An Agnostic’s Christmas, by John Ostrander
It’s an odd time of year if you’re an agnostic. It’s especially odd if you’re a church-going agnostic like myself. Oh, I suppose it could be said that Christmas is an odd time of year for everyone one way or another. We rush around spending money we don’t really have buying gifts for people, some of whom we don’t really like. Amidst the desperate scurry, we try to convince ourselves that it really is the happiest time of year and, for some, perhaps it is.
Christmas isn’t just a “holiday” in the sense that the Fourth of July is a holiday. It’s a holiday in the sense of being a “holi-day” – a holy day. It celebrates the day Jahweh became Jesus; the day that, according to the story told, God came off His (Her) mountain and incarnated as a mortal child, a baby boy. That’s what underlines the whole Christmas concept. The mythology has that at its root.
The existence of Jesus (as a mortal) I can buy; the existence of Yahweh (or any other god), not so much.
Aside: before anyone starts chiming in about the pagan roots of Christmas, I know all about that. I don’t believe in your gods, either. And few if any folks are celebrating the pagan rituals; if they still have meaning, it’s only because the majority of people see them in a Christian or quasi-Christian context. Yes, the Church swiped your ideas and co-opted them. Get over it.
When the church I attend – Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, NJ – had bible studies in its Adult Education sessions, I found they focused on the texts historically – how they came to be written and why and, on the biggest impact on me, for whom. This was something to which the writer in me responded in a profound way. Stories are written towards a specific audience. To give a modern example, a science book is written very differently if the author is writing for their peers or for a more general audience.
The texts in the Bible didn’t just magically spring-up; the gospels are not “gospel truths” but versions of stories that had been told, re-told, and shaped for certain audiences. Different forces, including social and political, went into their shaping. In the earliest gospel, Mark, the Nativity is no big deal. The point of it becoming a bigger deal, along with the stories of all the miracles, was originally meant to justify and validate the teachings in the gospels, usually found in the parables – or stories. In time, the miracles, the Nativity, the resurrection actually became more of the point than the teachings.
The elements of the Christmas story are not unique or new to it. “Virgin birth” had been used before it and has been used since; witness George Lucas and the birth of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars saga. It was a well known story element that was saying we should pay special heed to this person because of the wonders of their birth. Superman’s “birth” is wondrous; only survivor of a doomed planet, brought to earth as an infant in a rocket ship. It’s the Moses story (itself wondrous) brought up to a modern, SF setting.
Is there a God, a Something Out There? Beats the bejesus out of me. What is being worshipped in any case is not “God” but a concept of God which is why there are so many fistfights about it (just within the Christian community alone). In some cases, you can’t get folks within a single denomination to agree. Baptists, for example, are forever feuding within themselves over the nature of the concept of God until one group breaks off and forms the East Dirtbowl Arkansas Conference of Baptists.
This is not an attempt to belittle anyone’s beliefs or convert them to my way of thinking. (Well, maybe I ammessing with some Baptists. A little.) It’s more of a way of explaining where I am at this and every other Christmas-time. I know people, even within my own family, who think as I do and are conscientious objectors to Christmas to the point of not accepting or giving presents. They don’t believe in the underlying concept so they don’t buy into the outward rituals, either. I really respect that.
The thing is – I love Christmas. Always have, always will. I’m not just your garden variety agnostic – I’m specifically a Roman Catholic agnostic. I was raised RC in the days before Vatican II, the Council where the church was ever so slightly updated – where the Latin Mass was traded in for the folk mass. I thinkthat was an upgrade.
I really loved “Advent” – the days in December leading up to Christmas. It was the anticipation more than the event itself, the days of it not being Christmas prior to the day. Christmas was a possibility at that point; you might get everything you wished for. Christmas dinner would be perfect. Everyone would love the gifts you picked out (even if you didn’t have much to spend). Magic was a real possibility.
There was the getting of the Christmas tree, the decorating of the Christmas tree; there was preparing to sing in the choir at Midnight Mass. Our family had its own little Christmas Eve ritual in the house and then there was the presents the next morning followed by a wonderful breakfast and then, later, the bigger dinner with turkey et al. And more presents from grandparents and aunts. Too much excitement, too much sugar, too much everything.
I still love Christmas. I love Christmas carols. I love to sing Christmas Carols. As you know from my previous columns, there are movies that I love to watch at this time of year. I love eggnog although drinking it is hazardous to my health these days. When I proposed to Kim. It was on a Christmas Eve. I enjoy getting presents although these days I love finding the right present to give to those who matter to me far more.
I love the concept of Christmas. Even if the Nativity is, to me, just a story – what wonderful story! I love theconcept that an all powerful being would become incarnated as a weak and helpless child. That It would become one of Us. Did somebody simply make up that story? Fine – I love the mind that couldconceptualize that.
I love the fact that, at the darkest time of the year, when the nights are longest, the days are shortest, and life is at its most precarious, that the human heart and mind – its soul – is capable of creating an image of hope, a trust that there will be light, and life, once again. Whether its Christmas or Saturnalia or any of the other Winter Solstice Festivals that humans have created in their different religions, all celebrating life, all giving hope, they are acts of bravery. They insist that darkness is not forever. Life and light and warmthwill return. It is celebrated in each manner by people coming together and that itself is a sign of hope. The darkness will not have us. We will find joy and meaning in the dead of winter. We will give joy and meaning to it even if there is none in itself.
Celebrate Christmas? You bet I celebrate Christmas and, like reborn Scrooge, will strive to keep it in my heart all the year.
Io Saturnalia. God Bless Us, Everyone.
John Ostrander writes GrimJack: The Manx Cat, new installments of which appear every Tuesday here on ComicMix, and much of Munden’s Bar, new installments of which will reappear anon here on ComicMix. Both for free. IDW just released the firstMunden’s Bar trade paperback; mostly John’s stuff, along with folks like Del Close, Brian Bolland, William Messner-Loebs, Joe Staton, Rick Veitch, and tons of other talented folk… all under a new Skip Williamson cover. Available at Amazon and at finer comics shops across the galaxy.