In my unorthodox childhood, Christmas was as an oasis of normalcy. It was the one day of the year I could count on some sort of harmony in my divided family.
At age five, my parents divorced and established two outposts in my life, from which I shuttled back and forth. One home was headed by my sophisticated, East Coast-born, feminist mother; the other by my down-to-earth, Idaho-bred father, who held fast to his traditionalist views.
The Christmas season was a magical time, made all the more special because I got to experience the magic twice. I helped pick out and decorate two Christmas trees, one at my mother’s house and one at my father’s. Wherever we woke up on Christmas morning, my brother and I were greeted by mountains of presents piled under the tree. We would spend hours plowing through them and then look at each other with delight as we realized we would get to do it all over again just a few hours later at the other house. Christmas meant two of everything.
Or rather, almost everything: Church we only did once. My mother was a lapsed Catholic who had no discernable faith; my father was an Episcopalian who took us to church every Sunday. Going to the Christmas Eve service with him was a high point of the holiday season. We lit candles and sang carols, and all felt right with the world. I suppose we talked some about Jesus, but truth be told, my mind was primarily occupied with counting down the hours until the commencement of presents.
Looking back now, I see that Christmas in my family—like it is in lots of families—was really a cultural event focused on the exchange of gifts. It had next to nothing to do with the birth of Christ Jesus.
‘If You Can Keep an Open Mind’
I continued to cherish Christmas well into my adulthood, probably because it conjured up so many happy childhood memories. I never dwelt on the religious aspect. In fact, during my sophomore year of college I fell into an existential crisis of faith. As I teetered on the edge of disbelief, I called my father looking for reassurance. Instead, he confided to me that as much as he had struggled to believe—and at times had possessed a genuine, but fragile faith—he had come to the unhappy conclusion that God wasn’t real.
I was suddenly untethered, and I felt as though I could barely breathe. But there it was: If my father—the most brilliant man I knew— didn’t believe in Christianity, then it couldn’t be true. And so I fell away, too.
By the time I was in my thirties I found the idea of religion, and particularly Christianity, utterly preposterous. I had moved from Washington to New York, and my professional and social lives were rooted in Democratic politics. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t liberal, and the majority of my friends and colleagues were atheists.
During this time I was single, and friends set me up on a lot of dates. When they asked me if there were any deal breakers, I explained there was only one: No religious people.
Shortly after I made that declaration, I started dating a guy who mentioned, in passing, that he attended a Presbyterian church. I flinched. But I liked him, and because I was so religiously illiterate, I didn’t understand that some Presbyterian churches are evangelical. I assumed he was a cultural Christian, like the few other Christians I knew.
A few months into the relationship he confronted me with a question I didn’t expect to get from any person I knew: “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior?”