Oh, how I do love the holidays!
From Halloween to New Year’s Eve to Valentine’s Day to Easter, to Independence Day and beyond, I’m first in line for the décor discounts, mattress events, and specialty pies. But nothing speaks to me more than a juicy, pagan Christmas!
Admittedly, my obsession with the holidays might be due to the fact that I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness where every holiday, most especially Christmas, is forbidden based on its pagan origin and their hedonistic, ungodly rituals.
Pesky pagans! They ruined the fun for everyone with their scandalous gyrating around golden statues and heathen chants and I don’t know – promises made under the influence of goat blood? I can’t be certain. I don’t actually know any pagans. Maybe they just drink red wine, not goat’s blood. I do know that in the eyes of the JW’s, pagans are considered evil, idolatrous partyers, which as a kid, seemed kind of spring-break, frat-brat cool. Cooler than sitting at home with no Christmas.
I have early memories of celebrating Christmas with my mother, who died when I was nine years old. I remember blinking lights on trees whose branches I couldn’t reach, a new doll in a red dress that walked across the room in a mechanized trance, and my mother’s cigarette glowing in the dark as we drove home after another Christmas spent at my aunt’s house. Sometimes, Mom would cry and delve into the family dynamics of how her sister was far more loved than she was and that’s why the holidays sucked.
Celebrating Christmas was not joyous by default, yet still, it was ours to love or hate and I for one, adored it.
After my mother died, I went to live with my older sister who had just begun studying with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was suddenly faced with an enormous dilemma in my nine-year-old social calendar: keep on partying with the pagans or do exactly as I was told as a newly recruited Jehovah’s Witness.
Becoming a Jehovah’s Witness came with a long list of do’s and don’ts and stacks of instruction manuals via the Watchtower and Awake magazines. For a child who’s just lost their mother, living by a stringent set of rules and preaching about the end of days to strangers was a daunting task, but the grand prize was living in Paradise with my resurrected mother, alive and well. That kind of emotional leverage will sell a kid on change without hesitation, even against the power of Christmas presents, Easter egg hunts, Halloween candy, and birthday parties.
Living as a Jehovah’s Witness is like being on a no-carb diet without any cheat meals; if it’s gooey-happy and tasty good, it’s not allowed. After twenty-some years of service clouded by doubt and fraught with distrust, I succumbed to my natural inclination to live like a flawed human, which happily included giving up my single status celibacy and celebrating every Hallmark holiday known to man.
Joining in on the Christmas festivities didn’t come easy, however. Not only was I grappling with 20 years of anti-celebratory programming, but I literally had no idea what I was doing. Holiday traditions that came naturally to others were completely foreign to me.
I was the ultimate holiday misfit.
First, there was the matter of the tree. Was I being unkind to the planet if I chose a real, live tree from a cement lot, or was it worse if I had it cut down for me in the real-world woods, thus bearing witness to its brutal death by blade? Did my conscience feel better settling for a fake tree, or was I mocking the celebration all together with my lifeless, plastic heap, complete with convenient pre-adorned lights? And who knew trees needed skirts? How rich is the person that created fashion for trees? Don’t even get me started on the analytical science behind choosing an ornament.
Then came the presents – who to buy for, how much to spend, and how the heck to wrap the damn things. As an ex-Jehovah’s Witness, wrapping a present is a little like folding a bottom sheet and a metropolitan city map at the same time, only there’s a lot more pressure to succeed. If the corners were edgy and uneven, or the paper was torn and wrinkled, I feared my newfound friends might think I didn’t care about them, or that I was still in the cult, intent on sending some hidden, passive-aggressive message about the frivolity of their beloved rituals. In the end, I hired a neighbor-tween to wrap my pile of presents and quizzed her about her family’s holiday traditions. The recon mission was going well until she asked me why I was taking notes.
Christmas caroling was a disaster. I didn’t know any of the words and mouthed each song like a has-been ventriloquist who was so inept, even the dummy puppet handed in its notice. Crafting and baking were also out of my wheelhouse. I am not crafty and am known for being dangerous with a glue gun. And, I always eat more than I give of anything I bake.
I also didn’t have many friends to celebrate with after I left the religion. Fraternizing with anyone outside of the JW organization was vehemently discouraged with the ominous scripture-spout, “Bad associations spoil useful habits!” The day of my shunning, I lost every childhood friend I had and most of my family and wandered about my newfound landscape with a kind of wonderment and trepidation befitting a toddler who’s just discovered their feet.
A few years passed before I gathered up the courage and skill to throw my first Christmas party. My tree was lit and decorated within an inch of its dwindling life and stood proudly in the window for all the neighbors to see. The skirt was gold with beaded trim and the lights flickered and danced in a rhythmic beat. Underneath, presents for friends who had started off as strangers whom I’d met at comedy clubs, cafes and odd jobs were perfectly arranged and ready for consumption. Christmas music played in the background and I sang along, inserting home-grown lyrics, as needed.
As the doorbell rang and I went to greet my first guest, I caught a glimpse of myself in the window. I looked happy. I looked like someone who knew what she was doing: celebrating a holiday without a second thought about its possible pagan roots.
I was in the moment, and that moment occurred to me as love.