December 9, 2009
I have always looked down on people who say that their favorite holiday is Christmas. It’s too obvious. People like the presents, people like the time off, people like the preparatory season. Christmas is like the Disney World of holidays: it’s got its own industry surrounding it, whereas other holidays get maybe a day or two into which to pack their experience. Halloween was my favorite holiday, and not because of the candy (my twelve-year-old self would haughtily add), but because of its unique and beautiful character. The truth is, though, that I had to put in a lot of work to Halloween to help it even begin to approach the assets that Christmas already had: a season, not just a day, traditional rites in abundance, and a feeling of specialness or being set aside.
If I were really honest, Christmas was my favorite holiday, too. I loved our family’s observation of advent for four weeks leading up to Christmas, I loved the Christmas pageants, I loved the season-specific music, and I loved the special services at church. I even loved the particular smells of Christmas: the scents of gingerbread or egg nog give me shivers even in memory. In recent years when I became heavily involved with the Anglican church I attended here in DC, the rituals of the church became the center of Christmas observance, rich as they were with beauty and meaning.
These rites were filled with their own scents and sights and sounds, but artistically unified, binding up the disparate things that made Christmas such a complicated and abundant rush of experiences toward the religious center that motivated them all: the coming of a savior.
This is my first Christmas as a non-believer. Last April during the Great Vigil—the grandest and most important service of the year—I stopped believing that Jesus was who Christians say he was. I took six months to try to figure out how to deal with this before I went public and resigned as a member of my church’s Vestry. One year ago I was frequently spending three to four evenings during the week at church activities, and around four hours at church on Sundays, just to give you an idea of how much of my life was involved in my religion.
My conversion was not exactly a decision, and I didn’t agonize that much over the decisions I made as a consequence, though the stress caused by the effects of those decisions on people with whom I had close relationships was tremendous. All of that seemed essentially inevitable, and I don’t regret it. But the costs of this change did not descend all at once: instead, they filter down piece by piece, and I’m not always prepared for them. This year is a year of ritualized grief, as each religious event becomes my first on the outside. And it’s a grief in which I am essentially alone.
Christmas is a grief I’m not prepared for. I let my wife conduct private Advent services on her own, I look at treasured family objects like the nativity scene my parents gave us and see symbols for something now alien. Every sign of Christmas reminds me of what I’ve had to give up. And I wonder: how do nonbelievers make their peace with Christmas? I know that Christmas has a long non-religious tradition, but those are the parts of the holiday that always seemed least appealing to me. What I feel most is a fresh stirring up of anger and hostility toward Christianity: there’s little in me ready to have a benevolent acceptance of the myriad trappings of a Faith whose falsity I was only able to accept after years and years and years of persistent erosion of its core arguments.
Is there a Christmas worth resurrecting from Christianity’s ashes?