Christmas… as an Agnostic by Melanie Noell Bernard
Day 22 Advent 2017
Like many children, I was raised in my parents’ religion. For me, this meant going to a Presbyterian church once a week on Sunday (or trying. Sometimes life is a little busy.) But I was expected to get up earlier than I wanted, put on nice clothes to appear presentable, and head to church with my parents and older brother. However, my Christian-upbringing was a bit unorthodox.
I have never read the bible. I stopped going to Sunday school as soon as my parents would let me just so I could sit quietly (and impatiently) in service with them. (I was that person drawing on the bulletin during service… Oops.) No one ever really explained the bible verses to me or that there were two testaments. I had no idea who the apostles were. I can’t recount the ten commandments. Despite having been in church my entire life, I had no idea what I was doing there.
Maybe that is the reason (or perhaps it’s my scientific nature striving for proof), but I never really believed. Not to say I didn’t try. Many nights I would pray before bed, asking for a sign, and not getting one. Of course, that’s because you’re not supposed to base it on proof. You are supposed to believe in God without proof and live your life as a good person based on your faith. Unfortunately, the older I became, the more I realized I didn’t actually believe and no matter how much I tried and how much I prayed, believing is harder than you think. As such, over this past year, I finally told my family… I am Agnostic.
To be quite honest, this was probably one of the most difficult things I have ever told my family. Why? I’m not sure. I was finally being true to who I am, but I think there was this worry of disappointing my family if I admit to not believing what they believe. There was this fear of separation or disapproval from them. Funny thing is, none of them even flinched. I had gotten all worked up, spent nearly two years hiding it, only for it to not be a big deal. And life goes on, but to say nothing has changed would be a lie. Things have changed, namely around Christian holidays like Christmas.
Christmas was always the time of year when everyone is preparing and busy and decorating. My family had plenty of traditions for the season. We promptly got our tree the day after (American) Thanksgiving (the first day the tree farm opened). After cutting it down, sipping on hot cocoa and petting reindeer, we would spend the rest of the day decorating the tree and playing Christmas music. My dad would hang lights outside and make a fake tree out of lights on a table that looked really cool at night. My mom would move all the ornaments I hung on the tree to another location and my brother would help her. (I’m not really the artsy one in the family. Hee hee!) We would spend the rest of the month buying and wrapping presents and planning Christmas dinner with a ham and potatoes and all the other yummy goodies. Then came time for Church on Christmas Eve.
This was one of two times a year when everyone (even the non-Church goers) would show up to the one of three services offered on Christmas Eve and listen to the story of Jesus’ birth and sing songs. The only lights during the last song, Silent Night, were candles being held by each of the church-goers filling the pews. I always remember the wax dripping down onto my fingers despite the little white paper that’s supposed to catch it, trying not to wince and keep singing as beautifully as I could (though I’m not really that great. Hahaha!), praying someone (or myself) would NOT light my hair on fire. Then, the song ends, everyone blows out their candles and files silently out of the church just after midnight to head home and go to sleep and wait for Santa to deliver presents. However, this isn’t the way it happens anymore.
Despite being back in my hometown near my parents, I don’t go to church. My brother lives in another state. My parents are divorced. I am Agnostic, and this last piece is the most drastic change of all.
Even as my mother still goes to church and has invited me to go to Christmas Eve service and join her and her church for dinner (aka lunch) on Christmas Day, I’m not sure I should go. I haven’t even put up Christmas decorations this year (nor last year) and anything related to the Christmas season feels… off. I feel like a poser for trying because it’s technically not my religion anymore. That’s not to say I don’t want to spend time with my family, or eat good food, or just bask in the joy and splendor of the holidays, but… I’m just not sure I belong.
What’s more, I’m worried about going to a Christmas service or dinner and having people presume I’m religious or presume I know things about the bible and practice the faith or ask me when I’m coming back to church. I don’t want to partake in something when I don’t fully believe in the very basis of what they are celebrating.
Were it just my family, waking up around a well-lit, gorgeously decorated tree with some snow on the ground and a warm, crackling fire to enjoy, I wouldn’t have a problem. There are no religious obligations behind a nice decoration or enjoying the company of one’s family, but going to church when I have finally been honest with myself about not being part of the church, feels like I am being dishonest to the people who are religious and who do go to church, but mostly it feels like I am being dishonest with myself. I spent too much of my life being afraid of admitting my religious beliefs. I should not have to explain them to anyone and I do not want to pretend again, even for one more day, that I still believe in the Christian God.
Melanie Noell Bernard is a graduate student who explores the blueprint for life: genes. Her scientific background is the inspiration for many of her stories. When she’s not honing her writing craft or researching in the lab, she’s reviewing books and hosting literary discussions on her blog, MNBernard Books.