It has never bothered me to be an atheist at Christmas. I love spending months picking out the perfect gifts for each family member. I love sending handmade holiday cards, even if my overly-ambitious projects means that I generally send them biennially. I love Starbucks red cups, regardless of the controversy de-jour. I love a beautifully-lit tree, my family's holiday cookie recipes, and above all The Andy Williams Christmas Album.
But lately I've been a little bothered by Jesus.
It's not the historical figure that bothers me, or the religious figure, or the impending celebration of his birth, or his place in a culture at large that is most certainly not engaged in a War on Christmas. It's that, now that my child recognizes Santa and Rudolph, I know that Jesus is not far behind. And that means it's time to start his religious education.
When pregnant with my son, I'd imagined how I would start this education. We would read pint-sized versions of religious texts reading about major world religions. We would explore what how different faith traditions explain the world. We would study how religion helps form communities and its potential to divide and cement differences.
It hadn't dawned on me that waiting until he could read would be too late. He has already had years to absorb the dominant religious culture of our family and community. My son is years away from Harris or Dawkins or Hitchens (whom I so desperately wish was with us this particular holiday season), and even if their messages were simple enough for a nearly three-year-old to understand, I'm not ready to squash all of my son's youthful optimism with that much snark. I needed a children's author who confronted controversial subjects, who spoke to children as though they could understand, but who also didn't shy from the silliness necessary to engage and delight young readers.
I needed Lemony Snicket.
I searched, dimly hopeful that Snicket had written a holiday book but sure that if he had I would have seen it already. And lo, a winter solstice miracle! Snicket had done it ten years ago with The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. Published by McSweeney's, home to excellent holiday writing like everyone's favorite NSFW piece about decorative gourds, this is the perfect book for parents who are just starting to discuss religion with their kids.
As with many Snicket stories, The Latke packs big themes into a tiny volume masquerading as a children's story. Kids will love the silliness of screaming along with illustrator Lisa Brown's half-singed version of The Gingerbread Man. Adults will appreciate the avenues this book opens for big conversations about religion. The latke, already understandably angry about having been fried, is increasingly enraged by all of the Christmas characters he meets who try to erase differences between him and them ("I'm not hash browns! I'm something completely different!"). This latke teaches us about how dominant cultures tend to assimilate the rituals minority cultures while abandoning their meaning, and why it's important to not only acknowledge but respect differences.
I'd say that I'm happily adding this book to my holiday collection, except that it is the founding member. I'd welcome your suggestions for the next few titles.