What Role Does Religion Play in Your Life?

In “Saying Goodbye to Hanukkah,” Sarah Prager writes about celebrating traditionally religious holidays without religion:

Growing up, my sister and I ate our Hanukkah latkes next to stockings our mother had cross-stitched with depictions of Santa. The white flickering light from the menorah’s candles mixed with the glow of colorful electric lights on our locally cut Christmas tree, decorated with tinsel and Stars of David. Celebrating two holidays at once was normal and a joy. But I’m making different choices with my own children, who won’t grow up with Hanukkah at all.

My sister and I never attended religious services for any Jewish or Christian holidays, but we were still raised with religion. My family attended a Unitarian Universalist meeting house where it was common to celebrate multiple religions’ holy days. We looked forward to the annual Festival of Lights, where each room of the building had a different activity set up: Kwanzaa candle dipping, gingerbread house decorating, reindeer craft making, dreidel spinning, Yule wreath building.

My father’s Jewish tradition only appeared at Hanukkah for the American “holiday season.” We didn’t celebrate Passover or Rosh Hashanah or any other Jewish holiday as a family. In contrast, my mom’s Catholic upbringing emerged not only at Christmas, but also for Easter, though that was only about eggs, bunnies and the resurrection of spring, not Jesus.

We celebrated every holiday secularly, like Halloween or Thanksgiving 一 except Hanukkah. Each of those eight nights we’d recite the Hebrew prayer about God while lighting the menorah. We memorized the syllables and repeated them, but they had no meaning to us and my parents didn’t expect, or want, us to believe what we were reciting. We were trying to honor my dad’s heritage, but it wasn’t a custom he truly wanted to hold on to.

Ms. Prager goes on to explain that, now, she and her wife identify as “nones” — people with no religious affiliation — and that they raise their children celebrating Christmas and Easter, but not in the context of religion:

I respect the incredible value of keeping traditions alive, especially those that centuries of persecution have sought to erase. But while I have more of a connection to Judaism than some, I am not Jewish and it doesn’t feel authentic to celebrate a Jewish holiday religiously. My kids may end up playing dreidel sometimes, but they won’t learn the prayer that begins Baruch atah Adonai, sacred words that are nonetheless empty to them.

Discontinuing my family’s Hanukkah celebration fits right in with our family’s tradition of bucking tradition. Most families do this in some way, even if just adjusting the Tooth Fairy’s gift for inflation. As a queer person, I know my kids will grow up alongside other children whose families created their own way of doing things because the old way hurt or didn’t fit.

Pride in June is my favorite holiday, but this year, the first as our completed family of four, we couldn’t go to a parade. I missed that much more than any holiday rooted in a religion that isn’t mine. I hope that the balloons, floats and rainbows that typically mark its celebration will be a special part of my children’s memories as they grow, and that they anticipate our invented Pride Fairy’s gifts as much as the Easter Bunny’s.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • In a few sentences, how would you describe your religious or spiritual beliefs — or your choice not to subscribe to religion?

  • What role does religion play in your life? Do you pray each day? Do you participate in religious traditions through the clothes you wear or the food you eat? Do you have a spiritual community that is important to you? Do you participate in religious holidays?

  • Katarina, a student, suggested this question: “Can you pick and choose which aspects of religion to follow?” What do you think? Is it possible to participate in only some elements of a religion, like holidays or prayers, without following all of a religious tradition? Do you do this in your own life? If so, how do you decide which parts of your religion to observe and which parts to leave behind?

  • If you are not religious, do you have other beliefs, traditions or practices — like meditation, yoga, art, music or being in nature — that ground you or give you a deeper sense of purpose or connection to the world? If so, what are they and what do they mean to you?

  • Which holidays are most important to you? If they are traditionally religious, is their religious nature important to how you celebrate them? Or do you celebrate them without the religious stories or rituals, like the writer of the article?

  • To what extent is your relationship to religion your own choice? Is it important to your family that you are connected to religion? Do you observe your religion in the way you are instructed to by religious leaders or texts? Or have you been able to explore and form your own spiritual beliefs? When you grow up, do you think you will choose to practice religion differently than your family does now? Why or why not?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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