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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