A Heathen's Holiday Hallelujah
My first introduction to Christmas came wrapped in a manger.
The year was 1994. I was in Kindergarten and just learning about the kind deeds and teachings of the son of God who lived on earth as a guy named Jesus. Along with being the only person to come back from the dead after three days*, he was also the ultimate example of doing the right thing.
Some adults I knew even wore bracelets that they could quickly inspect when faced with a difficult situation as a reminder to consider: What Would Jesus Do?
But I was mainly captivated by all the mind-bending miracles he performed that made Houdini look like your corny uncle when he finds a coin behind your ear.
So when auditions came up for the 1994 school Christmas pageant, I was excited to celebrate the birthday of a figure I thought literally walked on water.
I was hoping I would get to play a character that would garner the least amount of attention, like the guy who says there’s no room at the inn. My hopes got dashed when I was awarded the role of Jesus’ father. Not the all-powerful one, God, but the dope who raised him and taught him carpentry, Joseph.
Since I would have the honor of standing the entire pageant behind fake baby Jesus while also in front of a large group of parents, I needed to learn more about my character to prepare. So I dug into the details of the nativity story.
In case you are not familiar, from what I remember learning that year, the nativity story involves God telling Mary and Joseph they are going to have a baby who will save the world.
The story gets even more dramatic when a local king hears a prophecy about a firstborn baby who will be king to all kings. The king gets so jealous of the potential power of that unborn baby (Jesus) he sends out goons to murder all firstborn babies.
Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem to pay their taxes. When they arrive, all the traditional lodging is booked up (this is where the guy who says there’s no room at the inn comes in). Mary, who is so pregnant she’s about to not be pregnant at any moment, and Joseph are forced to take refuge in a stable. In this humble setting, the savior of the world is born. They wrap him in “swaddling” clothes and placed him into a makeshift manger made from hay and a trough.
At some point, a shepherd boy, three wise men, and in modern retellings, a talking donkey, show up to give the baby Jesus gifts, but they are all peripheral characters that mostly act as corroborating witnesses to the fact that God sent this baby to fulfill a prophecy.
Mary and Joseph get word of the baby murders and leave Bethlehem; saving the savior baby that God entrusted them to raise.
And that is essentially how I interpreted the story of Christmas for years. It is the beginning of an epic story about the life of the chosen one and his quest to save humanity from all the evils in the world.
Luckily, for my toy collection, my parents also indulged their other children’s secular fascination with the commercially popular Santa Claus. And for a time I believed in the duality of Christmas stories. So much so that whenever I would see a commercial for a toy I wanted but had the suspicion my parents wouldn’t buy it for me, I would add it to my list I sent to Santa each year. And if I really wanted it, in order to double my chances, I would also pray to the baby Jesus for it. I knew he was still the genuine star of the show.
As I grew older, I became skeptical of religions in general and Santa Claus specifically. I am still an admirer of the concept of Christ and his teachings. A fondness for the symbolic character is what I think about when I consider the importance of the Christmas holiday today.
And I’ve always kept my fondness for saying “Merry Christmas!”
Even during the War on Christmas, a time when some tried to supplement the specific acknowledgment of any religious tradition with the blanket greeting, “Happy Holidays!”
Jewish? Happy Holidays!
Muslim? Happy Holidays!
Christian? Happy Holidays!
Octogenarian? Happy Final Holidays!**
I’m all for fun alternative ways of expressing yourself. Once, I even tried to get “Merry Claus-mas” trending. But no matter what’s trending, Christmas is a specific baby’s birthday celebration.
For me, the dramatic story of Christ’s birth still beats any story about an old man living in the wilderness who keeps tabs on children he’s not related to, then breaks into their houses in the middle of the night every year.
So whether in war or at peace, no matter how irreverent this or any other non-believer wants to be, Christmas will always be about that little stable-born baby Jesus Christ.
And remember, if you really want something for Christmas, praying to the baby version of Jesus beats buying postage and writing a list. But do all the above just to be safe.
*Record for days being dead before coming back to life is not official.
**Saying, “Happy Final Holiday,” to an octogenarian is not just rude, but also a statistically plausible prediction.