DISCLAIMER: The following post contains frank discussion about my beliefs and feelings regarding religion. I don’t often discuss serious things here and I’m sure I’ll go back to posting silly stories soon. Please read with caution.
I knew in elementary school that my family was different from other families because if a sleepover at a friend’s house ended on a Sunday morning I would be dropped off at home early so my friend could go to church. Sometimes though I tagged along; I sat on the hard backed benches and watched the people around me. They were always dressed up like they were going to a wedding. It made me uncomfortable because I was not and I knew that I was the odd one out. I stared at the stained glass windows in awe at the beauty of them. I followed along with what my friend did. If she stood or sat or kneeled, so did I. But I didn’t understand a thing.
I knew who Jesus was. We celebrated his birthday every year. And I played with the Nativity every year. I loved the little sheep and donkeys. I loved moving baby Jesus around, trying him out in different places before finally putting him back in front of Mary. I knew the basic story – I watched all the Christmas specials each year and Linus explained it succinctly every single time. I loved Christmas time. It was the only birthday party I knew of where the guests got all the good presents! And boy did Santa bring me great gifts.
I started paying a bit more attention in middle school. My friends talked about church and I listened. They went to Sunday school and confirmation classes. They spoke of accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I wanted to understand. I wanted to belong. One night, I took my mom’s old King James Bible with its fancy thou’s and ye’s and I read it. Well, I skimmed it to get the general idea.
But I was skeptical about the whole Jesus is God thing. Actually, I was skeptical about the whole book. None of it made sense to me. Right about that time I was big into archaeology and paleontology. I was dumbfounded that the bible made no mention of dinosaurs. That it didn’t explain cave paintings and artifacts from civilizations that came ten thousand years before. I put the King James Version away and left it at that. It didn’t make sense and therefore it was of no use to me.
By eighth grade I knew. Well. I didn’t know, know. I had an inkling, a tickle in the back of my mind that I was somehow different from my friends. I didn’t know there was a name for it but I knew. I was a nonbeliever.
In college many of my friends were quite open about their religious beliefs and after learning about my skepticism, encouraged me to attend church and mass with them. I willing went along. I wanted to understand and maybe, back then, I wanted to believe. I mean I believed in aliens, Bigfoot and the possibility of a Loch Ness monster so why was it so hard for me to believe that an all powerful, all knowing, all loving being watched over us? Why was it so hard to accept that Jesus was the Lord and Savior? There wasn’t any real proof of aliens yet I readily jumped on that bandwagon. So what was the deal? It wasn’t until I dropped out, pregnant with Ashleigh and moved home that I really started looking at my beliefs.
Maybe I was searching for a meaning. Maybe I was confused by my sister’s sudden interest in the church when we were raised to look for answers in ourselves and in facts. I tried to understand. I went to midnight mass at St. Joseph’s on Christmas Eve that year thinking that I would find something in the pomp and circumstance of the night. And though I was near to bursting with excitement over the holiday and Ashleigh’s impending arrival, I felt more awkward then ever before. I didn’t belong in this building, I thought, with all these believers. It was hypocrisy. I didn’t…couldn’t…wouldn’t believe and yet, there I was.
When Ashleigh was three and I went back to college I decided to study religion, philosophy and history alongside with my English curriculum. Maybe, I thought, if I understood religion from a factual sense, then I…I don’t know what I expected. But the more I learned, the more I questioned and the more I questioned the more I realized that religion would not be something I would ever benefit from.
History showed too many problems sprouting from religion, too many misunderstandings, too many battles, too many deaths. It didn’t matter what religion or beliefs one espoused the end result was bad. Philosophy introduced me the Euthyphro dilemma – is something good because it is inherently good or because a god says it is good? My religion professor, a deeply religious man himself, made us dig for the historical aspects of the biblical text and asked us to question each verse.
Studying made me question all over again but this time it wasn’t about finding faith it was about how I was raising my daughter.
I gave a few brief thoughts about not celebrating Christmas anymore. I thought if I could eighty-six it when Ashleigh was young, she wouldn’t feel like she was missing out on anything. But then I thought about all the fun that Christmas is: the decorating, the celebrating, the presents. Sure there is a religious meaning behind it all, but Christmas is a conglomeration of different traditions that early Christians adopted to get the so-called pagans to convert. What farmer leaves his flock out in the fields on a winter night? Where in Luke does it mention an evergreen tree lit with candles or a Yule log? Guess who else was begot by a god: Hercules, Helen of Troy, and Julius Caesar.
Once I started thinking about Christmas in that sense I felt better about celebrating. In fact, I probably celebrate Christmas more enthusiastically now then I did before I got a degree. I decorate the house, I make ornaments and gifts, I love giving presents and spend a good part of the year thinking about and planning for Christmas. I start singing carols as early as August and despite my very vocal complaints about stores putting Christmas displays earlier and earlier each year, I secretly love it.
My sister a year or so ago shook her head at my while I was decorating my house, making room on the shelves for ceramic Santas that my mom painted. I was singing, giggling and just about spazzing out with joy that Christmas was coming - something that I have never outgrown.
“What?” I asked.
“You.” She said. “I don’t get how you can love Christmas this much and not believe in Jesus.”
I’m not sure how I responded. Maybe I made a witty comment or just shrugged but as the years have passed I have come to terms with my love of Christmas. Christmas isn’t just about Jesus anymore. Not really. It's about hope. The story of Jesus offers people hope. You don’t need faith to have hope. And in the middle of winter when nights are long and cold it is good to remember hope.
I will never claim that Jesus didn’t exist. There’s factual evidence. And I will never claim that I know all there is in the universe because really? It’s just too big for us to understand. And that’s alright. Besides, who am I to pass up on Birthday Cake? Yes, I celebrate the commercial side of Christmas and next to my beautiful Nativity are Santa Claus’s, nutcrackers, mistletoe, a decorated tree and many other things associated with Christmas that actually predate Christianity. When the girls ask about them meaning of Christmas I explain to them the religious and the secular, the biblical and the incorporation of other beliefs. I may not believe that Jesus was or is the son of God, I may not believe in an omniscient god and my point with this post is not to spark religious debate; in fact, I’m pretty sure that this post has moved entirely too far away from my original point I wanted to make which is:
OMFG!!! IT’S CHRISTMAS EVE!!!!!!