Appropriating Christmas

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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 even had a Secret Santa exchange this afternoon: 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.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

 

24 thoughts on “Appropriating Christmas

  1. An appropriate appropriation (if that’s not an utterly ridiculous concept all of its own).
    The spirit of Christmas lives on. To me, that is the point. Forget the rules and control bits that many religions get hung up on. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Jeff!

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  2. I really liked Lamb. I loved how human it felt to read that story. And I love the story about your Super Cat ornament. These are the stuff that makes the season worth celebratating. Every year is a little different for us. Few traditions survive year to year. But the long line that can be drawn, as some would say, of our family is the story of love, gratitude, presence, slowing down, and eating too much. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

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  3. “Christmas isn’t just a day , it’s a frame of mind ‘“ – Miracle on 34th Street. Merry whatever day you celebrate – however you celebrate it – or not . Just have a good day.

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  4. I enjoyed your story. Really made me think about my past and current life. Does anyone ever really hold on to that childhood Xmas magic? Those who do hold on to at least some of the feelings are truly blessed. So much can change and can completely change everything. Not just Christmas season but on average, the reality and direction of your life. Cling tenaciously to what was so it can continue to be a part of who you will become. Jeff Mitchell.

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  5. This was such a warming read. I used to think that we didn’t really have Christmas traditions when I was growing up but getting an insight into your childhood Christmas I realise I did. Thank you for that – I have a huge smile on my face as I reminisce. Hope you all had a lovely Christmas. Do you have any New Years traditions?

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    • New Years was never a big deal for us and now as a non-drinker, even less so. Our town does a midnight firework display that I make myself stay up for because my kids want to go. Although as teens, they’re starting to make their own plans so possibly I’ll just go to bed. Any big resolutions? My plan is to get back in shape. 2018 was the worst year of my life with exercise.

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  6. Your description of your childhood church routine sounded like mine. My mom and dad would drop me off at Sunday school most weeks, but we did not attend church as a family. I went through catechism in my teens and joined the church, but felt no special connection to the teachings. It was only much later in life that I became interested in spiritual topics, mostly because of books I read. My favorite religious authors are Annie Dillard, Paul Tillich and Deitrich Bonhoeffer (just the letters he wrote from prison). I have my own theology, which probably varies quite a bit from mainstream Christian theology, but it’s something I think about a lot (as you know!) 🙂

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  7. I think that, based on the definition of cultural appropriation as i understand it, this wouldn’t constitute appropriating Christmas, since there’s not a double standard that you’re benefiting from. At the same time, I see your point since I have a similar religious background. I was raised in the church, and as a child I felt as though attendance was simply a chore. By the time I reached confirmation age (12), I felt the same passion for it that I saw in others, but then that feeling passed over the years. By the time I hit adulthood, I neither knew nor cared how I identified. Adulthood has been a period of agnosticism punctuated with occasional flares of spirituality. At the time being, I simply don’t know what I believe. I do know, however, that Christmas in a secular sense is very special to me.

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  8. Hey Jeff, I enjoyed your read! Your early experiences with the Church are very common. I grew up in an agnostic family where there was no church and no talk of Christ or Christian things. Christmas was all about the season and the gifts and always made me happy as a kid. This brought me back to fond memories of different ornaments and both great and not so great (think Charlie Brown) Christmas trees in the leaner years, but my mom always made Christmas “feel” special even if there were not a lot of expensive gifts or grand traditions. It was for us a time of family and good cheer. Thank you for the post and wishing you and your family the best in this new year!

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    • Still, it bothers mem that my otherwise bright and informed children know nothing about the Bible. The other day, I was talking about Jesus i a historical sense and my son said “You talk about him as if he really existed.” One of those things I wish they’d get curious about and start exploring on their own. Like it or not, Christianity has a fairly strong hold on the US. I didn’t really think of my brother scrambling LEON as a tradition until commenters kept saying it was.

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      • No time like the present to start introducing them to it! 🙂 If I may ask, what was it about Christianity that drove you out? I find it interesting when I come across different people that were raised in the church then turned away, when my experience is the exact opposite. I was anti church and God and then found Him.

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      • So I would call myself anti-god. I actually spend quite a bit of my time thinking about spirituality. My beef with Christianity is the exclusion of all who don’t believe Christ is the one route to salvation. Plus my belief in reincarnation doesn’t mesh with the Christian after-life. I recently read Lamb by Christopher Moore and it reminded me of the many things about Jesus that I respect. My kids are seeming a bit more receptive to biblical history. Maybe I’ll see what I can push their way.

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  9. Decorating, especially the tree, is a co-opted Pagan practice…. so we’re all appropriating from something else 🙂 I’m an avowed agnostic who loves to decorate, bake cookies, and even sometimes go to candlelight Christmas Eve service with family in December. There’s a beauty and community in the shared rituals and memories to me, rather than in the structured dogma. As an aside, Christopher Moore is one of my favorites and I made the mistake of lending “Lamb” to a boy I was dating two years ago. I haven’t seen him, the book, or a piece of my good Tupperware since….

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