By now it’s well established that I no longer believe in the god I professed for ages, to whom I dedicated 26 years of my life. Yet I celebrate Christmas with much joy and happiness. I bestow and receive gifts. I revel in food and drink, and the fellowship of loved ones and friends. I let the music, lights, and colors of the season wash over me through the hustle and bustle of the holidays.
But what am I celebrating? Is not the holiday the most stark reminder of what I no longer believe, of what I have concluded is a delusion that is detrimental to the peace and growth of our society?
Well… yes and no.
What leaving behind the faith has restored to me is the Christmas of my youth.
When I was a child, Christmas was not about Jesus, sin, death, blood sacrifice, and dogma. It was about, love, peace, and goodwill to men. Our increasingly pluralistic and maturing society adapted the aspects of the holiday that appealed to all people regardless of faith, creed, or philosophy.
Christmas was about the joy and happiness of children. It was about being fully and wholly a child, without apology. Bright eyes on Christmas morning, tearing open packages and delighting in the discovery of a long-hoped for present, or in the surprise of a special and unexpected gift.
It was about beloved stories and characters who taught us about kindness and the spirit of giving.
It was about forgetting our worries for a day. It was about setting aside our quarrels and disagreements to remember what was truly important – family and friends – those things you can’t buy at a department store.
It was about the hope for Peace on Earth. Real peace. Not the peace that comes from coercing everyone into believing one story over another, but the peace that comes from accepting people where they are for who they are and finding a way to live together in harmony. Every Christmas that hope seemed like it just might be possible someday.
It was about Goodwill to Men. Treat each other with kindness. How is that so difficult? And why can’t we have goodwill the other 364 days?
As Elvis Presley once sang, If every day could be like Christmas, what a wonderful world this would be.
It was about Love. The love of family, the love of friends. The love in your child’s eyes on Christmas morning. The love in your beloved’s eyes at Christmas evening.
But there was a time when the Church stripped away this simple, hopeful joy. Looking back, it almost made me cynical.
I would hear sentiments like those above and would think that they were empty hopes without Jesus. In the Christian economy, peace, goodwill, hope, and love are empty for unbelievers. People who celebrated Christmas in the spirit of those ideals were only fooling themselves. They were missing the point, and were bound for an eternity of suffering if they didn’t wake up and realize that the only peace, hope, goodwill, and love was in Jesus.
I couldn’t enjoy secular celebrations without the sly thought that I had the real truth, that I understood what those songs were really about, and that if those people would just listen, they could have real joy too. I was so superior.
From the Christian perspective, that’s just the truth, like it or not.
But now, having come to the conclusion that Christianity is just another spiritual myth, another idea about the universe found wanting, I can set it aside, out of the way, and find hidden beneath it that simple and abiding joy that comes from thinking the best of people, in hoping the best for people, in seeking the best for people.
It gives me joy to realize that the spirit of the Christmas of my youth isn’t only for the chosen few who’ve seen the light, no matter how many ridiculous ways they try to take it away from the rest of us.
It is for all of us, and perhaps even moreso for all of us who have no urge to insist that others celebrate it our way or no way.
It is for all of us. For the young and the old. For the rich and the poor. For red, yellow, black, and white. It is for the kind and the gentle, the winsome and humble. It is for all who hope for a better world for them and their children, no matter where they live or where they’re from.
And it is in this spirit, the spirit of the Christmas of my youth, that I wish all of you a very, very Happy Christmas.