem that stood out to me the most.  I am not an “outdoorsy” person by any stretch of the imagination.  I feel like a bit of a fraud acting as though I have this strong connection to nature when the closest I get to nature are my long, meditative walks during which I get all my great ideas and inspiration.  And even that doesn’t feel right to say–I’ve hardly made the time for such walks since Ladybug was born (she’s almost four now for those keeping score).  Perhaps that’s why I haven’t had as many great ideas lately….

In any case, I hope to experience a greater connection to the trees and the sky and to share this sort of “spirituality” with my daughter.

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

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Answering Questions

A few weeks ago, I was out and about with Ladybug on a busy Saturday when she asked, “How did that tree grow so tall?”

That simple question was the beginning of an afternoon-long conversation about plants and what they need to grow.  I was feeling quite proud of my parenting skills.  I sometimes struggle with explaining things simply enough.  I can get bogged down in the details, and that’s kind of a curiosity-killer when it comes to my three-year-old.  That  day, though, everything clicked.


When we got home, Ladybug slipped a rock out of her pocket and put it in the living room window.  She looked up at me proudly, “It needs sun to grow!”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say to that.  My first impulse was to run out to the library to find a bunch of books about rocks to set the matter straight.*  But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that I should just leave this be for now.  She doesn’t need to have all her questions answered immediately.  She needs to be able to hypothesize about her world without me jumping in to correct her or steer her to the answer I want her to have.

From Raising Freethinkers,

“If curiosity is what you’re after, your main goal in responding to a question shouldn’t be giving the answer.  In some cases, an immediate answer can even extinguish curiosity.  What you want is to keep the questions coming, day after day, year after year.  To do that, you want first and foremost to make the child feel that questioning itself is a fun and rewarding thing to do.”

In this case, she made a connection. It isn’t quite right, but it is certainly interesting.  The important thing for me is to realize that if she’s asking questions and making connections, she’s on the right track.


*  Well, my very first impulse was to read Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? with her. I’d heard great things about this new picture book, but after I eventually got a copy from the library I realized it was about animals and man-made objects.  No mention of plants or rocks.  Great book, but not perfect for this situation.

Read last week’s secular Thursday post, or start at the beginning with Behind the Scenes of Atheist Talk.

Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter to recommend your favorite books for secular families, or connect with more secular families via the Secular Thursday bloggers.

Celebrating Questions

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write this post.  I am the parent of a three-year-old, which means an almost constant stream of “Why?” “What’s that?” or “What are you doing?”  I am not in the mood to celebrate questions.  I wish I had the patience of the mother elephant in Eve Bunting’s new picture book, Tweak Tweak, who has perfect answers at the ready for each of her little one’s seemingly endless questions about the world around them.

In my more patient moments, though, I really love my daughter’s inquisitive nature, and I want to encourage it.   Parenting Beyond Belief has this to say on questions:

“How we respond to the estimated 427,050 questions a child will ask between her second and fifth birthdays will surely have a greater impact on her orientation to the world outside her head than the thirteen years of school that follow.  Do we always respond with an answer–or sometimes with another question? . . . We have 427,050 chances to get it right, or 427, 050 chances to say ‘Because I said so,’  ‘ Because God says so,’ ‘Don’t concern yourself with that stuff,’ or something similarly fatal to the child’s ‘will to find out.’

I like Marcus Pfister’s newest book Questions, Questions to turn the table on my little one.  This lovely picture book appears simple at a glance.  Each spread has a brightly colored illustration and a rhyming couplet.  But if you look more closely, you will see that the illustrations have an interesting texture and often abstract connections to the text.  A brief author’s note provides more information on that.  The couplets are based on an Italian folksong.  Each asks a question about the natural world.  Some are more scientific; some are more fanciful.  Some might allow for faith, but all of them have the potential to open a discussion or, since no answers are contained in the book, inspire research or a science project.

But if you want to have some answers on hand, you might try Why?: The Best Ever Question and Answer Book About Nature, Science, and the World Around You by Catherine Ripley.  Everything a kid might ever wonder is here in this book answered simply in a double-page spread.  This book is spot-on for my three-year-old in terms of the questions and the answers.  I mean, “Why does it smell so good outside after it rains?” or “Why do I have to use the toilet and where does it go when I flush?” are probably not questions that most adults would spend much time on, but for preschoolers, they are strong points of interest.

Here’s to getting in the mood to celebrate questions and cultivating the patience to answer them. :)

More book recommendations about religion and science on the For Secular Families page.

A Santa-free celebration

Our DIY Christmas Tree

I love Christmas. I didn’t grow up celebrating it (that’s another story for another blog post), so the traditions are still new and exciting to me.  I’ve been around Christmas my whole life, but it’s a new experience to be participating myself, to be creating family traditions for our little one.  I want her to grow up with holiday memories that bind her to her peers throughout her life.  I think that’s an important part of what the holidays do for American culture.  But I also want to make sure that our holiday traditions reflect our values.  Our holiday included giving and making.  Ladybug is only three, so we kept it simple.  She drew pictures as gifts for her cousins, and she watched as we constructed our own DIY Christmas tree.  As she gets older, we hope to spend more time volunteering, baking, and crafting.  Every year gets more fun and brings new possibilities for holiday magic.

“Maybe magic is just love.”* This is the magic that I’ve known.  This is the magic that I want my daughter to take away from this family.  There are those who say that children need to believe in Santa Claus to have magic and wonder in their lives.  I disagree wholeheartedly.  We see magic everyday in the way we treat each other.  Kind words are magic.  Paying-it-forward is magic.  You are magic.

Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan

As for wonder, I like how Dale McGowan put it in Parenting Beyond Belief: “It is so precious to get a glimpse of real knowledge, so breathtaking, that no lesser standard than trial by skepticism will do.  It leaves behind only those things wonderful enough to make us weep at the pure beauty of their reality and at the equally awesome idea that we could find our way to them all.”  This is one of the main values I want to impart to my daughter.  I want her to look at what is real and see the wonder in that.  I don’t want her to believe that the wonder ends when you start asking “why?”

I think we’ll save Santa for when Ladybug is old enough to be in on the fantasy.  We love pretending, after all.  We love stories.  Perhaps I would feel differently if I had grown up with Santa myself.  I can’t say for sure.  I can only say what feels right for us.

To be honest, I still trip over the words to Christmas carols I’ve heard a million times but only recently started to sing.  I didn’t manage to get Christmas cards out before the holiday (or the new year), and I’m quite sure no one had a Christmas tree like ours.  Our Christmas was “us,” and I loved it.


* This quote is from Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block.  A favorite of mine.