My friend Pat Foltz asked me recently how I am navigating Christmas now that I am a full-fledged apostate and my wife still enjoys belief.
We are doing well. We haven't put up or decorated our tree because Jackie and Griffin will be heading down to Richmond, VA this weekend to assist Jackie's mom who is receiving treatment for cancer and needs help to remind her to rest. I will be following on the 23rd so the effort to decorate seemed lost on us.
The heart of Pat's question however is not concerned with secular obligations but rather religious significance.
I don't know how to answer because even when I was a believer I never took Christmas as serious Christianity. It didn't feel like the rest of what being a Roman Catholic Christian felt like. The distraction of gifts, Rankin-Bass specials and school-breaks drained the occasion of the guilt thrust upon us at weekly Mass and monthly Penance.
I don't know when it was when I decided that the manger story wasn't true but I think it must have been when I was about 13 because it was that time I started to think about what I might be when I grew up.
Being "grown up" was when people were out of college and were around thirty years old so I thought it strange that when Jesus was about that age the Kings that came to honor him at his birth wouldn't get ticked off at Pontius Pilate and come back to keep the savior from being crucified. Why shouldn't they come sweeping down from the hills like Han Solo at the end of Star Wars and rescue Jesus unless the "Away in the Manger" story was not really real.
I mean they gave him gold right so why wouldn't they step in and tell Pilate to back off.
When I was about 13 I also started thinking about sex, a lot, and the idea of Mary being a virgin seemed stupid. It seemed like a bad punishment that not only did she have to give birth but she would never be able to have sex afterward because she gave birth and we as good Catholics should find this mutilation somehow good.
I also knew that when I grew up I wanted to be a comic book writer and when I considered the baby Jesus story it seemed more like one of the comic book origin stories I knew rather than anything we might have learned in history class.
Christmas has never been as serious or real as it's seasonal counterpart, the Easter story, and the rational narrative forced by Good Friday's Stations of the Cross. Noel is a gauzy holiday that allows for fantasy and desire.
I think the religiosity of this time never seems to have lost the essence of the pagan holiday Saturnalia it appropriated and that tradition's aim to force lawlessness as celebration. Saturnalia was the winter break the pagans practiced with unashamed gluttony and when the early Christians were making their pitch to get converts they enticed the masses by telling them they could keep this holiday due to the fact the savior was born at the same time (you can almost here Sarah Palin interrupting an orgy with her patented "dontcha know" as punctuation to this fabrication).
I think the spirits of Saturnalia still live in Christmas and why the holy day distances itself from the either/or tribalism associated with Christianity's central themes of sin, death and Hell. No matter how much Bill O'Reilly jeers at the war against Christmas what he doesn't get is that the season's essence is pagan, not Christian, and any overt focus on Christianity diminishes the holiday's purpose. And its why I think I still enjoy going to church during this time and singing all of the religious songs ("Do you Hear what I Hear" is fun because of the echo effect in it and "The Little Drummer Boy" has a cool melody against a rhythmic friction).
Christian theology is of course immoral. The idea that we are born sick and need to take responsibility for a human sacrifice to be cured is incoherent. But Christmas exempts itself from these themes. It tells us that we should celebrate our lives amidst the death of the deep winter (especially those of us who dwell in the American Mid-west) and that it is more than okay to indulge our appetites and wants.
Christmas as a profound anti-Christian tradition can be evidenced by the fact the New England Puritans rejected Christmas and refused to celebrate it because the day was a threat to the biblical traditions they embraced. They saw no scriptural justification for it and defined it as idolatry. I think they were correct. Christmas isn't about Christianity and it's why I find the holiday joyful.
This year we get to introduce Griffin to Christmas while we celebrate his Mom Mom's gradual recovery from cancer and these things seem consonant with the feeling of life I've always equated with the holiday.
So, this Christmas I will sing in full-throat the joy of the season while possibly being defined a hypocrite by my more pure Christian friends. The pagan in me however will be in harmony with the pre-Christian seasonal belief that life matters because of the living and it can't be enhanced by dwelling on death.