Imagine being a little kid, sitting in class a few days before the Christmas break. The teacher passes out sheets of construction paper and instructs everyone to draw a picture of their favorite thing about Christmas. Now imagine that you have nothing to draw. You have no favorite Christmas anything. You’ve never celebrated Christmas. You, are the sole person in your class, quite possibly in your entire school that does not celebrate Christmas, or any other traditional religious holiday. You are truly a religious minority.
That is my clear memory of Christmas as a kid, along with having to go to the library during school holiday parties, where I tried to find solace in the books I had all to myself. I would have much preferred eating cake and ice cream and singing Jingle Bells with the other children, but that was strictly forbidden by my father’s faith. It was a truly lonely time in my first few years of grade school, made even lonelier because my mother had passed away shortly after I began first grade.
I grew up in the Armstrong movement. The church founded by a failed advertising salesman took elements from various other denominations, including Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist and some aspects of Old Testament traditions and built a religion around it. It focused largely on end time predictions, strict adherence to church sanctioned rules, and taking great pride in being religious outsiders. Members were told that they were the one true church, the only ones that had a chance to be eternally redeemed by God, protected from God’s wrath when the end times came. They only had to remain diligent in the tenets of the faith, which were demanding. They rejected traditional Christian holidays in favor of a version of Old Testament Jewish ones with some interesting twists. Anyone who observed the traditional holidays, as well as other things deemed by the church to be offenses, was considered apostate and would feel the full brunt of God’s wrath for that sin.
I recently read an article on just this subject by a member of one of the many little groups that splintered off from the church Mr. Armstrong founded, titled Treasure Digest, The One Snowman . Reading that piece brought back memories of being that little lonely girl, feeling lost in a culture that she was told was evil, being terrified of being found out for wanting some of the joy the other kids, and just being plain old confused by it all.
When I read the article again, I became angry at the tone and the theme of the piece. They acknowledged that their children endure ridicule and loneliness and even shunning for the faith of their parents. But they took that acknowledge as a matter of pride. They wrote:
“While I think we need to give our children credit for what they have endured for our beliefs, I also think there are important lessons that we adults can learn from the children and especially from the example of the one snowman.”
I don’t know if the writer of the piece ever stopped to consider that the reason why their child drew a snowman instead of Santa. They drew a snowman for the same reasons I drew what I did; because they were terrified not to. It wasn’t courage, or obedience or even faith that prompted me to not participate along with the rest of my class. It was plain old fashioned fear. We had a choice, to face the strange looks and whispered gossip from our schoolmates and the lack of understanding of our teachers and friends, or face the lectures and guilt heaped upon us by our parents, no matter how well meaning, and the ever hanging fear of what God would do to us for putting colored balls on a second graders rendering of a pine tree.
I don’t remember what I drew instead of little green pine trees with colored dots and sloppy looking presents underneath those trees, probably just a tree, a plain tree with no embellishments. Despite this negative experience, I eventually found a way to gain something positive out of it. One of the biggest lessons I learned was not to force my religious beliefs onto anyone, or to insist on putting a child in a setting where they feel fearful, anxious or alone because of my religion. I can appreciate more fully what it is like to be a child or even a grownup, who is a recent immigrant, or of another religion, or is just considered odd or different. I know well what it is like to be full of questions and not have an outlet to access the answers I seek. I know what it is like to be lonely, while surrounded by others. It makes me want to try to help keep that from happening to anyone else, even though I strive for the impossible.
I learned that one’s faith is only truly strong when it is willing to undergo scrutiny and to evolve organically shedding, adding, restructuring along the way. I learned that people have many ways of trying to worship God and that being respectful of that beautiful diversity is not dishonorable to my own methods of worship.
To allow our children to learn and find some value in the religious traditions of others is actually a healthy thing. There is less danger of a child “being led astray” and more of an opportunity for a child and for us to see that even though we may believe and do things differently, we aren’t really as different as we assume.
The little girl I used to be is all grown up. I have a pretty little Christmas tree in my home and gifts wrapped for my children and grandchildren. Since I have grown up, I have drawn lots of pictures of Christmas trees, and presents, and even really lousy renditions of Santa and his reindeer.. I sing carols and holiday tunes every year, and find wonder in the birth narrative. For me, I find peace and joy to be found in this season, the sharing with friends and family and the beauty of all those gorgeous decorations. The fear of displeasing God for anything I do, or not do, is long gone. That is what I want everyone to experience, an absence of terror when it comes to considering the divine.