Sometimes I miss Christmas. But I’ve realised that what I miss isn’t the Christmas that I used to celebrate.
As a child and teenager, I learnt to love ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ and prefer it to the secular or consumerist versions. My earliest Christmas memory is waking at six in the morning, when I was about four years old, and dancing alone in my room in honour of “Jesus’ birthday”. We never believed in Santa because my parents didn’t want to lie to us; instead we had nativity scenes, carols by candlelight, and presents on New Year’s Eve so as not to distract us from the day itself. (That last part only lasted till part way through primary school.)
But I don’t miss the meaning of Christmas, because it isn’t lacking in my life since I left Christianity a few years ago. What is there to miss? The celebration of Jesus’ birth focuses on the light of God’s presence and closeness, His blessings and transformative love in the world, and the hope of redemption and forgiveness. I now believe that none of those things were lacking in Judaism before the time of Jesus, and that neither his life nor death are the source of their existence in our world. I still experience God’s presence in the very beating of my heart and breath in my lungs, the fact that my soul is intimately connected to Him even to exist, and in His loving guidance and nearness in each day. I still hope in forgiveness and healing, both in my own life and in the whole world, and constantly see seeds of this hope bursting to reality around me. That is mercy, love, and joy.
In December of 2011, I began to hear first-hand about what Judaism really teaches and values. At that time I was trying hard to find and present reasons for belief in Jesus, but I was also seeing reasons to question, and realising how careful we need to be about worshiping someone when not sure if they are God. So with deep emotion and suspicion, I avoided Christmas services that year, apart from one (a few weeks before Christmas). The following year, I was sure of the path that I must take; I felt there was no other moral option than to walk with God but not ‘with Jesus’, nor any reason to reconsider. But it was lonely. I spent the entire day alone and was very aware of what my friends and family were doing. Last year was easier; I avoided Christmas carols in shops and wasn’t at my family’s home, but I knew by then that family and old friends were still in my life and I cared less what they thought of my own choices.
This year, I find myself missing the gingerbread trees that my Nanna used to make; the paper chains and stockings that we used to make in term four of school; the snowflakes, the fairy lights, the glow of candles on icy window panes (even though it’s summer in December, here) and jingling bells, the echoey medieval tunes sung only once a year, the family time of decorating, cooking, parties, presents, home-made bon bons, and a whole community alight with deep festive awareness.
These things are more akin to Germanic winter festivals than to Christian theology, but when I celebrated them I saw them as a transformation of innocent aspects in a pagan culture to serve what I thought to be a truer, better thing. Apart from the aesthetic they weren’t so important to me, but they still represented centuries of fellow Christians in Europe each going about their individual lives and celebrating the same thing that mattered in mine. They resonate with family and history.
There’s no reason for me to miss those things much either now, though. Think of how many Jewish holidays there are, and how rich each one is in meaning, symbolism, and both spiritual and tangible experiences. I was born on the first day of Sukkot (it’s actually Sukkot right now), and it reminds me of springtime where I live, joy, abundance, freedom, and the presence of God symbolised in the experience of the wilderness wanderings. Close enough to the time and external appearance of Christmas, too, there’s Chanukah: candle light, the smell of olive oil candle wicks going out one by one after they glow for hours in the dark summer air, latkes and jelly doughnuts, children lingering late in the atmosphere while their parents remember the commitment to non-compromise and the provision of God’s kindness that the holiday represents. In some parts of the world, this too is a winter festival. And the history of celebrating these things through so many generations isn’t my heritage, but it is my blessing.
I think that what I really miss about Christmas is the unity. When I was young, the church world was my whole world, and there was such singularity in our hearts and time together. There are many good things in that community, and we had one vision, one mind, and one heart for those good values (along with some other ideas).
Now, if I speak about the path of following God that I think matters immensely, good and sincere people are alienated, and forced to alienate themselves from me. I know that because they are friends whom I’ve shared everything with before, and I feel strong loss over the difference now. Since the things that are now worthless to me are precious to them, I can come across as angry and reactive against what is sacred even while in my eyes I am just expressing the treasure of clear running water, of simple and immense light as it shines in this world.
I miss the feeling of having one voice and one heart with all the ‘faithful’. I now sense that sincere and loyal people are scattered through many faiths, and conversation about the things that matter most to them collectively can also bring pain and division, even among the most civil and caring.
But I still believe those conversations are important. Uncomfortable, and easily misunderstood, but they are truly in the spirit of light and the peace that comes from responding to God; the things that I have been taught to value and chosen to hold onto since childhood. Please God let our hearts come closer in searching and seeing together, and let the hidden things be revealed more and more.