How a non-Christian learned to appreciate Christmas

Since my childhood, I’ve had a bit of an odd relationship with Christmastime. Mind you, what Christmas actually represents (or is supposed to represent) was never the issue. Growing up in a Baha’i family, we respected and honored the personhood of Jesus Christ. I was introduced to Jesus’s life and teachings in Baha’i Sunday school, in fact, and later on in life discovered that the Baha’i scriptures are filled with passages honoring Him. During my elementary school years, my mother insisted I take part in the annual Christmas pageant, a responsibility I begrudgingly accepted, even as my Jewish classmates were conspicuously free to sit it out. This was the case even as we had no Christmas tree in our home and didn’t exchange presents (we had our own Baha’i holidays, after all). “People need to know that Baha’is believe in Jesus”, my mother insisted.

On the other hand, every year as the holiday approached, Christmas served as a reminder that I didn’t quite fit in. Like many kids whose parents came from abroad, the awareness of difference set in at a young age. I was a brownish kid with dark eyes and an unruly mop of coarse black hair. My clothes were slightly odd, and my lunch box contents even odder. The holiday felt like the sum total of everything that made me different, with reminders everywhere — Christmas lights strung up on every house, Christmas movies on TV, Christmas songs on the radio — that we were just different.

I am hesitant to say it, but as an adult, I still find much of this time of year unbearable. It’s not the feeling of being different, per se, but more so the fact that Christmas in much of American culture has become a vulgar monument to materialism. The cacophony of TV commercials, the aggressive driving on the highways back and forth to the malls, the scramble to catch the hottest post-Thanksgiving sale — it all just makes me want to withdraw and stay inside. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to point out the irony that the anniversary of the birth of Christ, who angrily confronted the money-changers and demanded dignity for the poor, is now commemorated by a mad, collective dash to buy new plastic toys and electronic gadgets.

In recent years, however, I’ve discovered a way some people celebrate Christmas that is somewhere in between religious devotion and rampant consumerism. I sense it was the way more people in this country marked the occasion in the past, before some of the more materialistic elements took over. I would describe it as this: Christmas as a symbol — whether religious or secular — of love, hope, and peace and earth.

I first had this feeling just a few years ago, when a friend invited me to the annual holiday singing party his family had hosted in their home for generations. To that point I had never had an appreciation for Christmas songs; most of them were either too corny or reminded me of the slog of school pageant rehearsals as a boy. Somehow, this was different. I almost couldn’t believe it, but I was actually singing Christmas songs and enjoying myself.

The most moving part about this experience wasn’t the camaraderie or the feeling of warmth in the room, although that part was also wonderful. Rather, it was the fact that for the first time in my life, with the sheet music in hand, I actually sat down and read the lyrics to some of these songs. A few of them in particular, it turns out, are truly profound, and captured a spirit of Christmas I hadn’t felt before.

Take, for instance, “Good King Wenceslas”, whose melody I’ve known for decades (and chances are you have too), about a benevolent king who ponders the suffering of the poor within his kingdom. The last stanza:

In his masters step he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Another song I have learned to appreciate is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, adapted from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas in 1863, in the throes of the American Civil War. In it the narrator reflects on the horrors of the time and somehow finds hope for a better future:

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

That Longfellow poem in particular has a striking relevance to the age we now find ourselves in, where it is so easy to become overwhelmed and cynical in the face of everything that’s going wrong. And yet, there is a power in standing up straight and proclaiming in song that love, beauty, and justice will in fact prevail. In other words, to sing of peace on earth, good-will to men.

For all those celebrating the occasion, I wish you a Merry Christmas. I hope the holiday is filled with that same spirit I’ve tried to describe here, and that we can all spread that spirit far and wide, no matter who we are.

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