I grew up Christian.
Not Evangelical, born-again, relationship-with-God Christian. I went to church, I attended Sunday school, but each week when I headed home for my Sunday lunch of sardine and onion sandwiches with my New York City father, I checked my faith at the chapel door. Being Christian was unimportant to me during the week. Where many of my friends saw Christianity as part of their identity, I simply went to church. My father, incidentally, did not go to church. He played tennis instead.
A decade or so of Sunday school, church service scripture readings, social activities like Young Life, and a short stint participating in my friend Winn’s born-again youth group left me well-versed in Biblical history. Extra college electives in religious studies, and later, reading religious-themed fiction and nonfiction to satiate my questioning and curiosity deepened my understanding of all things holy.
When I say I’m no longer a Christian, I know what I’m talking about.
As a kid, the benefit of being Christian was Christmas. Many of the families in my neighborhood were Jewish, and while they celebrated Hanukkah around the same time as we did Christmas, their holiday seemed to pale in comparison. In America, even in the Sixties and Seventies, Christmas wasn’t a day, it was a season. A season steeped in family tradition.
The tree, purchased from the same local church lot year after year, tied to our car roof, was brought home to decorate. We turned on our Hi-Fi and played the only three Christmas record albums we owned again and again. The liquor boxes filled with tree decorations, stacked in the darkest corner of the basement, dotted with unhatched spider eggs, were lugged out and carried upstairs.
Our decorations were lame. Outdoors, we tacked a wreath to the front door and pegged a white spotlight into the ground aimed at our entry-way. Christmas! Indoors was no better. There was an elf—identical in looks to today’s Elf on the Shelf—with a loop through the top of his hat to hook over a door knob. And we had four small white ceramic angels, each holding a red letter, spelling out NOEL. By the time my oldest brother was eight, the angels were rearranged daily after school to spell LEON. Those were our only decorations.
Our tree ornaments never changed. From my earliest memories and then through high school, I can’t recall ever getting a new Christmas ornament to hang on our tree. Ninety-some percent of our ornaments were the colored round glass balls they sold at Peoples Drug Store. There were only three ornaments with any character whatsoever: The Light Bulb, The Royal Crown and Super Cat. We three kids negotiated for the honor of hanging these ornaments.
My favorite was The Light Bulb: silver lace made stiff with glue and spray paint, the exact size and shape of an incandescent bulb. Each year as I hung the ornament, I envisioned an artist wrapping soggy lace around the bulb, and when dry, smashing the light bulb into small enough pieces to fit through the gaps in the lace. The bulb-shape was then stuffed with cotton balls and sewn shut at the end. It was beautiful.
The Royal Crown, my brother Dana’s favorite, in my opinion, tried too hard to be special. It was a red velour with intricate silver and white bead work. It looked regal, hence the name. But in hindsight, the ‘beads’ might have been those little push-pins that end in tiny spheres shoved through the fabric and into a Styrofoam ball.
David, the instigator of the LEON arraignment, was partial to Super Cat. In fact, Super Cat was once David’s favorite stuffed animal. The cat’s body was about the size of one of those pickles you buy out of a barrel in a country store. The fore and hind legs stuck straight out to the front and rear so it looked like a cat lying in a sunny spot on the carpet. At some point my mother sewed a cape around the cat’s neck making him look like the iconic picture of Superman flying through the sky. Super Cat’s “fur” was matted and stiff from serving as David’s chew toy for the first two years of his life. I don’t know how Super Cat became a Christmas ornament, but I can never remember our tree without him.
Today, we have few generic bulbs on our tree. Each ornament has been purchased separately and intentionally because it resonates with a member of my family. We have small action figures of the Beatles, my kids’ musical instruments: drum kit, flute, saxophone and guitar; angels that we made with cookie cutters and psychedelic dough and angels made of glass that we bought in a store; stars, birds, cats, bears and Santas.
The rest of our decorations scream “Christian Family.” There’s a nativity scene made from welded pieces of iron. A large NOEL sign with letters that can’t be rearranged; baubles and bells, nutcrackers and various incarnations of St. Nick, Our fireplace mantel is adorned with pine cones, garland and lights. On our hearth sits a three-foot-tall replica of a New England church. Each year, I wonder if it’s all a farce.
Are we, a non-Christian family, appropriating Christmas? On Halloween night, when we shut off the porch light to make sure no more goblins come to our door, Sophie fires up Christmas carols on her iPhone. We’re the family that goes to a cut-your-own-Christmas-tree farm on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This year, we’ve all gotten excited about buying each other presents, and we’re even planning a Secret Santa exchange on Christmas Eve Eve.
Each December, I read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It’s a (mostly) secular look at the goodwill spread throughout the Christmas season. It always puts me in a good, Christmassy mood. This year, I decided instead to read Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend by Christopher Moore. It’s the story of Jesus (and Biff) as young adults seeking out the Magi to understand what trait Jesus possessed that warranted a visit from the east all those years ago. While this book didn’t turn me back into a Christian, it reminded me of what’s so special about Christ. His charity, his inclusion, his liberality are all in-line with my beliefs.
When I stop to think of Christ in this way, I feel that celebrating his birthday is justified. I’m honoring him and paying him well deserved tribute even if I don’t believe he is the only route to salvation. As for my kids, as they become adults, they can decide what Christmas means to them. Right now, it’s enough that we all get into the spirit of giving. That we all wish for peace on earth and give goodwill towards everyone.
May you and your family have a very merry Christmas season regardless of which holiday you celebrate (or don’t) at the end of this solar year.