Thursday, November 27, 2014

40 B4 40: Holiday Cards

Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, I was taught that Christmas and all its trappings were pagan rights masquerading as as a celebration of Christ’s birth. (And that is mostly true. Santa Claus certainly doesn’t appear in the bible.) All those poor fools kissing under mistletoe, singing about reindeer, and lighting trees were one step away from devil worship. My sisters and I were banned from even looking at Christmas decorations. Secretly, though, I was fascinated by the forbidden holiday.

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.


Sheila said...

Although I grew up with all the trappings which at times leave me feeling trapped, metaphorically, into Obligations, I find as I get older that I want to participate less and less in what feels like going through the motions. I would rather go to a friend's for dinner than go through the horrifying rituals with my family (you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family). I don't put up a tree any more, I would rather buy presents for people when genuinely moved to do so, not because it's expected. *sigh*

I miss your kitties in the pictures, but it's great to see your family looking so happy, Kasmira. Thanks for the glimpse into your life.

blackdogramona said...

I love your card! Your family is like mine, 2 humans, 2 dogs, 1 cat. Youngest dog is half border and very joyful!

Mahal said...

I grew up in a JW household as well, and have had the same struggles finding my own identity at holiday seasons.

I get a lot of pleasure from giving presents that I think people will like. But gifts isn't THE reason for the season, although it's a big one.

We keep an open house at Christmas for those of our friends who, for reasons of distance or what have you, don't have family to share the day with. (Or those who've done the family thing then want to escape!) It's helped having the house full of cheerful people, good food; building a tradition of community, rather than family.

I still feel displaced at times, but it helps.

Anonymous said...

It's never too late to start traditions. While I grew up with all the trappings of Christmas, I haven't kept many of them, and I've started new ones with my husband and kids. Some of those are now my favorite part of Christmas. I think engaging with people in meaningful ways is much more what Christmas is about that than all the trappings anyway.

Love the photo too!


C Lo said...

I am a Christian and I don't particularly feel like Christmas is really a "reglious" holiday anymore. MY family goes to church on Christmas eve and in our home we interweave the themes of Christ's birth........but Christmas is just an American holiday, IMHO. There is so little religious about it! That said........I think it IS a little bit about faith and magic and little miracles and I don't think you need to believe in God to believe in those things. The good part about it not really being a religious holiday anymore is that it can be about the collective good in all of us. It can be about the unseen things we do for one another to make life better. I think the enjoyment of the holiday has to do with believing in *good*, wherever that comes from. And I think enjoying the holiday also has to do with ignoring other folks who tell you "youre doing it wrong!".


Angie said...

Like all others have said it's worth celebrating hope and the good in us. You need to built a few traditions together with Dan and before you know it you will celebrate your own Christmas.

Unknown said...

Maybe the feelings or magic will come to the child in you. If you lay on the floor looking up at the tree lights while listening to Silent Night and eating a cookie someone else baked, imagining santa is coming but not trying to make it happen it could just be a beginning of finding that deeply held child memory of what is Christmas. Muster up your own longings and memories and own them!

Unknown said...

Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of christmas. See the link below for more info.


Lorena said...

My most beautiful Christmases memoirs are from when I was a child.
Unfortunately as i grew older I longed for those, but sadly the magic died.
Maybe its the fact that I have a sucky family that its better not to see as all you will get is criticism.
Maybe its because even though I grew up in a Catholic environment I have drifted a bit..
Could be because of the pressure, the traffic and the idea that you HAVE to do something you don't want to.
I limit my gifts to children and a few unmarried friends. I put up a tree, mostly for my husband and I have to admit the smell of pine is something I enjoy.
I hope to someday start a tradition, I am right behind you, so I think we still have time.
My family is too made up of pets :) and this year I just hope they don't pee on the presents under the tree. Hugs.

Laurie said...

I was raised Jewish and grew up to be atheist. In the early years of our marriage I celebrated Christmas with my husband's family; he was raised Unitarian and grew up to be atheist.

We have created our own Christmas and Chanukah tradition - a festival of lights to counter the darker days of winter. We fill our home inside with lights and outside with light strands my husband creates. We invite family over for dinner to share food and friendship. But mostly it is about basking in the glow of the lights and raising our spirits and the spirits of those around us.

Whatever you choose to do or not to do, enjoy that it is of your own making. And that you do it with your family of Beefy and the puppies.

By the way, I enjoy reading your blog. I feel like I'm seeing an old friend each time I pop over. :)