My First Christmas

 In Honorable Closure (HC), Reclaiming Joy, Shunned

I was thirty-two years old when I celebrated Christmas for the first time. I’d been raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and Witnesses are famous (or is that infamous!) for not celebrating holidays (or birthdays) that have origins in pagan, non-Christian rituals. When I left that religion in search of an ecumenical spiritual path, I was confronted with the choice and the freedom to celebrate all holidays including the Big Kahuna of Holidays: Christmas. It was discombobulating and guilt-inducing but also a hell of a lot of fun.

From childhood I’d been conditioned to judge holiday gift exchange as wrong. I’d become annoyed if I caught myself humming Silent Night, though I secretly found the music sublime. If a sales clerk wished me Merry Christmas, I was trained to say, “Thank you.” When invited to any office holiday party, I’d decline saying, “that’s against my religion.” If the person wanted to hear more, I was prepared to embellish with scripture and verse. Any feelings of being left out were trumped by my deep conviction that my stand pleased The Almighty Jehovah, and I pressed on with piety and a clear conscience. It was not unusual for me to go skiing with other Witnesses on Christmas Day, grateful that the hullabaloo was almost over.

Then one day I got older, and wise enough to listen to my ever-growing list of niggling religious doubts, and the Almighty lost his street cred. I was free to join a world I’d been taught to fear and finally: celebrate! Ho Ho Ho. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I recommend pacing yourself.

That first winter, I joined my newfound “worldly” friends for a stroll on Michigan Avenue to admire the Christmas lights at the Water Tower on our way to a performance of A Christmas Carol. (As a child I was not even allowed to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, so this was a big deal.) I drank in the performance at the Goodman Theatre like a parched and grateful poinsettia, captivated by each scene.

Two other firsts that year: I purchased my holiday CDs and listened to them as I wrote out Christmas cards. From time to time, I would cower as I feared being struck by lightning, (literally: Jehovah is a jealous god, “exacting exclusive devotion” sayeth the Good Book) and I was loath to let any of my Witness friends or family know about my new heathen activities. The habit of guilt is tough to shake. Buying or decorating a Christmas tree was more than I could fathom. My first office party affirmed how much I hadn’t been missing all those years, but it felt good to finally understand (and participate in) the office gossip the following week.

This is my nineteenth Christmas, and I have learned over the years how to make it an affirming, fun experience, another act of creation. Like most people, it’s a time for me to connect with my soul family, revel in gratitude for life’s bounty, and be curious about and inspired by all the ways different religions honor the darkness with celebrations of light. And come December 26th, I’m always glad the hullabaloo is over. It’s safe to say, I’ve become a happy pagan.

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