Nereida Skelton loved the Christmas tree at the state Capitol. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)
SACRAMENTO — My wife was an atheist who loved Christmas.
She loved the giving. Loved the smiles on the grandkids' faces.
Loved decorating the tree.
Really loved the big old, bright Christmas tree in Capitol Park.
Loved the food and made a scrumptious clam chowder.
Loved all the trappings — except the Christmas music. Wasn't wild about that. But did like some non-religious holiday tunes.
Nereida might not have wanted me to mention any of this. Religion or lack of it was no one else's business. People could believe whatever they wanted. Made no difference to her.
But I like the message: Christmas is for everyone, not just Christians. It's a universal holiday for caring and fellowship.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 173.4 million adults in the United States describe themselves as Christians. There also are tens of millions of non-Christians.
There are 2.7 million Jews, 1.3 million Muslims, 1.2 million Buddhists and 582,000 Hindus. There are 42.2 million people who say they have no religion or refuse to answer.
And there are about 2 million agnostics and 1.6 million atheists.
Nereida was no agnostic. She wasn't ambivalent. She was an atheist.
But she wasn't one of those atheists with a capital "A" who complained about manger scenes at the courthouse. That was a fine tradition. Gave people a warm feeling, like a nice Yule log.
If she had lived in Santa Monica, she would not have joined other atheists in forcing the removal of Nativity scenes from Palisades Park. Same down in San Diego, where atheists long have been trying to haul a 43-foot cross off the top of Mt. Soledad.
She considered such things a waste of time and money, a misplaced priority.
Nereida just couldn't bring herself to believe in a god. What god would allow such unfairness in the world? The killing of little children by an armed lunatic?
Religion, she believed, was a self-survival invention of humans to rationalize their ultimate demise and keep themselves in line. The latter hasn't always worked, she'd point out. But it probably has helped.
She wasn't a zealot about it. And we seldom discussed the subject. She knew I was a believer — believed in a higher being we could turn to for guidance and help. But it was nothing to argue about.
Whatever helped people get through life, fine — whether it be faith in a god or marriage for a gay couple.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. Far as I know, Nereida still was one while fighting for her life before succumbing to bone marrow cancer last June.
She did observe with a smile, however, that she had her "bases covered" with so many people praying for her.
We spent 39 Christmases together.
She'd devote weeks to finding just the right gifts for the daughters and grandchildren. The right pajamas. The right computer game. The right baseball cards. Then stay up on Christmas Eve past midnight wrapping the presents with perfection.
She'd insist on a full-size tree — no unseemly table-topper — and spend hours decorating it.
She had boxes of cherished ornaments. Many ducks. She loved all things duck.
There were prized trinkets from the White House collected at Christmas parties while I was covering President Reagan. She savored those events.
It doesn't get any better, she figured: Shaking hands with the president beside an exquisite tree while an Army chorus sings carols and you're deluged with pastries and candy.
Atop our tree, Nereida would delicately place her heirloom angel.
And there was the "pickle" for the grandkids. It was hidden somewhere on the tree, and the kid who found it got a prize.
She enjoyed taking the oldest granddaughter — starting when she was a toddler — to "The Nutcracker" each year, then to dessert and tea.
Not only did Nereida show you don't need to be a Christian to delight in Christmas, she proved — as so many people do — that you don't need to be religious to live a life of righteousness. She was an atheist and an angel.
Kind, generous, cheerful. Never would say anything ugly about anyone. No cursing. I was kicked in the shins many times.
She did God's work as a public high school teacher: English, journalism, speech and debate. The students came first.
Schools belong to the kids, she insisted. Not the teachers.
And Christmas — particularly in diverse America — belongs to everyone. Belongs to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. To agnostics and atheists. Democrats and Republicans. Lefties and right-wingers.
A time for harmony and renewal, family and friends, and each other. For giving.
Christmas was Christendom's gift to the world for all to enjoy.