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Uncertainty Principles

Agnostics Anonymous

So we're just past the time when curmudgeonly Christians bemoan that we've lost touch with the true meaning of Christmas, pompous pagans point out that it's really a rip-off of Yule, and the rest of us enjoy the hideous mishmash of traditions cooked up by Jewish-American songwriters, Coca-Cola advertising executives, and department stores.

Bringing up children in a thoroughly lapsed mixed household means that winter is the most spectacular opportunity to dip into the lucky grab bag of traditions: lighting the menorah on the nights you're at home, and not too tired, and remembered the candles; meeting Santas if the queues aren't too long; reiterating the details of Frozen for the 40th time today; eating the doughnuts and the mince pies.

And the latkes. And the chocolate coins. Not to mention Diwali and Eid celebrations at school, and their associated cakes. All in good time for January's detox, cleanse, repent.

But is there something wrong in picking and choosing like this? Are we losing some authentic wholeness, some coherent structure that gives these individual acts meaning? Are we making it too easy on ourselves, allowing ourselves the feast days while dropping the fasts? What will our children lack, growing up in a jumble of half-baked traditions?

Their years still have intrinsic rhythm. Halloween might be condemned as too American, or too commercialized, or simply too pagan, but it's still there every year when the leaves are falling. Easter may be about a surfeit of lecithin rather than passion, but those low-cocoa-mass orbs will appear again next spring.

As for the feast-fast cycles: we could all do with a bit more fasting, but we're only too ready to starve come New Year, to voluntarily flagellate ourselves for our appetites.

Children brought up godless don't lack structure or discipline either. Their lives are full of rules, but the arbitrariness of these is perhaps more visible to them for not being 'God-given': for not having the ultimate 'because I said so' hanging over them.

Perhaps what children lack is certainty. Most notice the multiplicity and diversity of Santas, suggesting that he may not be any more real than Elsa, Anna, and Hans. Yes, kids flock to him, but the little girl at soft play in an Elsa dress will attract a crowd of preschoolers too. The lines twixt imaginary and real are shaky.

To exploit the capacity for belief by providing false idols, by telling fairy stories with a stamp of supposed truth, seems exploitative. Truth is messy. A system that's presented as whole and unified should rouse our suspicions. Our grandparents were certain that homosexuality was aberrant; our great-grandparents thought the same about masturbation. There are worse things than allowing some uncertainty to creep in.