I don’t have the best memory of childhood, so forgive me if my recollections are a bit scattershot.
1983-1986: My earliest memories of Christmas are of getting presents and eating big meals at big tables with my mom’s big extended family on Christmas Day and I remember Christmas Eves with the Finckes with my many cousins and me tearing into our presents all at once. I remember my mother’s parents belting out love songs at a whim, as they were wont to do. I remember my mother’s Uncle Donald sitting quietly at a raucous table of gregarious Italians all night, only to slay the room with the occasional well-timed and precise quip that would serve as his commentary on all that was going on. I remember wearing stuffy Christmas outfits. I remember my grandfather telling me to go to “the store” to get him a beer. To this day I have no idea how I was supposed to know he meant to just go to the refrigerator for it.
I remember playing in the echoing hall outside my other grandparents’ high rise apartment. I don’t remember my dad’s father. I do remember my dad’s mother not liking me much. I remember playing with He-Man toys and Star Wars figures with my cousin and watching Poltergeist holding each other out of fear and giggling uproariously together at the scary parts. I remember the elaborate Christmas decorations and the involved processes of putting them up and taking them down. I remember discovering Nintendo and, with it, video games. I remember loving various Christmas movies. Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer was a perennial favorite. How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Mickey’s Christmas Carol left deep impressions on me.
I remember endless retellings each Christmas of three stories about when I was very little. I threw up a couple Christmas Eves, apparently out of anxiety. I was told by my parents to present myself as grateful and enthusiastic regardless of what the gifts were. The legend goes that this led me to respond to a gift of underwear, by exclaiming, “UNDERWEAR!!” like it was the most longed for and thrilling of gifts. A different year my parents also apparently tried to train me to respond to gifts I didn’t want by telling me to say that I loved it and they would just return it in the morning and I could get something I actually wanted. The legend goes that this led me to enthusiastically proclaim upon opening gifts that “I love it and my parents will return it in the morning!”
I don’t remember Christmas when I was little having any distinctly religious significance at all to me until I was about 8, I think. This is partly because apart from the popular Christian hymns of the season, the secular expressions of the holiday and the personal relationships it brought to the fore were far more interesting to me than anything Jesus related. Part of the other issue is that American Christmas culture is so saturated with Christian iconography and language around Christmas that it was hard to even distinguish it out as even religious anymore. At a certain point it just is a matter of tradition and culture, wholly irrespective of its overtly religious character.
My first church related memories of Christmas were being in a Christmas play at about 8 years old. I had desperately wanted to be an actor as a little kid but never had the opportunities. So when they cast me in a Christmas play as a boy who couldn’t find his parents on the holiday, I took the part with gusto. At the end of the show when my real parents appeared at the back of the church and I was supposed to run down the aisle and into their arms, I charged so hard into them I almost knocked them over.
I’m pretty sure it was the next year, 1987, when my church inaugurated an annual Christmas event originally called “Back to Bethlehem” but for most of its years “Bethlehem Alive”. Bethlehem Alive was a really, really impressive production for a congregation of ~150 people in a tiny building. The people of the church tirelessly built and then performed in a “replica” street in Bethlehem which thousands of people from the community would walk through stopping at stations where they would meet all sorts of everyday citizens of Bethlehem who would talk about their lives, often humorously, and make only the vaguest and most passing hints at aspects of the story of Jesus’s birth. Then they would see a live action manger scene (often with a real baby!) and then go to a room that dealt with the resurrection and then go downstairs for cookies, juice, and being approached by church members eager to share the Gospel.
I inaugurated the role of stable boy and then, when I was around 13 years old, I helped inaugurate the role of shepherd. Our church expanded and built a huge new worship area and people would be seated there for an hour or so (after waiting in the cold another hour or two) to come in. Our job was to warm up the crowd. As a ham, I ate it up. I would go out there and improvise and yell enthusiastically about the angels we shepherds had seen.
Those Bethlehem Alive nights were intense. Except for the occasional trips to warm up the crowd as a shepherd, they were long boring repetitive hour nights (especially for kids) being live action animatronic puppets. But they were immensely satisfying. The feeling of community that was created was so deep. As a young person to be a part of something so many people, adults and kids alike, were so passionate about, so invested in, all volunteer, left a deep impact. It also deepened the trend where church, for me, meant feeling like I was friends with tons of wonderful adults who I got to work on things with and be treated with respect by. I would talk to them for hours on end and they were like a large loving surrogate extended family.
And I even wound up front in center on page 6 of Newsday in the same picture as the girl I had a painful crush on. I stared at that picture endlessly and even then found it enormously humorous that if you looked at it carefully you could see me peeking at her as inconspicuously as I could.
I was growing up as an Evangelical Christian who didn’t even believe Catholics were Christians (or even that other Protestants who weren’t baptized suitably old enough or who didn’t go to one of my tradition’s “non-denominational” churches were.) So when I was in high school, I thought of 99% of the people there as wholly secular non-Christians in desperate need of the Gospel, regardless of the fact that they were, at least nominally, predominantly Protestants and Catholics. And I felt inherently persecuted because I felt so different from everyone else and like they were rejecting the most important and defining thing about me, simply by not sharing it.
And by turning Christmas into a proselytizing opportunity, I realize only now as I write this that by 9 years old my church was effectively using Bethlehem Alive to explicitly intertwine the Christmas holiday with my burgeoning mindset that I was surrounded by the unsaved. That I was only “in” the world but not “of” it.
American Evangelical Christians who want to turn everything they come into contact into an extension of Christianity tend to oscillate between two mindsets. One is the underdog, persecuted mindset whereby they’re constantly proclaiming in paranoia and privilege blindness that they’re surrounded by anti-Christian godlessness on all sides, both outside the church in the secular world and even inside the church through the threat of other Christians’ “false teachings”. This persecution complex helps them feel righteous, embattled, and more fiercely loyal to their faith and hostile to outsiders.
But Evangelical Christians often also want power (ostensibly on Christ’s behalf) and so claim not only that all spheres of life properly should be theirs by divine ordination but also that longstanding tradition and current popular will effectively demand that they have all the legal, social, spiritual, and moral influence they desire in the government or any other organizations of the culture they can commandeer. In order to have the highly persuasive appearance of popular support they want to claim that this is really a Christian country and exploit Christmas for all its worth in proving this point. Look at nearly everyone (including many non-Christians!) acknowledging the centrality of our holiday to the culture! And then they want to demand that people celebrate it in the way they deem permissible if they’re going to engage in their holiday. And, of course, any attempts to acknowledge other traditions (with the exception perhaps of Hanukkah) or to respect non-Christians’ consciences around this season are greeted as illicit attempts to undermine their attempt to coerce people through their love of the Solstice season and the trappings of Christmas into demands for religious conformity as the supposedly fair price for their festive enjoyments.
Since I didn’t grow up in a largely Catholic and Jewish area where Evangelicalism was as little ascendant as anywhere in America, I completely didn’t feel like the culture was Christian at all (though I thought it should be). So, rather than trying to convince myself that a majority of people were celebrating Christmas in some deeply religious way, Christmas became to me a much more personal kind of Christian experience. I felt like there was a tiny minority of us that got to really experience this whole other side of Christmas. As a teenager, I began to love Christmas not as a mass-cultural phenomenon shared by everyone, but as something transfigured into being about Christ by one’s having a relationship with Christ. What I began to love was how worship could be incorporated into Christmas. I began distinctly to appreciate how the things people talked about on Christmas were an extension of the faith I lived everyday. It wasn’t the one day to be a Christian, it was a day to celebrate being a Christian year round.
It dawns on me in retrospect that making my faith feel like something personal, exclusive, and rare was precisely what made Christmas a distinctly Christian holiday for me. It wasn’t something I felt bombarded and over-saturated with by the larger culture. It wasn’t something I felt stolen from me. Rather I could enjoy numerous Christian fellowships centered around Jesus and find so many opportunities to hear beautiful hymns about Jesus being sung and to experience them as coming alive with personal meaning. The words were richer and meant more than ever. They weren’t dead traditions to me. And my assumption that many of those singing didn’t really mean them or appreciate them in the appropriate way didn’t make them less meaningful to me, they made it more special to me by contrast with just how much I was able to discover in traditions that others were only experiencing partially. They were the ones missing out because they could only appreciate the hymns or Handel’s Messiah on the levels of aesthetics and traditional familiarity. They missed out on what was there spiritually when all this beauty of music and lyric and symbol and image had literal and visceral meaning.
I even loved how naturally my favorite Christian artists could organically weave Christmas songs into their repertoires as just the most natural and unforced extension of the music they made all the time. Still today I get chills from the poignancy of The Little Drummer Boy and it was White Heart’s version that made me fall in love with it.
Ironically, by having the space for the gigantic consumerist megaphenomenon of Christmas not to be identical with my spiritual engagement with Christmas and to not feel like everyone around me was engaged in a uniform mass worship, I got to experience Christmas as though I was an “insider”, as though me and the other year round Christians were in on the spiritual depths that everybody was missing out on. I got to experience it as a chance to personally worship amidst so many choruses of people who didn’t know what was available to them were only they to internalize the meanings of the words they were going through the motions of singing and appreciate them beyond their gorgeous aesthetic limits, to their power to open up a relationship with Jesus Christ. I got the whole experience of Christmas. I got to experience Christmas as something integrated seamlessly into the entirety of my spiritual life. And while of course I wanted everyone to have this too, there was no need to be threatened by the fact they didn’t or to find the parallel secular traditions everywhere during the season anything but delightful in their own right.
That’s the value to Christian spirituality of enabling people to accept or reject religious participation without coercion. When they wind up choosing to engage spiritually, it makes it theirs spiritually. No one could ever achieve as authentic a feeling of the supposedly “true”, but really just the distinctly Christian, meaning of Christmas by being bullied (“you have to shut up and sit down and accept having exclusively Jewish and Christian symbols on public land and Christocentric civic ceremonies shoved down your throat whether you like it or not”) or tricked through bizarre standards of consistency “you can’t enjoy Christmas unless you do it in the right and spiritually Christian way!!”
Related from Camels With Hammers: One Atheist’s View of Christmas
Before becoming an atheist I was a devout Evangelical Christian. I am slowly telling the story of my former life as a believer, how I came to deconvert and become an atheist, what it all meant and where I went from there personally and intellectually. At this regularly updated permanent page you can find links to all the pieces I have written so far. While they all contribute to an overall narrative, each installment is self-contained and can valuably be read on its own without the others. So feel free to read starting anywhere, according to your interest.