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How Do You Explain the Virgin Birth to Children?

Is it a sign of bad parenting that my kids have no clue who the Three Wise Men are?



A few years ago, we were setting out Christmas decorations in our house as our 5-year-old daughter looked on. We are not a religious family, but my wife was raised Catholic, and she has retained a fondness for Nativity scenes. Our two children know enough about the Christmas story to recognize Jesus, Mary and Joseph even when rendered in rustic terra cotta. They’re fuzzier, however, when it comes to the supporting cast. As she watched her mother remove the figures one by one from their shrouds of crumpled newspaper, she couldn’t quite place the Three Wise Men.

“Are those cowboys?” she guessed. “Security guards?”

As another holiday season is upon us, I caution you not to take such questions lightly. Holidays are the playoffs of the parenting game. Our ability to feed, clothe and educate our children is never more on display. We are expected to have them dressed properly for ritual events. They must be able to execute a thank-you note in a timely fashion. They should know the words to festive songs – and never, ever utter in public the lines“Batman smells/Robin laid an egg.”

Long before the first child came out of the womb, many of us had envisioned how perfect these moments of holiday family togetherness would be. Even the most innocent screw-ups – the overcooked meal, the tree that fell down, the meltdown during “The Nutcracker” – threaten to live long in everyone’s memory. Eventually, children are old enough to take the blame for these transgressions, but until then, while they are young, this is our annual opportunity to feel inadequate.

The fact that these cherished holidays have their roots in religious traditions only amps up the pressure on every young mom and dad to get it right. This can be rather tricky if you lack a faith to pass on to your children. My parents were raised as Presbyterians but had both soured on organized religion by the time my brother and I came along. We didn’t go to church or learn about the Bible. And yet we celebrated Christmas with the typical American orgy of lights, decorations, presents, baked goods.

Since becoming parents 10 years ago, my wife and I have not scrimped in our celebrations either. We take our responsibility as executive producers of these festivities very seriously, and at least one of us routinely finds herself baking, buying and decorating to the point of near-exhaustion. It’s all there: the garland on the front porch, the advent calendar in the living room, the carols on the radio. The result is we now have two children who live holiday-to-holiday, the way you would if you were the manager of a HoneyBaked Ham store. The first time our son saw our discarded Christmas tree pulled from the curb, he bawled. When he had calmed down, he asked if it was now time to bring out the Valentine’s Day ornaments.

It’s hard not to feel conflicted about marking these days in an almost entirely secular manner. One glance at the way more pious families fill their seasons with rituals and stories and opportunities for reflection and good works, all of it reinforced by inclusion in a supportive community, and our faith-free celebrations start to look like mighty weak tea. Once, my son remarked that none of the songs we sing at Christmas has anything to do with the reason for celebrating the holiday. He was surely just mimicking one of his churchgoing friends. Yet it disturbed me to think of a 7-year-old feeling conflicted about “Rudolph” or “Frosty” or “Jingle Bells.”

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