I said ‘Merry Christmas’ to the post-woman this morning, but it still felt unnaturally weird! That’s because I’m one of a very small minority of people who were taught to consciously avoid celebrating Christmas – in amongst a culture that does. I was raised in the UK as a Jehovah’s Witness. The last Christmas that meant anything to me I was four years old. I still remember his head sticking out the top of a pillow case at the foot of my bed; the head of a character who became my best mate for six or seven years – Gilbert my life-sized golliwog! I was so excited! He was black – and I loved him! We had very few black people in the area of the Midlands where I lived, but I’d seen this type on the black-and-white minstrel show – so he was already well familiar. Of course, at the tender age of four you understand very little about racial difference, or pretending to be something you aren’t. (Or even regarding times and seasons when words like ‘golliwog’ can be nice and acceptable, and times when they’re not.)
Also I recall on that last Christmas of remembrance I was given an Airfix kit of an aeroplane. It was a black plastic model – and by Boxing Day morning it had been fully constructed – not by me, but by my uncle and my dad! I was so disappointed. I’d been so excited about my very first Airfix kit to do my own. Before then I’d only watched other kids with theirs – and longed to do one myself. My uncle, then in his teens, owned a large collection. They tried to placate me with the fact that my plane was now ready to paint – but I wasn’t to be consoled. I got on with it in due course – but I wasn’t impressed. (Interesting how I eventually became a painter – but still like to get involved in sculptural constructions.)
But folks – that was my last Christmas as a child! Goodbye baby Jesus – hello five-year-old trying to be a grown-up – who had to bravely stand out from the crowd; to explain how Jesus wasn’t born at Christmas at all – but more likely in October when flocks of sheep were still out roaming the hills at night. Aside from the fact that 25th of December was already a pagan celebration involving sun worship – which we all know it from the devil. Looking back now – it was all so f**kin’ serious!
And so my anti-Christmas life began in earnest. Of course I still cherished my golliwog, and eventually had Airfix kits of my own to make. And I still loved my parents – and they still loved me – and bought me stuff at other times of the year. But at least my Nan, my mum’s mum, still insisted on buying stuff at Christmas – loads of it, as she had a well-paid job in an office, and loved giving presents! She died of a heart attack at the age of 54, when I was seventeen and mum 34. We were all very young in those days. By that time I also had a sister, five years younger, who had never done Christmas at all. And that was our life. Others did Christmas – we didn’t do Christmas. End of. Like good Muslims or Baha’is in a drinking culture, when alcohol is tipped from glass to mouth all around you, but not into your own. Or maybe like disabled kids in wheelchairs, where everyone else can run about – but you can’t.
But no – I don’t think that’s how we saw it really. To us there was nothing disabling about not celebrating Christmas. We actually had something better than Christmas – or so we believed. We have ‘the Truth’ from the Word of God. The truth was that Jesus never celebrated his birthday – so why should we presume to? The fact was that none of the early Christians did either. But he did tell us to celebrate his death – so that’s what we did. Even there we had to go one step further than everyone else doing Easter. Jehovah’s Witnesses work out the exact date from the Jewish calendar, and celebrate the Memorial of his death right on time – after sundown on the first full moon after the Spring equinox, whatever date and day that happens to fall on. That’s what true Christians have to do – to celebrate the right thing – properly, at the right time. So we celebrated his death magnificently, but never his birth – neither at Christmas nor any other time.
In retrospect, I suppose I grew up seeing death in some way more important than birth. I’d feel elated at the Memorial celebration – and especially alienated at Christmas time. But we’d still have time off work like everyone else, spend time with family, watch TV, and eat more than usual. So it wasn’t as bad as you might think. But all questions about ‘the meaning of Christmas’ seemed somehow pretty meaningless – as you can well imagine.
About 16 years ago, I left the Jehovah’s Witness congregation, and began seeing myself free to celebrate in whatever way I chose. But old habits die hard, and however much I wished to integrate with Christmas culture, my ingrained attitudes still tended to prevail. Basically I couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming sense of falseness around the event; and this despite living with a partner who does Christmas as beautifully and honestly as anyone ever could. I really admire her innocent delight in getting gifts together over a considerable period of time, carefully packaging them, (including the all-important silver or gold parcel ties), and distributing them by post or by hand to their respectful recipients. And this is all done right on time – in addition to the distribution of cards to a long list of people, from both her past and present life situations. Oh yes – not forgetting holding down an ever-busy job as a psychotherapist! The word ‘admire’ is probably too soft a word for this phenomenon. I think canonisation might be more appropriate. For myself – I just couldn’t get a look in with all this heartfelt giving of gifts and thinking of other people. Does this make me selfish? Does it make me self-centred?
I can’t answer that. It’s about all I can do this year to keep my sanity – let alone thinking what some distant cousin might like for a present. The overriding feeling for me is still one of alienation. But I don’t only feel it with regard to myself; I notice it in other people too. The pockets of time spent distributing the aforementioned gifts certainly help to offset the extreme discomfort, but it still pervades the background of my life – and rarely shifts until at least partway through Christmas Day.
This year has been somewhat different. I’ve focused very little on my sense of difference from the rest of the world regarding Christmas, primarily because I’ve been too preoccupied grieving over the loss of my one and only grandchild. I say ‘loss’ only from my point of view. She is alive and healthy – as far as I’m aware, but I’ve still not had the pleasure of meeting this three-and-a-half-month-old offspring – despite the fact she lives only a few miles up the road. Unfortunately (for me), her parents, my eldest daughter and her husband, remain Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I left in 1996, I was also excommunicated (for heresy) – so they refuse to acknowledge me. This means that the chance of anything like a ‘normal family Christmas’ becomes even more like pigs flying! (But I hear you say: what on earth is a ‘normal’ family Christmas anyway? Okay – we won’t go there. . . ) It’s quite possible I won’t meet my grandchild for years to come. I just have to accept this – and get on with life, including Christmas. Is that bloody right? Thanks a bundle Jesus! Yes, you might have noticed, I’m angry as well as sad this Christmas! And I’m supposed to be thinking what wonderful trinket my partner’s daughter would like from me? Give me a break! That’s the falseness of Christmas I can’t help sensing, I suppose – that insidious feeling of pressure to conform to charitable thoughts and deeds – Christ knows I don’t actually feel it! And I think to myself – aren’t they just so wonderful – all those who just get on with it – all the gifts, all the giving? But on the other hand – isn’t a lot of it just so false?
On reflective balance, I believe Christmas to be a brave compromise between thought and feeling, deed and misgiving – between the ideal and reality. Viewed in this light, I can’t help thinking that people generally do the best they can with it all, for the sake of others – and by extension for themselves. This year, probably due to not being quite so attached to my Christmas alienation, I’ve managed to see more clearly behind the jingles, tinsel and belly-laughs, to connect with something more fundamental – perhaps even profoundly primitive. This year I’ve noticed in Christmas our unseverable connection to the earth on which we live, and its eternal cycles; and seen how perfectly appropriate it all is – this Christmas celebration. Yes we all know Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, and it was already a pagan celebration. But for me now, the word ‘pagan’ feels oddly nice, (like ice-cream or golliwog) – rather than evil, (like Antichrist or Satanic). Pagan derives from the earth; and its rituals are closely connected with nature – seasons and cycles, birth and death. Pagan is also connected with our nature – the nature of Man, and her/his ongoing search for meaning and joy. I’ve been thinking about Samhain, the winter solstice, the longest night, and its impact on the collective psyche of the human family. In its primitive essence, this is indeed like death and rebirth. If anyone is going to die in the winter, more often than not it happens during the long nights – rather than later, when the sun begins to return. Creation churns away in its dormancy, awaiting the return of the sun, the light-bringer, the renewer of the gift of life. Right on time – a few days after the solstice, nature senses the change – and rabbits come out to play. It just all seems so apt for celebrating the birth of all God’s children, then and now – including our own. (I can only refer to northern hemisphere culture here. Obviously in New Zealand or Australia, I suspect Christmas could be quite different.) I believe this may be one reason why Christmas has become so universal – not so much because of the man Jesus himself, or even anything he did – but because of his, (and our own), essential connection to the earth, its cycles, and its destiny. In this way Mother Earth is the mother of us all, and we are all somehow reborn at Christmas time, through the gestation of winter dormancy. For us in the northern hemisphere this period coincides perfectly with Christmas – and the sense of such rebirth with the spirit of Christmas giving.
So why don’t I get excited about Christmas then? Because it’s only Christmas Eve as I write this – and tomorrow’s another day!
(written Dec 24th 2012)