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.

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What counts as a miracle?

handsFor the past year or so my wife and I have hosted prayer gatherings in our home, basically just a small gathering of friends getting together to share food, prayers, readings, reflections, etc. A couple of weekends ago, our theme was “miracles” in honor of Christmastime, which sparked a uniquely vibrant discussion.

Almost everyone present said they’d experienced a miracle at some point in their lives. But what was even more striking for me was the number of stories that were more spiritual in nature than physical. One friend recounted the appearance of a helpful stranger out of nowhere as he struggled to make it back home for a loved one’s funeral. Another talked about the sudden lifting of a burdensome feeling of hate she had harbored for her stepmother, one she’d carried for years after her mother’s passing.

We often hear about miracles, especially around this time of year, but they’re often earthly in nature. Sometime these miracles take the form of diseases that suddenly cure themselves, or serendipitously finding money in a time of financial need, or succeeding against all odds in some competition or in one’s career.

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