Why I Don’t Celebrate Christmas
It all started in my young twenties. Struggling to finish college and pay the rent, I maxed out a couple of credit cards on Christmas presents for friends and a big family. Family, for me, meant seven brothers and sisters, most much younger than I, plus Mom. And as a big sister, I’d been a sort of substitute mom or co-parent for so long that I couldn’t let them down.
It might have started even a few years before that, when a similar batch of presents and almost everything else was stolen from my apartment. It happened just before Christmas, and I was, fortunately, able to replace the gifts with others. But what had been a joyous task turned into a frustrating rush job, and I couldn’t spend nearly as much as I had on the originals.
After grad school, when student loans and other responsibilities kicked in, I backed out of the family gift exchange. I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I couldn’t stand to buy anything cheap and meaningless. Better nothing than a piece of junk soon forgotten, I thought. And I was becoming bitter; I rarely heard from my family unless I initiated a call, and I was tired of it. Christmas seemed like the only time we saw each other, and I hardly knew them anymore though I lived only a few hours away. Trying to play catch up with eight people over the course of one chaotic afternoon and evening was a complete fail. And I just wasn’t able to drum up the enthusiasm I once had.
A few years later, my mom announced that we’d do a “Secret Santa” gift exchange, which worked out great as long as I was around when names were tossed in a hat and picked. But I wasn’t around much, and I wasn’t included one year when I skipped Thanksgiving in favor of spending it with my fiancé. I had also spent Christmas in Germany with my in-laws-to-be the previous year, and because of that my mom assumed … something. I didn’t understand the conclusion she’d made. And with that, the joy of the holiday season just fizzled out.
But Christmas isn’t just about gifts, after all. It’s about the birth of Jesus, the Christ. God in human form, goodness and purity embodied such that “whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but may have everlasting life.” ¹
Trouble is, I’m not a Christian. I never was, really. I never bought the whole kit and kaboodle except by default. My mom was raised Lutheran, or so she said, though I’m not sure she actually went to church. My step-father was Catholic until he was excommunicated for divorce and remarriage to my mother back in the 1960s. But I don’t think he attended mass on any regular basis before that, and definitely not while I knew him as “Dad.” Growing up Catholic was his default, too.
We had an enormous old Bible, the coffee table King James version, passed down for generations in my mom’s family. It was a scary thing, that book, so luxuriant, so untouchable, so holy it almost glowed. Not that anyone ever read it, but at least we had something to remind us of what we weren’t and didn’t and probably ought to be and do. And we said Christian prayers at dinner sometimes, usually on holidays. Christian prayers at bedtime too, most of the time, even though I whispered them to myself as I got older.
But my family didn’t belong to a church or subscribe to any particular belief, and I was never baptized or initiated in any version of Christianity. I was sure I’d land in the fiery pits of hell, and maybe I’d score points by attending mass or Protestant services with friends once in awhile. But I was always an outsider, a visitor. Nothing ever felt welcoming or somehow right, nothing pulled me in any further. And my beliefs weren’t strong enough to make me try.
I did spend six or eight months as a born-again sort of Christian, however. By invitation of a friendly co-worker, I attended a so-called revival. Or something like that: a crowd of excited people in a huge room, some sort of service, lots of singing, and people so moved they walked up to the front where the pastor prayed over them. One by one, they fainted into the ready arms of two strong men.
“Go on, go on!” my new friend urged. I shrugged. Jesus was fine by me, and I had no reason to say no. I walked up to the front as choruses of Praise Jesus and Thanks be to God rang out. I agreed to accept Jesus as my personal savior, and the pastor prayed and prayed some more, louder and louder. I smiled nervously as the congregation waited with bated breath and the pastor became annoyed. Nothing happened. I think he said I was resisting. My friend said I already knew Jesus. On one hand, none of this was surprising. On the other, I was swept into a swirl of religious fervor.
It didn’t take long before I saw it for what it was. Almost hysteria. A kind of mania. A good thing taken to extremes. When a prayer group leader (sixty-ish in a suit) said I caused him to sin because of the way I dressed (twenty-ish in jeans and a T-shirt), and when a friend I brought to a service was freaked out with an unexpected “casting out of demons” affair, that was it. It seemed like a coven of witches, not followers of Jesus, and I was Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown, witness to a darkness I didn’t know existed. This was not what Jesus taught. This was not what I wanted to learn.
Christianity fizzled out for me around the same time that Christmas gift-giving and celebrations began to feel like a burden. But it wasn’t just those experiences that dampened my spirit. In the years that followed, it was the materialism, the Dyonysian-like feasts, the drinking and drunk driving, and the temporary highs of the Christmas season that were the final turn off.
Christmas became a lovely yet poisonous flower that blossoms, fades, and rots on the vine. A much coveted flower with too many thorns of unrequited expectations, unhappiness, and disappointment. Hypocrisy, whether the holiday is celebrated for religious or secular reasons. The birth of Jesus glorified by celebrants who don’t know his teachings much less follow them. And I wanted more. I wanted love, peace, and the spirit of giving throughout the year, not just on one day preceded by weeks of planning, stress, hurry up, and a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude.
I’m not knocking Christmas itself but the way it’s commonly celebrated and how it can hardly be escaped. It’s as good a reason as any to revel in gift-giving and merrymaking, spending time with family and friends, and sharing some love. And, of course, it’s a big part of practicing their faith for many Christians, some eschewing the materialistic aspects altogether or keeping it minimal according to their tradition.
But for me, no thanks. My heart breaks too much when I think of poor families, children who won’t get any presents, kids who get shamed or lie when other kids ask what they received. Single mothers wrestling with work, babysitters, runny noses, gift shopping, and hopelessly tangled twinkle lights that promise to make the season bright. The increase in domestic abuse.² The stressed-out shoppers fighting over parking spaces. Road ragers on Christmas Eve breaking speed limits to finish shopping before stores close. Weary cashiers. Maxed out credit cards and bills paid late. Returned gifts that end up in landfills.³ The annual dose of warm fuzzies, if you’re lucky, that soon dissipate into ordinary day-to-day frustrations and worries.
Sure, I could celebrate Christmas in some simple fashion, and in a way, I do. I enjoy the silence, the sparse traffic. Dinner and a glass of wine. Alone time with little chance of interruption. I read, write, and take an afternoon walk. I revel in the sunshine, the blue sky or the clouds, the beauty of the trees, the birds, a squirrel scampering across the road. I muse on the wonder of being alive on a revolving planet and ask where, exactly, Jesus is. It’s easy to think he’s up in heaven somewhere, in the sky overhead at God’s right side as Christianity teaches. But with the perspective from outer space, from another planet, where is he? Is Jesus in the sixty-mile atmospheric blanket of gases that surrounds the earth? Or is he in some other plane of existence we can’t see or comprehend? Is he there at all? Is anyone?
Not celebrating Christmas in the last fifteen years or so has opened my eyes. And maybe, if I do take part in the festivities once again, the experience will be far richer and wiser, more merry and brighter than any Christmas I’ve ever experienced before. And that’s a gift I’ve given to myself.
¹The Bible. King James Version, John 3:16. Bible Gateway. Accessed 12/26/2017. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+3%3A16&version=KJV.
²Mattie Quin, “The Holiday Spike in Domestic Abuse.” The Atlantic. Accessed 12/27/2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/the-holiday-spike-in-domestic-abuse/383995/.
³Laura Sanicola, “Returning an unwanted holiday present? There’s a good chance it could end up in a landfill.” CNN. Accessed 12/26/2017. http://money.cnn.com/2017/12/26/news/retail-returns-landfill/index.html.