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I'm An Atheist — Here's Why I Still Love Christmas With My Catholic Family

You have a choice to hold on to the things that matter to you.

Around Christmas every year I always find myself thinking the same thought: This used to mean something to me.

I used to be Catholic. I haven't been for a few years now. It's not something I really think about 11 out of 12 months a year; I'm not itching to turn back to religion by any means, and I'm not sure I could go back if I tried.

My dad is a convert. I remember his trek through the sacraments -- baptism through confirmation -- better than I remember my own. He likes to recite the Memorare and keeps the text of that prayer close pretty much all the time. It helped him quit drinking, it helped him find his center and cope with the hardest parts of his life. To him, it made him better.

To me, it felt like a story I just wasn't really a part of. I don't remember when it all changed -- when I stopped capital-B Believing in God, in the prayers and the mythos. I was never crazy about the structure of organized religion. I just know that I slowly, steadily became more comfortable with the idea of chaos in the universe, of being one of billions of little mistakes fumbling around out there. One day, that felt more like the truth.

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I remember growing up Irish Catholic the way most people do -- with the same jokes about guilt, about standing and sitting and sitting and standing with a congregation that knew you before you were born and those Sunday school sessions peppered with the occasional fire and brimstone lecture. I remember sitting in the same corner of church every Sunday, watching the light never quite make it through the stain glass windows. I remember the warmth, the thick smell of incense and candles and the way I used to watch people's faces while they prayed (eyes purposefully closed, lips sometimes moving, they always looked like they meant it).

But I don't really remember that much about believing, though I know I did. I know I felt it and I know that, for a while, it felt good -- but it's still one of the few feelings I can't conjure up any more.

The first few years of accepting that you don't have a religious tie to the season and the holidays anymore are tough. When you're around people who do believe, it's hard not to wish that you could relate on that level -- that you, too, could be a person who says prayers and means them, and finds an inner peace through that. For a while, as I eased away from the religious part of my life, I was genuinely worried I wouldn't be able to recreate that kind of warmth and connection again.

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For the first time since I took stock of what I actually did and didn't believe, I felt like I was losing something. This was in part those big, existential notions -- like the reassurance that someone might be watching over you, the belief that you fit into a larger narrative and the feeling that you and your loved ones weren't just going to fade out one day. But I also kept going back to those smaller things that comprise belief: the warm smell of incense, the quiet joy radiating off of people with such deep love and, yes, the prayer faces too.

As the years pass, Christmas has stopped being about the pageantry or choreography of faith. I'm starting to realize that you do have a choice to hold on to the things that matter to you; you can kneel at your own altars, and find your own center, your own comfort in them.

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The parts of religion I hold onto have been those quiet mornings when my little sister crawls into my bed, her cold toes pressing into the back of my legs to wake me up; the loud, messy breakfasts where no one can stop smiling as we all pretend we're not feeding the dogs under the table; the way we curl up close, compelled to take up the same space as the people we love. For me, those things will do.

I still remember the words to "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Ave Maria" (in both Latin and English) and, particularly, the way they'd sound in the creaky acoustics of our old church. Sometimes, in busy shopping malls or elevators I'll hum along to those terrible muzac renditions. There's still a warm, familiar feeling to the chords. That's something I think I'll keep too.