JOHN OSTRANDER: An Agnostic’s Christmas
I always loved Christmas or, perhaps more accurately, I always loved the anticipation of Christmas. I loved the possibilities of Christmas. What would I get? Would others like what I gave? As a boy, my family had an Advent calendar that we used every year; each day you would open another closed window, revealing a picture or text, leading to Christmas Eve. With the one we loved best, the window would open onto another sentence of the Christmas story and that helped build the rising sense of anticipation.
My Mom created a Christmas ritual every Christmas Eve. We would have our own Christmas parade from the top of the stairs, singing a carol, bringing the Baby Jesus figurine to the Nativity scene under the tree. We got more resistant to the cheesiness of it as we got older but Mom was right and we were wrong. We would read The Night Before Christmas out loud, each taking different stanzas. My Dad would read aloud the Cratchit family scene out of the Ghost of Christmas Present sequence in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In later grade school, my brother and I were off to Midnight Mass because we sang in the boy’s choir.
The day itself would then come with all its attendant hysteria and afterwards – it was done. The thing is, Christmas Day never matched up to the anticipation I felt for it. I don’t think it could have. What I loved most was the idea of Christmas, its possibility rather than its reality.
So here we are, years later, and things have very much changed. I’ve become an agnostic and I’ll tell you what I mean by that. I’m used to others telling me what I mean by that and it’s never quite right. I’m uncertain that God exists although I won’t tell you that a Supreme Being doesn’t or cannot exist. I’ve seen atheists who are every bit as evangelical in their disbelief as born-again Baptists are in their faith; not only does god not exist for them but they have decided you can’t believe in one either. I simply say, “I don’t know and its beyond my knowing.” If God exists for you, great. I do miss he certainty I had as a boy. Sometimes my heart yearns for what my mind can no longer accept.
What I don’t believe in is Institutional God especially the Christian one. There is no one Christian god in any case; different churches and sects get into versions of “my Jesus can beat up your Jesus.” The gospels differ and contradict themselves and the institutional churches ignore any gospel except the four official ones. There is, in fact, no “gospel truth.” Not to me.
So – what am I doing with Christmas? What am I supposed to be celebrating, Doubting Ostrander that I am.
I’m celebrating the idea of Christmas, which I have always loved most in any case. I love story and I love this story – that God so loved humanity that a part of him, his “Son,” came to Earth and became one of us, even as a newborn baby, defenseless and vulnerable.
I love the idea of that, I love that story. Story doesn’t have to be factually real to be true. If our minds have created god, then I love the idea that our minds created a loving god, one who could know what it feels like to be us. I don’t know that a god created us in his or her likeness but I believe that we have created a god – an idea or image of god – in our likeness. In this case, it’s bound up with love and kindness. I feel as Scrooge does at the moment of his transformation: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
Honour Christmas in your heart and in your own way and may you have joy of it, today and every day.
MONDAY: Mindy Newell
Even the four “official” Gospels contradict one another, if one is a Biblical literalist – that is, one who believes that each and every word in the Christian Bible is literally true. Look at Christ’s death scene. Two Gospels have Him crying out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” as his very last words. Another has an inarticulate scream. The fourth claims He never screamed, but did whisper.
Which one is literally true? They can’t *all* be…
Thank you so much for a very readable essay on a subject much on my mind this year. I’ve felt hypocritical about the rituals of Christmas, since I’m not a believer any more…but I do miss the symbolism, the warmth & goodwill of the season. You gave me a perspective that is encouraging.
As a person who is not religious, I often wondered why I loved Christmas so much. Eventually I just stopped wondering and enjoyed the season! It’s a great time of year, and I just love it.
As a nice Jewish girl with a bit of Wiccan thrown into the mix, John, I’m wishing you a Merry Winter Solstice!
I’m an atheist, but I still celebrate Christmas. I don’t go all whole-hog in terms of decorating the house any more like my folks still do (I was raised Catholic), but I love giving gifts to my younger cousins, nephews and nieces when we assemble at my aunt’s house on Christmas Eve, and that’s the part of it I still enjoy.
Efficient and well stated, as ever. Leave it to me to read it after said holiday but what can this Non-Affiliated, Open Minded Skeptic do? I’m just here for the good stories anyway. Cheers!
I’ve got an inexpensive little manger scene under our tree, and there are little wood and cloth angels flitting around our windows every year. I’m an atheist, and I have no dilemma about this. We also have witches and ghosts adorning our house at Halloween and leprechauns on St. Patrick’s Day. My enjoyment of the mythology of a season doesn’t imply my belief in it.
And I honestly enjoy the mythology of Christmas.