On Being a Christmasist

In the three years since I lost faith in Mormonism, I’ve tried on more than a few labels to describe my spiritual alignment: agnostic, atheist, humanist. I’m not content with any of them. It’s not that they are wrong, necessarily, but each fails to capture in much fulness my approach to religion, spirituality, and the transcendental. So let me try on one more, one appropriate for the season. Maybe it will last through January.

I am a Christmasist.

I mean this in a sense stronger than general affinity for Christmastime. Of course, I do love the music and the decorations and the chilly weather, and I feel a palpable joy from the end of November to the New Year. But that’s not why I identify as a Christmasist. Instead, it’s because Christmas is religion done right. That is, it captures the purest, most salutary aspects of religion while avoiding its worst pitfalls. Christmas, if you’ll forgive the Mormonese, is my truest church, a spiritual language I can speak natively and without scruple.

I recently read Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. There’s a lot to say about it, but for now, let me sum up its thesis: While the truth claims of religion are obviously false, religious practices obviously meet fundamental human needs that secular organizations ignore or meet poorly. In particular, religions recognize that even well-adjusted adults retain child-like needs: 

The point is not whether the Virgin [Mary] exists, but what it tells us about human nature that so many Christians over two millennia have felt the need to invent her. Our focus should be on what the Virgin Mary reveals about our emotional requirements – and, in particular, on what becomes of these demands when we lose our faith. In the broadest sense, the cult of Mary speaks of the extent to which, despite our adult powers of reasoning, our responsibilities and our status, the needs of childhood endure within us. While for long stretches of our lives we can believe in our maturity, we never succeed in insulating ourselves against the kind of catastrophic events that sweep away our ability to reason, our courage and our resourcefulness at putting dramas in perspective and throw us back into a state of primordial helplessness.

At such moments we may long to be held and reassured, as we were decades ago by some sympathetic adult, most likely our mother, a person who made us feel physically protected, stroked our hair, looked at us with benevolence and tenderness and perhaps said not very much other than, very quietly, ‘of course’.

Say what you will about how effectively modern religious institutions fill this need — in general, I find that they tend to infantilize rather than nurture — but I agree with de Botton’s overall diagnosis. We seucularists like to think of ourselves as adult, rational, and sophisticated, having transcended our childish natures — which is all poppycock. Christmas, on the other hand, does a bang-up job of feeding our inner child without infantilizing us. It allows us, for a few weeks, to drop the pretense of adulthood. To revel in sentimentality and perhaps manufactured nostalgia, to pretend that our childhoods were simpler, happier times. To wrap ourselves in a warm, comfortable blanket of familar foods, music, stories, and traditions.

Music

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is my post-belief Christmasist guru. You may already know of his connection to English hymnody, including a tune to an interminable Mormon hymn. But what’s lesser-known is that Vaughan Williams was an unbeliever — a “cheerful agnostic” according to his wife. He saw no conflict between disbelief in truth claims and the beauty and utility of religious music, declaring, “There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good Mass.”

He also wrote a ton of Christmas music. In addition to a fantasia on Christmas carols and a musical setting of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, his final work — finished posthumously — was a play based on Christmas carols. Here’s the final movement of that final work, The First Nowell. I don’t know nearly enough about Vaughan Williams’ life to conjecture with any confidence, but I like to imagine him finding solace in the familiar music of his childhood as his life drew to a close.

Vaughn Williams’ Christmas music is serene, beautiful, and bittersweet, but one thing it isn’t is sophisticated. It doesn’t challenge us much, simply because at Christmas we don’t want to be challenged. We’re happy to listen to arrangements of carols that range from serene and simple to remorselessly tacky. When we’re feeling particularly refined, we might queue up Bach or Handel, but even then we’re listening to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desring”, not The Art of Fugue. If the rest of the year we want arugula followed by a dry martini, at Christmas we give in to our childish appetites, and we load up on mashed potatoes before pouring rum in our eggnog.

Myth

Yesterday, Katie explored the nativity story through the lens of suffering. In her adversity, the newborn Christ took on new meaning; she focused “on the humility of His beginning and the depth of His condescension — so lowly, so meek, that He came to meet me where I am.” She perceived a savior so approachable and sympathetic that, in her suffering, she could reach him. Of course, there are manifold historical issues with the traditional nativity story — as Katie knows full well, I’m sure — but I doubt the story’s ability to impact her life and her relationship with her God depends on the presence or absence of a manger or shepherds.

So it is with all of our Christmas stories. We engage them independent of their truth, or even knowing of their falsehood. They are simple stories, with one-dimensional, archetypal characters — Ebeneezer Scrooge, the Grinch, St. Nicholas, John McClane — and repeating simple lessons of good, evil, and redemption. These lessons aren’t very realistic, but what of it? In the darkness of winter we don’t need a challenging exposition of the absurdity of the human condition. Sometimes we need the simplistic lessons of a child’s story: good triumphs evil, human life can be redeemed, and all can be made whole.

Ritual

For as long as I can remember, my siblings and I have built a blanket tent every Christmas Eve. Even now, as twenty- and thirty-somethings, if enough of us are in the same place on Christmas we’ll build one. Ostensibly we do it for the nieces and nephews, but it’s a transparent ruse: Really we want to feel a hint of what it felt like to be a kid. Christmas morning involved an elaborate ritual. We would wake up at a pre-negotiated time and clean up the tent while Dad showered. Afterwards, we would gather in our parents’ bedroom for family prayer, before finally trampling down the stairs to see the presents. None of us would ever have dreamed of rushing the ritual or skipping over bits of it, no matter how much we wanted to unwrap our new copy of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playing by the rules was — and still is, when we enact it as adults — important not because the rules were handed down from above, but for the opposite reason: they were our rules. The ritual belonged to us.

Every year, especially since my apostasy, I go out looking for Christmas ritual. I’m almost “vampiric” — a term borrowed from Sam Harris; apparently I’m at high risk for religious recidivism — in my appetite for it. My wife and I usually attend a Lessons and Carols service, and one magical Christmas Eve a few years ago we attended a Christmas Eve Watchnight service in a 13th-century Scottish cathedral. But, while the services are beautiful, I mourn the fact that I am forced to share them with strangers. Rituals are powerful because we share them with people we love and around whom we feel safe. A few months ago I advocated for a Christmas Eve temple service, a Watchnight service written in the language of Mormonism, open to any who felt bound to Mormonism by family or community. Such an idea, however, is a non-starter given the current Mormon landscape.

That brings us to the distinguishing feature of Christmasism. Other religions fill the same roles that Christmas fills — indeed, other religions provide much of the raw material from which Christmas is derived. But unlike other religions, no one owns Christmas. No one can keep you out of the temple; no one can stop you from celebrating. So while Christmas can be as bastardized as any other religion — cranks squabble over nativity scenes and the letter ‘x’, corporations harvest commercial gains, parents use Santa to extort good behavior from their children — the individual is free to switch off the bastardry. Turn off the news, sleep in on Black Friday, ditch the Elf on a Shelf, and crank up the Mannheim Steamroller. The Ghost of Christmas Present is here, and he gives you permission to indulge in a little childishness.