My Christmas Traditions (December 22, 2010)

A few days ago, my Aunt Diane, a woman who has been like a mother to my sister and I, sought to clarify my positions on holiday celebrations. While she rejoices in the diversity of our extended family, she wanted to be sure that Jen and I were not feeling left out of any of the seasonal fun. She is well aware that I was born and raised as a Lutheran. For nine years, I did the whole parochial grade school pilgrimage: learning how to recite the books of the Old Testament in order (a skill I only display now as a cocktail party parlor trick), memorizing Bible verses, and making my formal confirmation at age 13, as an 8th grade student.

However, less than a year after my confirmation, the Christian God and I had a falling out. Or rather I should say, I had my own scientific/spiritual awakening. While I always understood intuitively that the Bible should not be taken literally, I was really hung up on the Jesus arc. I believed he existed, owned that he was a charismatic man, and that his crucifixion was a great tragedy. But son of God? Nah – I think I was with the Jews on that one. For that matter, over time, I began to question the existence of the Big Guy himself.

In 2007, I converted to Hinduism as part of the marriage rituals I underwent with my husband Eddie. I studied up as much as I could before we walked down the aisle (or pranced around the fire), and while there is much to like about the religion’s basic tenets of hard work and refraining from harm to living creatures, I couldn’t quite get behind the Hindu god/goddess hierarchy. Like Greek or Roman mythology, the characters made for a great study, but I was never able to accept them as real entities who had an effect on my day to day life. This is a source of real disappointment to my in-laws, but they appreciate my participation in various rites nonetheless.

For the last nine years, my sister Jen and I have formed our own loosely dogmatic Christian-Muslim-Hindu coalition. Jen is married to a wonderful man with a strong Islamic faith, and though she herself never converted, the religion is a big part of her daily family life. Thus I have had my own opportunities for exposure and learning.

All of this background cements my Aunt’s need to figure out how exactly I celebrate Christmas. What does it mean for me personally, as a religious skeptic? Though I was born Lutheran, converted to Hinduism, and once considered myself an agnostic, the latter classification was really just a waffle on my part. The truth is that I am much closer as a an adult to atheism, but was afraid to say it out loud, on the off chance that my Lord actually did exist and would condemn me to the flames of Hell for non-belief. Also, I hate the word “atheist.” It sounds so evil. If George Carlin were alive, I ask for his help in devoting a softer, more PC term for my group, something like “the godly challenged.”

But for an increasing number of American families, Christmas is about much more than celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus, and my clan is no different. In my living room right now sits a small, sparkling, real live Christmas tree. This tree is bedecked with lights and a big, red glittery star – selected and setup by my firmly Hindu better half as an afternoon surprise for me. On Saturday morning, we will attend a traditional holiday mass at a church near our home – again at Eddie’s request. He has been watching all sorts of Jesus-themed shows on the History Channel the last two weeks and wants to view the Western rites up close. While this plan stems from intellectual curiosity more than devotion, we are still choosing to participate.

In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am not one of the godless who feels superior to others, one of the smug who cosmically “gets it.” In fact the opposite is true. I often feel wistfully left out, wishing with all my might that I could believe in something, anything. I spend a fair amount of my waking life tearing myself apart with questions, regret and sorrow (another family Christmas tradition). But then I look at my mother-in-law, a woman who sleeps well at night believing that her fate and everything associated with it “is in God’s hands,” and I feel jealous. I am not cynical about religion. Yes, it has been used for evil purposes throughout history, manipulated by the powerful to screw the meek, but aside from that, on an individual level, religious faith is a beautiful thing, from what I can see, a real source of comfort to those who genuinely accept.

I yearn to be part of that club, but somehow my dubious psyche can’t take the leap. I want there to more than simple ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I want to believe that there is something beyond this complicated, painful life but everytime I think it out, I come up short.

My Aunt, like my mother-in-law, wishes this were not so. She asked abut my positions then because she empathizes with the emptiness she thinks I must necessarily experience at this time of year, as one who sits outside the circle. But as I explained to her, all metaphysical questioning aside, I do feel a part of the season. The end of a calendar year, and the celebrations that come along with it, are an opportunity to count your blessings and reflect, to clear away the exhaustion of another annum and prepare to start fresh. I am so down with that. Ditto the gift giving, family togetherness and the overeating that goes with it. I adore the cartoon Christmas specials (stop motion Rudolph! Linus’ parable of the modest Christmas tree!), the first snowfall (though I wish it could also be the last) and the caroling. Not having a religion doesn’t mean I am immune to joy.

It’s a wonderful life. I just haven’t located an explanation for it yet that works for me. Looking for one is my own Christmas ritual.