Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day?

Man, I loves me some Buddhism.

It's all just so common sensical. By following even one tenant in the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path — or at least trying — you are almost guaranteed to improve your life. If the Buddha were alive today, I'm certain he would be a self-help guru. He'd make a damn good one, too.

Although Buddhism is unlike any other religion (in that you don't need to believe in a deity at all), it's still got some of the classic markers, and the celebration of holidays is one of them.

So here's a brief rundown on a biggie in the Buddhist world: Vesak Day.

Holiday: Vesak (pronounced VEE-sak)

AKA: Wesak or Vesākha

Religion Represented: Buddhism

Celebrates: The life, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

Date: Most countries celebrate Vesak on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2014, it falls on May 14, although it's being celebrated the 15th and 16th in other parts of the world.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Vesak scores a perfect 10, according to my friend Tracey Nguyen, the granddaughter Buddhist monks. There is nothing more important than the life and times of the Buddha.

Star of the Show: Siddhartha Guantama, AKA the Buddha

Back Story: Siddhartha Guantama was the Hindu-born son of an Indian king born somewhere between 400 and 560 BC. Although stories of his birth vary, most sacred texts hold that Siddhartha was born in a field, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He was said to have magically sprung from his mother's side, bathed in golden light. Siddhartha's mother died only days later, and Siddhartha was raised by his father and his aunt inside the sprawling walls of the king's palace. Siddhartha did not see suffering — illness, old age and death — until he was well into adulthood; and, when he did, it deeply affected him. Before the age of 30, he left his home and his crown behind and became an ascetic, or "holy man" — which meant he would wander his country, meditating, and relying on the kindness of strangers for food. His goal was singular: to find an end to human suffering. At one point during his years-long journey, Siddhartha stopped eating and grew desperately thin and weak. When he became too weak to meditate, he finally accepted food. It was at this point that he experienced his "Enlightenment" and became known as the Buddha.

What's the Deal with Enlightenment?: According to scripture, the Buddha was sitting beneath a Bodhi tree, meditating, when he devised of the Four Noble Truths (the cause of all human suffering) and the Noble Eightfold Path (the solution). This is what is referred to as his Enlightenment. His realization was rather simple: If people followed the Eightfold Path, they could eliminate their suffering (as he had done!) and thereby achieve Nirvana. It was an extraordinary conclusion, and he spent the next 40 to 50 years expanding on it so that others could practice it for themselves. Much revered, Buddha died at the ripe old age of 80(ish.)

Associated Literary Passages: The Buddha-carita of Aśvaghoṣa (A second translation is here), The DhammapadaThe Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, and The Life of Buddha by Andre Ferdinand Herold, among others.

The Food and Fun: Buddhists partake in any number of Asian dishes on Vesak, but consume no meat — a symbol of their compassion for all living things. They also visit monasteries, give to charity, hang lanterns, decorate with flowers, and listen to lessons offered by monks. Often, they'll  have parades of musicians, dancers, floats and dragons. A Baby Buddha statue is a commonality, and celebrants often pour water over the statue to symbolize, among other things, a pure and new beginning. Most importantly, Buddhists reaffirm their devotion to the Buddha's 10 precepts and teachings.

Conveying meaning to kids: It's never too early to introduce youngsters to the Buddha and his Eightfold path, and Vesak is a great excuse. You might also might consider making paper lanterns or drawing pictures of lotus blossoms. Show your child some pictures of Buddhist monks. Enjoy a vegetarian meal. Check out some books: I particularly like Buddha by Susan L. Roth. Make a Buddhist flag and fly it. If there's one thing I've learned about talking to kids about religion, it's that it really helps to have props: A menorah on the table during Hanukkah, a nativity scene at Christmas. Consider picking up a Buddha statue or statuette — something for your child to look at and touch while you talk about Buddhism. It’s the difference between books without pictures and those with; you're just more likely to hold the kid's attention if you present something interesting for them to look at.

This post originally appeared in April 2012.

Back When We Were Funny: 10 Religious Costumes for Kids

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il_570xN.302185289When you've been blogging for a while, you run the risk of becoming lame. I might be there, I'm not sure. Would someone tell me if I were? The truth is, I don't have the time I once did to dedicate to each and every blogpost, and sometimes in my quest to JUST GET IT DONE AND GET IT POSTED, certain things get sacrificed. One of those things? My sense of humor.

And it really is a damn shame. Because I have a glorious sense of humor! You should hear me be funny. I'm a riot.

The thing is: When I started out, I really believed that if one of you folks could get through my posts without laughing  — and by "laughing," of course, I mean "thinking about smiling" — that was a failure. But so often these days I feel like my sense of humor gets left on the cutting-room floor — or doesn't make it onto the reel at all. What has happened to me?

I notice it most when I re-read old stuff — like the one I wrote a couple years ago about Halloween costumes. That's some good shit right there! Let's take a look, shall we? Oh, and Happy Halloween!

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Top 10 Religious Costumes for Kids Originally appeared in October 2011.

I don't blame the Jesus Ween people for declaring war on Halloween. Little kids dressing up in cute costumes, going door to door to get candy from their neighbors...well, it's just so insidious. But you'll be glad to know that where there's conflict, there's a potential for a happy medium. And clearly — CUH-LEAR-LEE — this year's happy medium resides squarely in religious costuming for kids. Because the staff here at Relax, it's Just God aim to be helpful, above all else, we have amassed the 10 best religious costumes based on factors much too complicated and nonexistent to enumerate here.

1. Jesus of Nazareth

Christianity still reigns supreme here in the United States. According to the Association for Religious Data Archives, 76 percent of the population ascribe to one of literally hundreds of Christian denominations — making Jesus the top choice in faithwear. Who needs Jesus Ween when you can dress as Jesus for Halloween? Oh, and also: How cute are those shoes? (Amazon, $22.67)

2. Nun

When asked "What Would Jesus Wear?" (for Halloween), nine out of 10 Catholics with a sense of humor said "Nun." Also, there's nothing risqué about this little number, making it a crowd favorite among dads. Get one while supplies last. (BrandsOnSale, $29.99)

3. Torah Boy

We were sorry not to see this guy rank higher on the list. I mean, it’s a kid dressed as a Torah, people. A Torah. There is literally nothing in the history of time cuter than this costume. Unfortunately, Judaism carries a much smaller percentage of the vote than Christians (1.7 percent), and Little Torah Boy's ranking reflected that. (Amazon, $31.84)

4. Islamic Girl

Maybe it's the hot weather in the Middle East, but Muslims have the comfort thing down pat. If you've got one of those kids who just wants to trick-or-treat in her pajamas, this costume may be the ticket. Check out the Islamic Boy outfit, too. Just as cute, and well-worth the extra shipping to have it sent from the UK. Happy Allaween! (Pretend to Bee, 12.95 British Pounds)

5. Buddha.

Technically, Buddhists are more prevalent than Muslims in the United States. But this Gold Buddha Costume got docked some points because it only comes in adult sizes. I know, we were shocked and outraged, as well. The CEO of Go4Costumes ought to know that when Gold Buddha isn't offered in toddler sizes, children suffer. (Go4Costumes, $88)

6. Hindu Girl

Unfortunately, the controversy over supermodel Heidi Klum's Shiva costume a couple years back has sent children's shops retreating from Hindu god and goddess costumes. So this year we we're limited to regular Hindu wear. Luckily for us, saris tend to be pretty spectacular, and this Bollywood Princess costume is no exception.(Amazon, $24.89)

7. Atheist

We'd hate to leave would-be atheists out in the cold on Halloween, so here's the closest we could come to dressing as, well, Nothing. It's not a bad likeness as likenesses go, really. And morphsuits have great reuse potential. Outline the whole thing with purple cord and you've got one half of a fantastic Harold and the Purple Crayon costume for next year. (Party City, $29.99)

8. Scientologist

Sure, most kids would rather go as Nothing, but we're all about offering options. FYI, Scientologist costumes are best pulled off by strikingly handsome little boys with great hair and big teeth. Not saying it's easy, but with the right look, it's crazy cool. Don't forget your Dianetics book and E-Meter!

9. Moses

You had me at the 10 Commandments. It's all about the accoutrement, and Moses always did have the best stuff. In addition to the commandments, kids also might consider carrying a burning bush, a brass serpent or just a shitload of stone. (That guy loved him some stone.) If you're looking for group-costumes, you might consider going as the 10 plagues. Incredibly, plague masks are easy to find. Just be sure that no matter who joins Little Moses in trick-or-treating, he gets to lead the way. Ha ha. (Costume Discounters, $16.97)

10. The Virgin Mary

Originally, the Confucius facial hair was on the list at No. 10, but we just couldn't do it. It was so flippin' lame. And there was something offensive about the whole thing, too. (Shut up. Don't say it.) So we settled on Little Mary with her baby Jesus. Again, perfectly acceptable for Jesus Ween, and heart-meltingly sweet. I just want to scoop this little girl up in my arms right now and bring her home. It would totally be worth having Jesus call me Grandma.

So there you go. Hope you all have a swell holiday. Just remember, no matter what faith you're representing, keep it clean out there, okay? Halloween is supposed to be scary, but not, like, religious-war scary. And if you live in my neighborhood, don’t forget to knock on my door. I’ll be the one dressed as the Irreverent Blogger in Danger of Being Shot By a Fundamentalist.

A Shopping Guide for Nonreligious Parents (Part II)

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Are you looking to introduce religion to your child in a neutral and decidedly non-devotional way, but don't know where to start? Do you lack the knowledge you think you should have? Do your eyes sort of glaze over when you hear the words "religious literacy?" Then this shopping guide is for you! In honor of the Judeo-Christian month of giving, I've amassed some of my favorite resources in hopes that you'll encourage your child to learn a bit more about the religious world around them — and have some fun while they're at it. This is the second of two parts; the first is here. 11. DK Children’s Illustrated Bible. You just can't do religious literacy without a Bible in the house, folks, and not all of them are created equal. The DK, with stories retold by Selina Hastings and pictures by Eric Thomas, is the best I've seen on a number of levels. Small, compact, accurate, and readable, it's also packed with excellent illustrations and photographs. In second place: The Kingfisher Children's Illustrated Bible. Available on Amazon for $9.35

12. Plush Krishna: As a kid in the '70s, "Krishna" was a word I heard only when "Hare" was in front of it. I have vivid memories of bald-headed Hare Krishnas dressed in robes and handing out flowers at the airport. (They rarely do that anymore, I'm told.) I didn't know until I was well into adulthood that Krishna was actually a flute-playing, blue-tinged Hindu deity, an avatar of the god Vishnu. Krishna is hugely important in Hinduism, and ubiquitous in artwork all over the world, which makes him a natural choice for a stuffed friend. Plus, he's cute as all get-out. Available from Gopal Soft Toys: $41.95

13. Alphabet Kaba. This is such a cool toy! The Alphabet Kaba is a rendition of the classic alphabet blocks, this time depicting both English and Arabic letters and numbers, and stored inside a wooded Kaaba — which, if you remember from this post, is the name of the black-shrouded building in the center of Mecca. It is toward the Kaaba that all Muslims throughout the world pray five times a day. A great little piece of knowledge for kids to grasp. Available from Islamic Goods Direct for about 8 pounds (or $12.85)

14. Between Earth and Sky: Legends of Native American Sacred Places. Native American traditions deserve as much attention as any other system of religious belief, especially considering their role in the history of the Americas. Written by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by Thomas Locker, this book depicts a conversation between Little Turtle and his uncle, Old Bear. It also includes a neat map of North America back when it was just tribal territories, as well as a pronunciation guide. There are a lot of beautiful books about the tales and legends of native American religion, but this one will get you started. (Amazon, $7)

15. Yoga mat: In the course of only a couple of decades, yoga has gone from a relatively unknown activity to completely mainstream. Some yoga studios regularly schedule kids' classes, and even schools have begun offering yoga as physical education (with mixed results, unfortunately). There is absolutely no "religion" in any of the yoga classes I've attended over the years — it's all about deep breathing, deep stretching, and clearing the mind — but yoga did start out as a religious practice and still is used that way by millions of people. Let's not forget to make that connection for our children! Available on Amazon: $15 and up.

16. Bang! How We Came to Be. Religious beliefs are fascinating, and understanding them bring us closer as human beings. But science is equally fascinating and equally likely to bring us closer together as human beings. The science of evolution is incredibly important for kids to understand, and the sooner the better. This one breaks down evolution in language even little ones can enjoy. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but can't wait. Available on Amazon: $11.56

17. Muhammad by Demi. The famed illustrator created this breathtaking book a couple of years ago — managing to do what few others have done: Illustrate Muhammad without suffering a major backlash from the Muslim community, which strictly forbids depictions of the prophet. Demi treads the line beautifully and respectfully by putting Muhammad in a golden shadow throughout the book. Very imaginative. The story, also, is accurate and well-told. Great for kids 9-ish and up. Available on Amazon: $14.96

18. Jewish Holiday Calendar Magnets. One of the best ways to teach kids about Judaism is to honor some of the many Jewish holidays.  There are plenty to choose from — and this 14-piece magnet set can attest to that. Most Jewish holidays center on significant events and legends from Hebrew history. I adore these magnets, which can be used as space holders on magnetic calendars or as conversation starters for little ones. Available on Etsy: $16 for the set.

19. The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper. This is a must read, in my opinion. Gorgeously illustrated by Gabi Swiatowska, The Golden Rule tells the story of a little boy who sees a billboard while walking with his grandfather. The billboard says, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." What follows is a sweet, poignant discussion about "the Golden Rule," where it comes from (it predates Jesus by a lot) and why it's so important. It also goes through each religion's iteration of the Golden Rule. I love this book. For children ages 4 to 10. Available on Amazon for $11.53.

20. Pocket Buddhas.Because they're small, cute, and — well, do you really need a third reason? Available from Amazon: $8.95 apiece.

 

A Shopping Guide for Nonreligious Parents (Part I)

In honor of the Judeo-Christian month of giving, I'm offering a few recommendations to add to your shopping lists. These are items I have bought myself, or will buy, or might buy, or probably won't buy but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. Seriously, if you want some assistance in "introducing" world religion and religious concepts to your kids, these are excellent tools. I'll be publishing this in two parts: The first today, the second on Monday. Don't look for this list to be repeated next year, by the way. In 2013, I'll be recommending you buy only one book: Mine.

1. People by Peter Spier. Touted as "a picture book for all ages," People is the best celebration of diversity I've ever seen in book form. Spier is a spectacular illustrator, and offers the sweetest introduction to religion and culture. His little figures are charming, and for children who may never run into Arabs or Africans on the street, it's all the more important. You'd never know the book was written in 1980, but for one single page devoted to different kinds of "communication." Records and cassettes and walkie-talkies are among the most "modern" communication methods pictured. Available on Amazon: $10.36

2. "What Do You Believe?" This book, published just last year by DK Publishing, is a stellar example of how to talk about world religions in neutral terms. The design is excellent and very modern, and the book is full of great information — but not too full. That is, it's not exhausting to look at, as so many of these types of books can be. It includes pages on world religions, as well as atheism and agnosticism — all of which are handled with a high degree of respect.  This is likely to appeal most to slightly older children, 9 and above, but I'd get it early and make it a book shelf staple. Available on Amazon: $11.55

3. DYI Paper Buddha. These things are just plain cool. They come in kits and would be great for kids who like to build things. I love the idea of having my daughter make this little guy — or one of the other Hindu gods offered in kit form — and reading a little bit about Buddhism or Hinduism out loud to her while she does it. The kits are made in New Delhi by cartoonist and animator Kshiraj Telang. They are all limited edition and sold in Indian rupees. Hurry while supplies last! Available on Toonoholic for 99 rupees (roughly $1)

4. Dreidel. I wrote about how to play the game of Dreidel last year as part of my Hanukkah post. It's such a fun game for kids — and cheap! I highly recommend it as and entry into talking about Judaism and the origins of Hanukkah. Plus, it's got a fun song that goes with it. (South Park's version is here.) Simple wooden dreidel available on Amazon: $1.89

5. Fulla Doll. I referenced this doll in a recent post. It's a line of Barbie-like fashion dolls for Muslim girls, and I'm TOTALLY buying one for my daughter. The abaya and hijab that Muslims wear is really interesting to kids. Getting little ones used to different styles of religious dress (so they can see it as something normal, rather than something weird) could go a long way in building an understanding of Islamic customs. (By the way, check out these pictures published on Slate today — it's a photo series on  documenting the Arab woman's experience of being veiled!) Fulla dolls available at Muslim Toys and Dolls: $34.99

6. Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow.  When it comes to giving kids and parents an overview of Hinduism, this book by Sanjay Patel is the best. It's small and cute and bright and to the point, and a fantastic resource for getting a handle on the deal with Hindu gods. Just having on my bookshelf has been wonderful for me. When I need a quick reminder of who Krishna is or why Ganesh is important, I know exactly where to go. Available at Amazon: $8.82

7. Voodoo dolls. To heck with major religions, right? Let's get into some of those fun-filled folk religions! In Africa and Haiti, as well as in New Orleans, voodoo dolls are used to focus energy and blessings to those they represent. They are commonly made with items that are easily found in those regions. The instructions with this cute set advises kids to send good blessing to your friends or turn them into mean people to relieve stress and have some fun. They really are just fun little toys, but it would be a great excuse to explain a bit about the "magic" believed by some folk religions. Set of 11 available on Amazon: $6.74

8. Sikh Play Set. It was ridiculously hard to choose between all the Sikh play sets on the market! My gosh! There are just so many to — oh, wait. No. That was nativity sets. Sorry. When it came to Sikh play sets, there was the one. This one. And it seems only to be available in England. And it's expensive. So I'm doubting a lot of you will buy it, but I still think it's terribly neat. I love the book about the gurus that comes with it, and kids would have a great time inspecting the "artifacts" in the bag. Available at TTS: 74.95 pounds (roughly $120)

9. Meet Jesus: the Life and Teachings for a Beloved Teacher by Lynn Tuttle Gunney. This book came highly recommended by reader Kimberly B. The book is described as emphasizing the "humanity rather than the divitity of Jesus, giving the story broad appeal for liberal or progressive Christians and non-Christians alike." Kimberly said her kids loved it. I'm definitely buying it. Available on Amazon: $10.26

10. The Tao of Pooh Audiobook. (You cand find it free on youtube, too.) I read this book in college, and loved it so much I also read the Te of Piglet, which was good but not as good. Author Benjamin Hoff shows that "Pooh's Way" is amazingly consistent with the principles of living envisioned by the Chinese founders of Taoism. It's very fun and cute. The audiobook would be great for a road trip with a slightly older child — 11ish maybe. Available on Amazon: $14.59

For Part II, click here.

 

Religious Charm Bracelet, Anyone?… Anyone?

All-Religions Charm Bracelet

Okay, I suspect you guys are going to make fun of me a little bit for this, but, hey, what the hell. So, let me preface this by saying that, growing up, my mother had a charm bracelet she wore on special occasions. I was FASCINATED by this bracelet, which strung together all kinds of little golden goodies symbolizing some of my mom's greatest memories. There was a child's ring, a graduation cap, a locket. But my favorite charm was a little money box containing the tiniest folded-up dollar bill I'd ever seen in my life. A little door on the top opened and closed, and I must have opened and closed it hundreds of times. That bracelet mesmerized me. I remember asking (often) what all those symbols meant to my mom, where they came from. What's more: the bracelet was so darn pretty — and jangly. Very jangly. That was definitely a draw.

So fast forward, like, 25 years, and I'm in a bead shop for no apparent reason (I do not make jewelry and have no interest whatsoever in beadwork), and I happen upon what can only be described as a fuckload of religious symbols. There must have 200 different kinds in this shop. Most were Christian (I live in America, after all), but some other religions were represented, as well.

So I got this hair-brained idea to, you know, make a charm bracelet for my daughter, Maxine.

Okay, before you go off half-cocked, hear me out. Here was my thinking:

1. It's important to me that Maxine knows about religion in general, not just the one religion most prevalent in her culture. By stringing all these symbols together, side by side, I'd be putting all major religions on par with one another — with none of them more (or less!) significant than the next.

2. I'd like for Maxine to recognize religious symbols and have some sense of their back stories. It's a challenge sometimes, though, to introduce the basic concept of religion without, you know, boring her to tears. I figured if Maxine had a bracelet with religious symbols in her jewelry box, she might drag it out every once in a while and look at it. If I got lucky, maybe she'd even ask a question or two.

3. As you know, I love the idea of celebrating religious holidays with kids — rather than shying away from them, or even secularizing them. I see holidays as an opportunity to demystify religion, but also to promote religious literacy and religious tolerance. Symbols (the dreidel for Hanukkah or the Buddha for Vesak Day, for example) are fantastic memory aids. A bracelet, I thought, could come in kinda handy.

So there, in this cheesy bead store, I decided to go for it. With no trouble at all, I found a Star of David, a little dreidel and a charm imprinted with Mary and the baby Jesus. I also found  the Buddha and a yoga guy and about a million crosses — both with and without the crucifixion. I knew I wanted the former because the crucifixion is such an interesting (and ghastly) image, it can't help but be compelling. Carting all this stuff around definitely got the bead lady's attention. She asked me if she could help, and when I told her what I wanted — "to make an all-religions charm bracelet" is how I put it — she immediately got on board, tracking down the "Om" and yin/yang symbols to add to my pile

When I got home, I got out my pliers and put it all together.

The bracelet isn't nearly finished — there are so many other religious symbols out there! — nor is it as pretty, heavy, classy or valuable as my mom's. But it's a start. And it jangles real nice.

So what do you think, guys? A good idea? Potentially helpful? Or a total waste of money?

Religious Picture Books Have Much to Offer — But Choose Wisely

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Can we talk about religious picture books for a minute?

I'm assuming most of you didn't read your kid a religious bedtime story last night. And that it rarely occurs to you to wonder what new Islamic, Hindu or Christian children's books came out this year. I'm also willing to bet you don't spend a lot of time in the religious section at your public library.

But it might be time to start.

For the last month or so I've been obsessed with religion-books for kids — mostly because my own knowledge of religious stories is limited, and I'm always looking for language to use when talking through certain religious concepts with my daughter. At any given time, I might have 15 of these things stacked in my office, and another dozen on hold at the library.

As you can imagine, kids' religious titles run the gamut. Many focus on religious holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Christmas, Eid. Others contain more over-arching material — stories about Buddha or Muhammad or the parables of Jesus. Some are meant to "educate" and are much too comprehensive, dated or dry for most little ones to enjoy; others are beautifully illustrated and clearly written with children's interests in mind.

Because a good number are written for religious children, not all of them are a good match for secular families. The worst of the bunch are indoctrination materials, which — in my opinion at least — pose far more questions than answers. But the best can be quite good. They offer fun stories, interesting settings and clever text — and they do it so well that they don't feel like "learning experiences" — even though that's exactly what they are.

Of course, it's sometimes hard to tell the good from the bad and the bad from the ugly. Which is why I'm endeavoring to sort through the lot in search of the best and most helpful reads to pass on to you guys. (How nice am I?) In the meantime, though, I thought I'd offer some advice on choosing titles that won't confuse your child, offend you, or bore either of you to tears.

1. Choose a book that will appeal to your kid

You know your kid and his taste more than anyone else. You know when a book (or toy or game) has a good chance of holding his interest, or no chance at all. If your 7-year-old is a real boy's boy who's going to roll his eyes at an Easter story about a little girl and her lamb, put it back. If your daughter is only interested in princesses, maybe choose a book about the Jewish Princess Esther over a book about the Hindu God Shiva. Religious literacy isn't about cramming shit down kids' throats; in fact, it's quite the opposite.

2. Go for age-appropriate

Like No. 1, this is usually pretty easy to judge by a quick glance. The cover art and the amount of text on the first couple of pages are good guides. And, of course, if you're at all worried about violence or other adult situations, be sure to flip through the book before handing it on to your little one; lots of religious stories depict people — not to mention God — doing some pretty gnarly things.

3. Make it relevant

If you want this stuff to be at all meaningful, it's probably best not to introduce reading material completely randomly. Read her a Ramadan story during the month of Ramadan, a Good Friday story around Easter. You don't have to have some big master plan, of course, but do try to introduce each book with a sentence about why you're reading it — why this book, why now. As a side note: Many books out there are what I would call "secondary" books — books that are great to read AFTER your kid has been introduced to certain concepts. Hoppy Passover, for instance, is a sweet book about a bunny family that holds a Seder. But because it assumes some basic knowledge of Passover, it might be better as an accompaniment to another book — rather than standing on its own.

4. Check for historical accuracy

This is a biggie. As secular parents, the point of reading religious books is to teach our kids about religion. When authors take poetic license or manipulate religious history to the point where the stories are no longer accurate, the value for us is gone. Religious people might believe that their kids will get the "full story" eventually, and may not be worried about these deviations. Hell, they might even prefer revisionist history from time to time, especially when the revision creates a more believable, desirable or compelling story. But we as secular parents are looking for the truth. And, just as often, the inaccuracies insult both believers and nonbelievers.

5. Watch out for white-washing

That a story is "accurate" doesn't mean it's complete. Bible stories (especially the ones you find in the Religion sections at major bookstores) often are abbreviated to sound kinder, gentler, and more understandable. (The story of Noah's Ark is not nearly so charming when you consider that God went on to exterminate every living creature on earth, for example.) I do understand the desire to make stories age-appropriate. I've found myself struggling to explain certain religious violence to my daughter in a way that won't give her nightmares. But if a story needs to be white-washed in order to share it, maybe it's not time to share that particular story. I'd love for my kid to see Chinatown someday; that doesn't mean I need to watch it with her tonight. That said, if you find yourself sharing a cleaned-up Bible story with your child, no sweat. Just explain that there's a bit more to the story than that, and you'll tell her the rest when she gets older.

6. Be aware of slants and bias 

Although it may surprise you, this is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me. Even books written from a religious perspective can be really well-done and educational. It all depends on the nature and degree of the slant. With some titles, the only slant is the point of view. An author might use "we," for instance, instead of "they" when talking about the religious group featured in the book. But as long as you are comfortable addressing these slants as they pop up — "The author uses 'we' in this story because he, himself, is Muslim," for example — then this shouldn't be a problem. Some books, though, are more overt, and secular parents would do right to leave those behind. Sermonizing books will do nothing but confuse your child and annoy the hell of you. If you think you might be looking at such a book, but aren't sure, here's a hint: Flip to the back, and find the story's denouement, summary or wrap-up. That's where most authors put their "morals" — and if the book has a preachy element, you'll find it at the end.

 

Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents

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We here at Relax, It's Just God believe that religious literacy and tolerance doesn't just happen. We parents have to make it happen.

Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn't cut it. A true religious education requires context. Tolerance requires action. If you want your children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, you must knit a sense of interest and respect into your childrearing — today and throughout the year.

That's why major religious holidays are such fantastic vehicles for religious literacy. And the best part? Thanks to this here Holiday Cheat Sheet, you don't have to know a damn thing about any of them. We're one-stop shopping for on-the-go parents. Click on one of the links and in just a few minutes, you'll find out why that holiday exists, how it's celebrated and fun ways to convey its meanings to kids.

So stop letting those vaguely familiar-sounding holidays pass you by in a blur of Phineas and Ferb re-runs. Seize these small but wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids to religious concepts and figures — while also showing compassion for the people who hold these concepts and figures so dear.

September

Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashana? (Judaism)

October

Quick! What the Hell is Diwali? (Hinduism)

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha? (Islam)

December

Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah? (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas? (Christianity)

January

Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Mawlid al-Nabi? (Islam)

February

Quick: What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Ash Wednesday? (Christianity)

March

Quick! What the Hell is Purim? (Judaism)

April

Quick! What the Hell is Easter? (Christianity)

Quick! What the Hell is Passover? (Judaism)

May

Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day? (Buddhism)

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost? (Christianity)

July

Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr? (Islam)

There's more to come, so please keep checking back!