Although I am not a practicing Christian, my fiancé, daughter, and I celebrate Christmas every year. To us, the meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. It's about gathering together with our loved ones during the darkest, coldest times of the year, and sharing warmth, love, and good wishes for the coming year. Of course, this can make some things about Christmas a little confusing to a young child, who can't help but wonder what babies in barns and "lower-case T's" have to do with the season. Here's how my partner and I have explained the meaning of Christmas to our non-Christian child.
1. Explain ancient holiday traditions and religious diversity.
Children should know that Christmas, as we celebrate it today, is just one of many winter holidays, some of which predate Christianity. I explained to my daughter that almost all people who live in places that get cold and dark in the winter have ways of coming together. I explained ancient pagan traditions like Yule, modern traditions like Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, which my daughter's aunts, uncle, cousins, and grandparents celebrate. I told her that we celebrate Christmas even though we are not Christian, because Christmas is part of American culture, and it's the way we prefer to celebrate the winter.
2. Discuss the nativity.
It's disrespectful to Christianity, and confusing to children, to tell kids that Christmas is a Christian holiday without explaining why they celebrate it. The simplest way to explain it to non-Christian children (and one that will make all those Christmas carols make more sense!) is to say that Christians believe that God had a baby named Jesus 2,000 years ago, and that Christmas is their way of celebrating that baby's birthday. I recommend explaining the Biblical nativity story in the way that you might explain an ancient fable, but also acknowledging that many believe it is true.
3. Teach respect.
Your child undoubtedly has friends who celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday, and it would be terrible (to her and to her friends) to mock their religion or to fail to acknowledge it. So, even as you explain that you don't personally celebrate Christmas as Jesus's birthday, it's very important to note that many people view this holiday as being very spiritually and culturally significant. Explain to your child that many of her friends (and possibly relatives) are Christian, and that she should be kind and respectful when they tell her about what the holiday means to them, even if she doesn't believe the same way.
4. Discuss your own beliefs.
So, you don't believe that Jesus was the son of God and that Christmas is his birthday. Tell your kids what you do believe, instead. Do you celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, or do you celebrate a separate winter holiday? Talk about your own beliefs and why they're important to you. Perhaps you believe that it's important to celebrate the solstice, because it means that the days will begin getting longer. Perhaps you can talk about holiday traditions associated with your own religious practice or culture of origin. Regardless, it's important to stand by your own beliefs and to identify yourself by what is important to your family, rather than what isn't. Teach your non-Christian children the meaning of Christmas by standing firm in your own beliefs while respecting those of others.