A fiber optic Christmas tree sits on the back porch, a stuffed Rudolph propped up at its side. Inside, a lighted tree typically used as a yard decoration brightens the living room. There also is a picture of Santa Claus, a Menorah, a Kwanza poster and a statue paying homage to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.
This is how the Hancocks, a family of secular humanists, celebrate the holidays.
For Jennifer, Mike and their 6-year-old son Zane, Christmas isn't about honoring the birth of a Lord. It's about spending time with loved ones, baking and opening gifts delivered by Santa. The Hancocks honor the history behind the holiday, which dates back to before Christ when pagans celebrated the winter solstice. The family plants trees and wears freedman's hats, an accessory worn in Rome that resembles Santa's cap.
Jennifer Hancock, founder of Humanist Families of Greater Tampa and author of The Humanist Approach to Happiness, says she wants her son to have Christmas without making the main focus the Nativity. She has told him about Jesus for educational purposes but doesn't relay it as a true story.
"I think it's important he know what all the elements are," she said. "For me, the Christ element is meaningless because I am not a Christian."
Zane says he likes Jesus and Santa. This year, Zane sent Santa an email asking for an army of nutcrackers. He loves the classic story, especially the battle scene, and anticipates re-enacting it with toys come Christmas morning. He also looks forward to helping his mother make cookies and eating fruitcake.
"Christmas is about giving," Zane says. "And it's all about love too."
Every year, the Hancocks share a holiday dinner. They put out treats for Santa and sing carols. (Deck the Halls is a family favorite.) On Christmas, they wake up close to sunrise. Zane stays in bed until his parents give the okay. Then he bolts toward his presents.
"It's a time to be grateful for the things you have," Mike Hancock said.
Mike Hancock grew up in a Christian home. Today, he continues most of his boyhood holiday traditions, though he no longer believes in Christ. He says the Christmas sentiment transcends religious boundaries.
"Whether or not it's about baby Jesus or not doesn't matter," he said. "It's the same feeling."
Jennifer Hancock says not all secular humanists celebrate Christmas. Secular humanism is a life philosophy, not a religion, but within the group of declared humanists many, including the Hancocks, are atheists. They tend to argue among themselves about how to celebrate the holidays, Hancock says. How Christians celebrate it rarely comes up.
"We are too busy having our own debate about Christmas to wage a war on what other people should celebrate," she says.
Personally, Hancock doesn't mind music and decorations popping up in stores to boost sales or church people putting on live nativities. She smiles when her son says the holiday is about spending time with mom and dad, having fun, eating and playing. Zane's joy is what the holiday means to her, she says.
She has a message for the judgemental:
"People who say it's the religious thing or nothing at all, all I can say to them is your holiday is supposed to be about peace on earth and good will toward men."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]