Surprisingly, for a child, it wasn’t the gifts that I longed for as much as the traditions: caroling, leaving milk and cookies for Santa, driving around to look at the lights, decorating a tree, exchanging holiday cards. When I was 15, my mother left the JWs and we children had the option of remaining with the religion or not. I was the first one out. I couldn’t wait to celebrate Christmas, but quickly discovered that it wasn’t like the movies.
Choosing to celebrate Christmas didn’t fill our house with golden light, the scent of fresh baked cookies, and carols. We didn’t even know the lyrics to sing a song (with the exception of Rudolph). How do you decorate a tree without years of gifted, hand-me-down, and hand-made ornaments? There were no family recipes for special Christmas treats. In fact, we had no family that celebrated Christmas.
Our first Christmas consisted of us sitting at the dining table with our mother’s boyfriend and each opening a gift. It felt forbidden and a little sterile. Jehovah didn’t strike us down for getting presents, but maybe that was because we hadn’t participated fully in the holiday. We didn’t have a tree in the living room or lights on the house. The only Christmas activity we had participated in was the most commercial. It’s the only tradition I’ve kept up.
Over the years, I made other attempts at feeling the magic of Christmas. The second year, I sent out hand-made holiday cards. The next year, I bought a few Christmas albums that I played nonstop for the last two weeks of December. I once decorated a potted pine. I participated in gift exchanges. I drank eggnog. I went to holiday parties. I’ve even attended Christmas mass. But I’ve always felt like an imposter.
What’s missing? You might say it’s faith. (I’m an atheist.) But I think it’s simply a lack of history. Christmas is a holiday of traditions and I have none. There are no heirloom ornaments or secret family recipes. Beefy’s family has a tradition of recalling and telling stories from past Christmases at their annual celebration. We gathered at his grandmother’s house a few years ago and when it was my turn to speak, I had nothing to say.
Is 39 too late to start traditions for a holiday based on a faith I don’t share? I don’t know. I may not be a Christian, but I’m a humanist and I see the holiday as a reminder to connect with friends and family. The pagan trappings are pretty, but have no significance in my life. I choose to engage in the rituals that connect me with those I care about. I’ll continue to send gifts to those I love and will make another attempt at those holiday cards this year.