Christmas: Nothing but fun

T.A. Barnhart

When I was a kid, Christmas was nothing but fun. Literally.

My mom was so determined that Christmas be a time of fun, she built most of ours by hand (she did most of the things that matter to her from scratch, a practice I have gladly inherited). She made my sister's and my stockings: red and white felt, nearly 18-inches tall, and covered with felt toys, candy canes and other symbols of the holidays; perfect for a couple of oranges in the toe. She made pseudo-advent calendars for us, pseudo because they simply marked days 1-24 of the month. Each night we would pin a tiny decoration on the felt tree and open a small present. My favorite, the ones I remember all these years later, were a set of beautifully done plastic bird models: I would press the body halves together and insert the wings. The cardinal was vivid. We had a large tree with a hodge-podge of decorations; the top was a glass spike my dad, of course, would place. She made a yummy challah-like (I now recognize) wreath and hot chocolate on Christmas morning, and a wonderful turkey for our dinner.

We only enjoyed a few of these Christmases. I remember them from the time we moved to Billings in 1967 until the end of my parents' marriage only a few years later (I also remember Christmases that were far less fun following that). But during those few years of my happiest childhood Christmases, we had snow, a warm home, and a living room full of the trappings of Christmas, including a fireplace and parents who loved and kept me safe and warm. My first ten or so Christmases were wonderful. They were the Christmases every child should grow up with.

As I said, they were simply fun. My parents were not religious. We attended the First United Methodist Church, pastored by the Rev Vern Klingman and his wonderful wife, Pat. Whatever my parents believed about God, I never heard about it at home. I went to Sunday School and then sat in the pew with them for the morning service. It was boring, of course, but on Christmas Eve, the Candlelight Service was lovely, even for a little kid. When I was in sixth grade, I was one of the Three Wiseman who came down the aisles to light everyone's candle for the singing of "Silent Night", the culmination of the service and one of the most beautiful moments of the year. I had to light the balcony, which meant running up the stairs — I dropped my candle and it broke in half — where Mom was waiting for me to relight my candle with her cigarette lighter. I knew the Christmas story, but my parents made no effort to integrate that meaning of Christmas into my mind or soul.

That came later. By the time I became a born-again, fundamentalist charismatic, Christmas had stopped being fun. My folks were divorced, my sister was a royal pain, and I was a miserable and lonely kid with no real friends and the beginnings of the depression that would subvert my life for decades to come. But in 9th grade, at the age of 14, Christmas suddenly took on meaning: It became the celebration of my savior's birth. The Candlelight Service at First United was not merely a time to raise the candles and make the sanctuary, decorated with spruce boughs and tiny golden lights, even more beautiful; in raising my candle, I was raising my arms in praise to the god in whom I had placed my faith for meaning, wholeness and life.

Yet my favorite Christmas as a Christian came not in the town where I grew up, among people who loved and cared for me (from the Klingmans and Fitzhughs to the Graves, Pullums, Mulvaneys, Langstaffs, Kleins and so many more) but thousands of miles away, with a family who were strangers to me. It was 1981, and I was living in Bath, England, taking a year of pre-university courses. My girlfriend, who was the reason I was living in Bath (but not the reason I had stayed in the UK after my Air Force service; I just loved living over there) and her family were spending the day with family; I was not invited. Her mom, who did not really approve of me (smart woman) but was a good person, arranged for me to spend the day with these friends.

It was a doctor and his family, and they were kind, warm and fun. I had an amazing day, enjoying a wonderful Christmas dinner (including a fabulous Christmas pudding) and the happiness that overwhelms you in the midst of kind, generous people on a special day. They gave me a present (I always like presents!) and made me feel as welcome as a brother who had been away too many years. If my mom made my childhood Christmases feel the way those holidays ought to feel, this family made my first truly adult Christmas feel the same.

That was also the last Christmas I would spend as a believing Christian, although it would take me years to figure that out. A year later, I was back in the United States, a victim of Thatcher policies that were designed to keep non-white students out of the country but made me a victim, too. It was not the last good Christmas I would enjoy, but, from that year, Christmas would change from a day of religious significance to a very pleasant day off work and, when possible, a day to enjoy with friends and family. When I became a parent, Christmas was truly special; even following our divorce, I had my boys on Christmas Eve (I love celebrating on Christmas Eve). We did not have a lot of the trimmings, but we always had enough. The loss of my faith, which I now see as the gaining of myself, did not take away anything meaningful from Christmas; I simply understood the day in new ways that were, in truth, more honest, meaningful and personal.

I am glad the snow has yet to melt. We are having a White Christmas, something I've not known since 1979, my last Christmas in Billings (I spent a few months there after leaving the Air Force, returning to attend Bath Tech the following spring with the intent to spend the rest of my life in England). I have no tree, no presents, no decorations. One son is in Redmond, waiting until he leaves to begin final preparation for his service in Iraq (or perhaps it will be Afghanistan). My other son is on duty on-board the USCGS Midgitt, in Seattle; I'm going up Saturday to spend the day with him. My dad is in Port Townsend, my sister somewhere in the San Jose, CA, area, and my brother and his lovely wife are in Kansas City, MO, staying warm in the house they had energy-audited and sealed tight this summer.

I am enjoying what has become my traditional Christmas Day. I have a bunch of movies, a steak and a bottle of Louis M Martini Cab. I'll go for a walk in the snow, I'll lounge around watching my movies, and I'll not give much thought at all to what Christmas used to mean. My mom is gone, the cigarettes having gotten her three years ago. My dad is also gone, but that only means he's living in 13th Century, the last decent years before civilization headed in its liberal decline towards ruin and away from the Holy Catholic Church. I am on my own, but I'm not alone.

God is a human construct. Religion is a human coping device. They can't all be right, which means, to me, that none are right. The healthiest, sanest way to live in this world is to let go of the false truths the false prophets demand you internalize. Find your own truth, live it and be honestly happy and healthy. As one of my personal sages, the under-appreciated Jimmy Buffett, sings:

Be good and you will be lonesome Be lonesome and you will be free Live a lie and you will live to regret it That's what living is to me That's what living is to me

I am anything but lonesome. Am I free? Getting there: to paraphrase another Buffett song, I'm still trying to find the the course my heart needs to steer.

In my life, Christmas Day has come full circle. No longer is it rife with meaning, nor am I unhappy. Today, Christmas once again is nothing but fun. I don't have my mom making it from scratch with her bare hands (and a sewing machine and her knitting needles). But I have the Christmas, and life, I have built with my own hands. I also have the blessing of knowing that whatever I built for myself, I was able to do because I have had given me the love and care of more people than I can recall or thank. Without them, no day would be a good day. So how can I be lonely, unhappy or without a reason to enjoy Christmas? Jesus has returned to his mythical creche, but I have the real spirit and truth of Christmas with me today and everyday: Love, of family and friends, of self, and of the honest truth only I can find, create and know.

  • mamabigdog (unverified)

    Lovely sentiment, TA. Glad to know you are having a happy Christmas. We hope you are recovering well from your recent accident and are feeling better. Christmas has come full circle for me also, and I'm sure it will continue to evolve as my kids get older and have families of their own. We're always growing, always changing, hopefully learning for the better.

    Take care, TA.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    Hope you had one like that this year. You sure deserve it, T.A.

    That's all true, Danny. But I would mention that Christmas as a holiday is a European, not particularly Christian tradition. If Europe were Hindu, it would probably be Diwali. The Witnesses are accurate in their biblical criticisms of it, but it isn't a biblical holiday. It's kind of like Cinco de Mayo, I think, where people really aren't celebrating the Battle of Pueblo. They're celebrating a wider meaning that that event inspires. Until it became everyone's favorite gotcha question, most thought that it was Mexican independence day.

    All societies have an equinox to solstice season and, in a sense, the modern culture that runs together Halloween, Thanksgiving, Xmas and New Years is more in tune with the older tribal traditions that Christianity was overlaid onto. All over the world you see that when societies become more secular they don't tend to abandon their spiritual traditions but go backwards to recapture them. Hitler left the Catholic Church and embraced Nordic mythology, as an early example.

    The thing I've never been able to get my head around Jehova's Witnesses (and my dearest, most favorite great-grandmother was one), is how a group that's so good with scholarship can promote the whole "Jehova is the name of God thing". It seems obvious, unless I've totally missed something, that the idea that it came from a tired monk doing transcription that transposed the Aramaic vowel points from Adonai into the consonants for Yahweh (given medieval equivalents for things like Y to J) - J(Y)-a-h-o-v(w)-a(i), is probably accurate. Especially when you consider that vowel points were a non-standard, late addition to the language. I would love to see links to the topic as I've always thought there must be more to the story and don't feel qualified to judge Witness scholarship which I would expect runs the gamut.

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    "God is a human construct."

    While going through my late father's papers, I ran across a notebook filled with quotes. Many of them were from "THE SAYINGS OF TSIANG SAMDUP" a fictional guru from the novels of Talbot Munday. His most famous novel was King of the Khyber Rifles.

    This quote has always stuck with me:

    I have conversed with many priests; and some were honest men, and some were not, but three things none of them could answer: if their God is all-wise, what does it matter if men are foolish? And if they can imagine and define their God, must he not be smaller than their own imaginations? Furthermore, if their God is omnipotent, why does he need priests and ritual?

    And I have asked this of the priests, but their words were emptiness: If it is true that a priest can pacify and coax God, or by mediation can relieve another from the consequences of his own sin, why should anyone be troubled and why do priests not put an end for ever to all sin and suffering? If they can, and do not, they are criminals. If they cannot, but pretend that they can, they are liars. Nevertheless, there is a middle judgement, and it seems to me that some of them may be mistaken.

  • Leif (unverified)

    J. R. Bob Dobbs is the name of the Lawd!

  • Ethereal (unverified)

    The old days, alas, are the old days. Can't do that stuff anymore.

    That's why actors get into politics. No one raided Paul Newman for starting that way!

  • ipod accessories (unverified)

    Christmas is really one season wherein all kids, elders and young ones come together and celebrate to their fullest.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Thanks, and keep up the introspective postings. Blue Oregon need not be all politics, all the time. And BTW, regardless of what any reader here may think of religion, it's indisputably a central social phenomenon, and if we treat it solely as material for caricature, we make a huge mistake.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    The modern culture that runs together Halloween, Thanksgiving, Xmas and New Years

    So, is it still the "holiday season"? It is. And why? The aforementioned.

  • Mark McManus (unverified)

    It's the season to repent! You cannot know anything until you give your life over to Jesus the Christ! "I will put to naught the wisdom of the wise". Hell is a real place and so is heaven. Why do you make other issues so important? This should have been the only post that anyone cared about, instead of some stupid thing on political capitol. Put Jesus in your piggy bank and you will have everything your heart desires! I'm 52 and I have a young wife of 23. I now own my own company. Jesus will give you all things!

    I see this first hand. Ireland, where I live, is a Godly country and good things happen to it. I am a missionary in Zimbabwe and people of colour suffer from not having our Christian civilization. The two are related. "Naked savage" is the alternative to "christian". Ignorance of knowing Jesus is the root of all savagagery. What are you? Do you know where you're going? You need to apply the policy you had with American Indians and Christianity to ALL the savages in your society, the criminals, drug users, illegal immigrants...OK all criminals.

    25 years from now, no one will be talking about materialism or global warming or any of the topics of the moment. The Christians will still be influencing politics, though, so if you want political power, any power, you HAVE to be a good Christian. God wrote it, I believe it, and you had better do it!

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