We never went to church at Christmas. In fact, growing up we never went to church at all. My brothers would wake me at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day to see what Santa had put in our stockings. We would find chocolate and oranges and yo-yos and crayons that would amuse us until our parents woke up and we could finally find out what presents awaited us under the tree — a tree picked out in the freezing cold, later to be decorated with shoddy handcrafted ornaments. Christmas for me was drinking carton-poured eggnog around that tree, singing off-key carols and reading A Visit From Saint Nicholas. It was stories from my grandfather, walks with my grandmother. It was my dad hanging lights, it was baking with my mother, it was sledding with my brothers. It was crumpled wrapping paper and a small feast that led to afternoon naps.
Despite its origin, Christmas for me was never a religious experience. And, of course, I’m far from alone. In fact, the “religiously unaffiliated” population in the US continues to rise and I know there are all degrees of devotedness on the religious spectrum. No doubt, Christmas for many is more cultural than religious.
The thing is, despite not going to church, I grew up believing in God. But I was shattered my senior year of high school when my grandmother died, and with her went the fragments of my faith. Christmas did not go too, though. The holiday wasn’t intertwined with my prayers or dependent on my belief in heaven. It stood alone as a symbol of family and home. And while it can be justly criticized for its commercialization, it was and remains to me, a celebration of life.
I have been intrigued by my friend’s churches, or more universally, their places of worship. That built-in community and strong sense of belonging are things I deeply admire, and at times have longed for — not to mention a firm belief in something bigger. But, looking back, I know how fortunate I am to have such warm childhood memories. I’m filled with gratitude for my Decembers past — grateful for the anticipation, the tree, the food, the family, the magic, the tradition. Yes, my Christmases were godless, but they were no less sacred.