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?”
“Of course not!” I answered. It was ridiculous. Who says things like this? I wondered.
My boyfriend then explained that he saw a future for us, but that he couldn’t marry someone who didn’t accept Jesus as their Savior. But then he told me something that I had never heard: “If you can keep an open mind,” he said, “God can reveal Himself to you.”
This didn’t sound right to me, but I had so much respect for this man that I didn’t feel I could dismiss his claim out of hand. But I warned him that even though I was willing to show up at church from time to time, the chances of me becoming a Christian were less than zero.
But it turned out that the church he attended was pastored by a man named Tim Keller, who might be the most persuasive Christian apologist and evangelical pastor of his generation (if not the century). His sermons would weave together threads from philosophy, history, music, literature, and even popular culture. I had never heard anyone talk about the Bible, or Jesus, the way Keller did.
About a year into this unlikely journey I came to the conclusion that the weight of evidence was on the side of Christianity being true. But this was a head decision, not one of the heart.
Shortly after arriving at that conclusion, I went on a business trip to Taiwan. During the travel I prayed fervently that God would reveal Himself to me, though I didn’t really understand what I was asking for. And then one morning I awoke from a dream in which Jesus had come to me and said, “Here I am.” I was overwhelmed and frightened because the experience was so real.
I called my boyfriend, half a world away, but before I had a chance to tell him, he broke up with me. I can see now that his purpose in my life had been fulfilled, but at the time it was quite a shock, if for no other reason than the fact that he was the only Christian I really knew well. Who was I going to talk to about this dream?
I ended up reaching out to a Christian I had met through my (now ex-) boyfriend and uncomfortably recounted my dream to him. He himself had become a believer through a dream and insisted that I needed to join a Bible study.
So I took a breath and headed to the Upper East Side Bible study my friend had suggested. I wish I could remember exactly what was said that first day, because as I stepped out onto the sidewalk after the meeting I was overwhelmed by the truth of the Gospels.
Ironically, after all of this, Christmas lost its luster for me. The rank materialism became too much to bear, and the Christmas season morphed from being a time I savored into something I tried to survive each year. Santa Claus, Christmas trees, the holiday jingles—they all felt like pagan oppression. When people complained about a war on Christmas I often smirked and thought to myself, Where do I sign up? Honestly: When a sale at Crate & Barrel gets entangled with the birth of Jesus Christ, something has gone horribly wrong.
But then I realized that I had allowed the secular celebrations of Christmas to crowd out its transcendent meaning. As theologian N. T. Wright points out, it’s Christmas that is the moment when God launched a “divine rescue mission” of humankind.
God didn’t just condescend to come to earth as a human. He came as a helpless infant. The King of Kings was born amid barnyard animals and piles of hay after His lowly parents were turned away from better lodgings. When the Magi came to see the Lord, there was no security on hand to judge whether they were worthy. The Messiah was approachable.
He was both one of us, and at the same time, “God with us.” He was flesh. He would hunger, He would bleed, He would love, He would thirst, and He would die. None of this could have happened had He not been born fully human.
The Lord’s Servants
There’s even more beauty than that, if you can believe it. At every turn in the story of Christmas we witness unquestioning obedience to God. A young virgin is told she will conceive a son by the Holy Spirit. How will she explain this to her husband-to-be? What if he refuses to marry her and she’s left to bear a son out of wedlock? These were not minor concerns in the time in which she lived. Still, her response to the angel Gabriel is profound in its simplicity. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary says. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” How many of us are slower to respond to God’s prompting over much smaller matters?
Joseph was just as quick to ignore his worldly concerns and acquiesce to the call of God. Upon learning the news of Mary’s pregnancy, he decided to quietly end the engagement so as to not expose her to public disgrace. But mercifully, he, too, had a dream. An angel of the Lord appeared to him and told him to “not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife. He obeyed. And then he and Mary joined in their obedience to welcome into the world the Light of all mankind.
Christmas is a day to remember all of this; to ponder the mystery and the wonder of a birth like no other.
What a gift! It’s one I won’t take for granted again.
This article was adapted from The Christmas Virtues: A Treasury of Conservative Tales for the Holidays (Templeton Press).