“What does Christmas mean to you?” A friend asked me recently during a religious debate on Facebook. She and I think very differently and frequently have discussions on the topic of religion.
I respect all religions, even if I don’t believe them. If something in your chosen faith works for you, great. It just doesn’t work for me. We are all entitled to our opinions. In explaining the meaning of Christmas, I also have to explain my history with religion and how I came to think the way I do today.
I was born into a fundamentalist Christian (Methodist) family. My mom chose Christianity for me. My ancestors include a Bishop, preachers, and my mom was a missionary in Japan for three years. My family expected me to get on board and give my life to Christ.
My mom is/was a church organist. I spent every Sunday morning at church (three services) and attended hundreds of weddings where she played. I went to vacation bible school in the summers and attended Sunday School and services every single week. My mom baptized me Christian, but sometime between then and confirmation (around twelve years of age), my critical thinking mechanism kicked in. I remember sitting through sermons and doodling on my program, wondering to myself, “How does he know that?” about whatever it was the minister was saying. I endured countless Sunday afternoon discussions about the sermons. Every Christmas, I sat through bible readings and church services reluctantly to show respect to my elders. But I never bought the stories. Never. I didn’t go through with confirmation. I didn’t accept Jesus Christ as my savior. Why? Because I didn’t believe all the stories. Nobody could answer my questions about how they know all that is true.
While most people are accepting of whatever religion they are born into, I wanted to make my own choices and find answers to the mysterious questions of life and death on my own. After all, human beings created religion to address and answer the big question and in an attempt to explain natural phenomena all around us.
I never understood the connection between Christmas being Jesus’s birthday and Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer etc. Nobody could explain that to me either. Now I get it that these are characters involved with winter, and that Christmas was actually a replacement holiday for the pagan ritual of celebrating Winter Solstice. It’s kind of like how Easter means Jesus’s resurrection to Christians, but it’s also based on a celebration of the spring, and a time of new life in the natural world. From my understanding of history, Christianity adopted these holidays to attract Pagans (who celebrated the Earth long before Christianity came about.)
My family treated me like ‘the black sheep’ because I didn’t accept Jesus as my savior. My grandmother told me I wouldn’t go to heaven and participate in the family reunion in the sky, and I wouldn’t go to hell (because I wasn’t a bad person), but that I would float endlessly in the void after death.
Yes, she really said that. Fast forward to today, and it’s no wonder I have death anxiety.
In college, I studied eastern religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Japanese Shin Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and Chinese Philosophy). While they don’t believe in an outside God, they believe we all have a divine spark within us and that heaven and hell are right here on Earth. Our thoughts and actions (karma) decide what kind of rebirth we will have, and we continue on the wheel of life until we reach spiritual enlightenment. Eastern teaching made more sense to me, although I would not call myself a Buddhist or the like. I like the ideas of going with the flow of the universe and the focus on living life in a kind and compassionate way toward all living things.
As a new teacher, I taught a unit on world religions. It was eye-opening to learn so much about how the other cultures in the world think, their traditions, and the similarities and differences.
The scientific revolution occurred long after the many authors wrote the books of the bible . We now have evidence of early humans, dinosaurs, and billions of years of geologic time. We venture into space and continue to explore the farthest reaches of the universe. We understand a lot more about life on this planet than we did back in the days of Greek Mythology or early Christianity.
I studied science in college. I’m fascinated by the Earth and Space. Science has shaped my world view. Over time, I’ve started to feel very humble by my place in the universe, and I can honestly say that I don’t know all the answers. I don’t think anybody else really knows the answers either. Have you seen the movie, Religulous yet?
Again, if it works for you great, but Christianity takes faith to believe. When I press any of my Christian friends or family members for answers, the answer is ‘faith.’ I can’t have faith in stories that read like tall tales and there is scientific evidence against. I just can’t. Maybe that is a fault of my intellect, but I’m comfortable calling myself an Agnostic. I think there might be a greater power, but I don’t know. I don’t know where I was before I was born. I don’t know where I will go after I die. But I do know in the meantime, I will be a kind and loving person and have respect for the diversity of life on the planet. To me, we are all human beings – brothers and sisters sharing this amazing Earth. Religion inspires some, but it also divides people and cultures. Killing in the name of God is something I don’t understand. I wish everybody could just get along, but I realize that is idealistic.
As a child, we celebrated Christmas and Easter every year, and I still do so with my husband and kids. However, I give them a wider perspective on the holidays and on religion in general. I teach them that Christianity is one of the major world religions, and even though it is the predominant religion in the U.S.A. Christians make up only one-third of the world population. I teach them to ask, “how can one religion be right and all the other ones be wrong?”
To get back to answering the question, Christmas means the following things to me:
1. Time together with family. Let’s face it, that’s the best part of Christmas.
2. A celebration of the winter. The celebration of light returning after darkness, snow, evergreen trees, wintry wildlife etc.
3. The practice of giving to others to bring them joy. My son asked me the other day if Christmas is about giving or getting. Of course I said giving. He said no, it’s about getting. And isn’t that exactly what we teach them as kids? As a kid, it is about getting lots of presents, and as adults we grow into the role of giving. Again, that is where the Santa/Jesus stories are not very consistent.
4. The opportunity to help others who are less fortunate than I am. We always adopt ‘angels’ to provide for.
5. A chance to recharge, reflect, and reconnect. Our lives are so hectic with work, school, and extra-curricular activities. It’s so nice to have time to get back to being a family and get in touch with our true selves.
6. Abundance of food and joyous spirit. Happy children, aging parents, surprises, wishing, hoping, delicious meals and desserts.
In case you are wondering why Christ isn’t on the list, it’s because the dogma turns me off. Here are a few specific examples:
1. Non-believers will go to hell after death (or in my case float around endlessly in the void). Who are you to judge me and damn me to hell?
2. People who are dead are in a better place. I think that is impossible to know. And from what we can see from our side, it sure doesn’t seem better.
3. There is only one God. Not according to the other religions.
4. Jesus died to absolve us of our sins. I really don’t understand how that works.
5. All the tall tales that people take literally – like the creation story, the talking snake in the garden of Eden, God created woman from a man’s rib so she could be man’s happy helpmate, 900 year old Noah filling the ark with two of every animal, the destruction of the tower of Babel so humans couldn’t reach too close to God, that different languages developed so we couldn’t conspire against God, the virgin mother, etc. The list just goes on and on.
6. The idea women are inferior to men, that men make all the decisions in the house. I think not.
7. The idea that humans should have dominion over all of nature. That idea is to blame for much of the destruction of the natural world.
8. That Satan exists. Why can’t we just leave it as human nature having good and bad sides? Why do we have to make up a red demon character with horns and a tail?
9. That you must have faith to believe all these things even though they make no sense at all. It totally reminds me of the spiritual message in the movie, Life of Pi, where the story is so unbelievable and he draws a comparison to all of religion being that way in the end.
10. The Rapture. We should all live our lives in fear of judgement day? What kind of loving God would be exclusionary of good people even if they haven’t chosen Jesus as their savior? What about innocent children who haven’t had a chance to choose for themselves yet? And on that note, why does an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful God let bad things happen? Why does he allow people to murder innocent people?
I do like much of what I understand Jesus’s teachings. For example, loving one another, and helping the sick, elderly, and the poor. But I think these are concepts that are present in all religions. In fact, love is the one thing that all religions have in common. If Jesus came back to life today, he would be seen as a peace-loving, long-haired, sandal wearing hippie. I think he would like me just fine.
“I heard Jesus, he drank wine, and I bet we’d get along just fine. He can calm the storm and heal the blind, and I bet he’d understand a heart like mine.” ~Miranda Lambert
Thank you for reading this entry. I would appreciate hearing your thoughts in the comments. Peace out!