I'd like to believe I never really believed, but I know that's not the case.
Like any child raised on the American Christmas tradition, I lived for this holiday. I delighted in every church, Scout, or school-sponsored party that featured an adult volunteer dressed as Santa, doling out goody bags, their disappointing contents (mostly peanuts, maybe a candy cane or two mixed in) offset by the understanding that this was just a foretaste of something much greater to come. At night, long after I should have been asleep, I heard the crinkle of wrapping paper as my parents prepared for the big day. Decorating the tree, Christmas carol sing-alongs were highlights, watching Charlie Brown, the Grinch, and Rudolph on our black-and-white TV, counting down on an Advent calendar, filling my nose with the aromas of holiday baking, gorging myself on fudge and divinity, until finally the longest agonizing day of the year arrived: Christmas Eve. If we had school that day--and I occasionally did--there would be a class party to dilute the suspense, but everything that followed slowed time more than an interstellar wormhole. We went to church, of course, and I did enjoy those services: my mother playing the organ, my father singing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," the lowering of the lights, the lighting of candles as we all sang "Silent Night," stretching things out until we were finally on our way home. Beyond church, Christmas Eve had its own set of traditions: the hanging of stockings on our mother's secretary (we rarely had a fireplace to hang them over), the setting out of cookies and milk for Santa, and, when we were old enough to have begun understanding that giving was as much a part of Christmas as receiving, the setting of our gifts for the rest of the family under the tree. Finally it was bedtime, and if insomnia had been a problem earlier in the season, it was far worse now. The house would be filled with the aroma of my mother's coffee cake, a Christmas tradition she still follows (we'll go home with one wrapped in foil after the family party December 27), and again there would be the sounds of wrapping, delayed as long as my parents could afford, so much so that they often weren't in bed until two or three in the morning; but I'd always be awake long enough to hear it. Finally I'd get to sleep, usually to awake to the sound of my younger brothers sneaking out in the dark, oohing and aahing over the beauty of the gift-laden tree, then being chased back to bed by my father's angry voice--he might have only had an hour or two of sleep at that point--and if I did manage to get back to sleep, I'd be reawakened by the same sounds an hour or two later, this time accompanied by the bleary resignation of my parents to the inevitability of having to be up again. We'd rush out to the living room, then have to wait for our parents to settle in on the couch so that we could empty out our stockings in front of them. Then we were permitted one wrapped present before breakfast, after which the unwrapping orgy commenced.
There's not a lot of "Christ" in that Christmas memory. Perhaps that's one reason I stopped believing in the magic at a relatively young age. Another, I'm sure, is that at some point my parents gave up on the artifice of the Santa letter, and just let us put together Santa lists. We'd pore over the gift catalogs from Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and, in later years, J.C. Penney, looking for the best deals on the toys we wanted, struggling to keep them under the monetary limit set by our parents, struggling to strike the right balance between quality and quantity, ultimately compromising ourselves on both criteria. And in the end, most of what we picked for ourselves was disappointing: games that were never as fun in real life as they looked in the TV commercials, imported gadgets that didn't hold up to rough play, or cheap store-brand knock-offs that couldn't compare to the real thing. Over time, I came to embrace a concept introduced to me in the Peanuts comic strip: the "post-Christmas let-down." The real thing just didn't deliver on all the hope and promise.
Becoming a minister added another layer to my Scroogery: in addition to having joined Charlie Brown in his criticism of the commercialization of the holiday, it was now my job to defend it against capitalism. Advent was supposed to be a time of quiet preparation, not a premature celebration, and so I denied Christmas carols to my congregations, even as they were immersed in them everywhere else they went. I was rigid in my insistence that the gospel stories be kept separate--there would be no wise men in the church manger until Epiphany--and God forbid Santa be a part of any church celebration. Off the job, I was a hypocrite, obsessed with finding the right gifts for family, spouse, and children, decorating the house, doing everything I could to replicate that elusive comforting warmth of my childhood.
This internal warfare couldn't go on forever. In many ways, it was a manifestation of my larger struggle over being an agnostic in priest's clothing. In fact, I can trace my skepticism over all things mystical to one day in 1967 when I was poking around under my parents' bed, and discovered their Christmas hiding place. I was six years old, and I had just seen Santa without his beard. I maintained the fiction for myself for a few years--I even remember waking up at 3 a.m. on a Christmas morning in 1969, hearing the clock on the mantle chime, and thinking I heard Santa in the house--but by the time our Santa letters turned into order forms, my faith in the myth was long since dead.
That's the biggest reason I left the ministry. Doubting Santa was a catalyst to the cognitive awakening that decimated all my faith. Comingled scripture passages, misinterpreted theology, proof-texting, all the things people do to put a religious veneer on their own agendas, led me to the rotten core of Christianity: we try too hard to make religion be what we want it to be, rather than what it was meant to be from the beginning. We take the story of a homeless preacher, and turn it into pageantry, triumphalism, and exploitation. The moment of truth for me was the day I was finally able to say "Bah! Humbug!" not just to Christmas, but to the church.
And yet--there is so much about Christmas that is good. I do want to do things for the people I love. I want to see them, express my affection for them, give them something significant. I want them in my home, enjoying the (ironically cut down) symbol of life that is the evergreen tree, bedecked with the LED string of lights symbolizing light in the darkness, topped with the silvery crown of a star that beckons us to follow the pauper king. I want to sing songs of mystery and awe about the birth of that king, but also secular songs of cheer in a time of cold, dark bleakness. There are, in fact, excellent reasons, both sacred and secular, for valuing and observing this season.
So there is a tree in my living room. I will be teaching holiday songs to my students at school. I will be attending Christmas parties. I will wear a Santa hat on the last day of school. I will give gifts to my wife, my children, my parents, my brothers and sisters-in-law and nephews and nieces. I will say "Merry Christmas" to them without a hint of irony.
But I can guarantee this: you will not find me at the mall. I'll do my gift shopping online, visit Fred Meyer and Costco only for groceries, zap Christmas ads as I watch things on the DVR; and except for the party at my parents' house (where the gift orgy is a tradition that refuses to die), there will be no furious unwrapping of presents. The one gift I covet most for myself, and want most for those around me, is company. As the Grinch learned, the best part of Christmas happens when people come together not to shop, not to unwrap, but simply to be together, enjoying each other. It's not presents, but presence, that matters. Yes, I would have been sorely disappointed in a Christmas without wrapped gifts when I was a child, but then, I was almost always sorely disappointed by those gifts, anyway.
This is what Scrooge learned at the end of A Christmas Carol: that being present for others, and enjoying their company, really is the richest thing in this world. Can I hear a "Hallelujah?"