The Friendly Atheists Next Door

Mar 22, 2015

Photo via screengrab

By Daniel Burke

It’s two weeks before Christmas, which means the Shaughnessys are deep into their December rituals.

Cookies have been baked and sprinkled with enough sugar to give a gingerbread man diabetes. A Christmas tree, sparkling with colored lights and surrounded by a small troop of Santa Clauses, stands in the corner of the living room, waiting.

Harry and Charlotte Shaughnessy watch their children dip into a stash of ornaments: a Welsh flag from Grace’s semester abroad; a bauble from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where Todd is a freshman; a trinket embroidered with Brennen’s name and 1998, the year the youngest Shaughnessy was born.

Harry, nursing a rum and Coke, smiles at the sight of an even older ornament: a stocking that says “Charlotte and Harry, 1988,” their first Christmas as a couple.

In those days, the Shaughnessys were Catholic. They herded their children to Mass on Sundays and celebrated the sacraments, mostly. While Charlotte taught at the parish school and Harry started a computer consulting business, they tried, for the most part, to follow the church’s doctrines.
But one day a question cracked the foundation of Harry’s faith, and the fissure slowly widened until the walls shivered and the roof shook and the whole damn house fell down. Like most demolitions, it caused a disturbance.

Harry, who turns 44 next month, comes from a long line of Catholics. The kind of people who call a priest when trouble erupts and see God’s touch in every corner of their lives.

As the Christmas tree fills with family artifacts, Harry announces that it’s time for the topper.

“Whose turn is it this year?”

“Mine!” Brennen yells, grabbing a tangle of pipe cleaners and yellow felt.

After terse negotiations, Grace, the eldest, climbs the stairs to nestle the ornament in the treetop.

It has noodle-like limbs and googly eyes. This is no angel, no star of Bethlehem. This is the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Right about now, I imagine you might have two questions: 1. Why are atheists celebrating Christmas? 2. What, pray tell, is the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

The Shaughnessys celebrate Christmas, Harry says, for some of the same reasons other people do: “Because it’s a great time to get together, care for each other and have a party.”

“And who doesn’t want a tree with pretty lights in their house?” Charlotte chimes in.

Since they aren’t Christian anymore, the Shaughnessys shape their own holiday traditions. One year, they stretched Christmas across a week, with celebrations leading up to December 25. “That sounds so Jewish now,” Harry jokes. It was anticlimactic, Grace says. When Christmas came, they had nothing left to give, nowhere to go. The ritual was not repeated.

But the Flying Spaghetti Monster stuck.

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6 comments on “The Friendly Atheists Next Door

  • One year, they stretched Christmas across a week, with celebrations leading up to December 25.

    As the Romans did for their midwinter festival!

    Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December.
    The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves.[1] The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.

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  • I take issue with that! This would also be news and “heartwarming” in most developing nations, too.
    The USA is #1 in a list of developing nations: WE’RE NUMBER ONE- WE’RE NUMBER ONE….

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  • 6
    Mcguffin8 says:

    Heartwarming is the falsified, commercial version of sentimental. Sharing sentiment is what the family is doing and what they are sharing are real, shared experiences. Looks good to me and doubtless it is gratifying to the family as well.

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