Dear Lily June,
In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, your mother was despairing. Like many others, I took to social media to air my grievances, but, like many others, I found there no real solace. I have family whom I love, after all, who hold deeply Conservative beliefs, and as a financially failing millennial, I felt I understood and had compassion for many of the angry poor who voted for Trump. I said as much online, only to hear others voice concern that that kind of empathy aids institutionalized discrimination.
On the other hand, most of my friends held deeply Liberal beliefs, and as an educated humanities major, I felt I understood and had compassion for the many groups of people whom a Trump presidency could, at best, disenfranchise, at worse, even endanger. Even as a cis-gendered white woman, I felt betrayed by my fellow countrymen; I can only imagine what those further affected by a matrix of oppression might be enduring personally, politically, psychologically. My chosen family–i.e. my friends–recommended boycotting those members of our biological families to whose political beliefs we were diametrically opposed, especially over the holiday season to send a message.
But that message–agree with me or be ostracized–felt eerily similar to the proposed policies of a presidential elect who wanted to register Muslims, build a wall against Mexicans, grab the body parts of women who had not given their consent. When I realized that most of my time on Facebook was trapped in the echo bubble, hearing others reflect the sentiments I most wanted to hear, getting enraged about the political policies I, too, was enraged about, I felt that despite my best intentions (and my best diatribes), I was in the wrong place to glean any real healing or understanding.
After posting a particularly passionate plea against discrimination and division, for instance, my grandmother’s–your Great Grandmother Lorie’s–response was to ask, essentially, whether or not I believed in God. I know why she was asking; I had talked about holding those conducting hate crimes to task, and her implication was that a higher power than American justice might pass heavenly judgment on those engaged in earthly discrimination. I found myself, though, offended by the question, as if we weren’t all, regardless of our religious beliefs, responsible for one another in the here and now.
I took a while to decide what I might say back, not wanting to step on my Grandmother’s firm faith, while also not wanting to back down about what I believed as a spiritual humanist. I finally replied, “Grandma, I don’t know the full contours of my faith, but I believe love is a higher power. I know I have prayed for the future of my daughter, and that includes prayers that she will live in a world where everyone loves one another as I love her–instinctively, overwhelmingly, protectively, unconditionally.” She agreed with me by saying that “You’re right in your belief. God is love. There is no higher power…,” and we passed each other harmlessly, two terrified American ships in a new era of night.
And then it was Christmastime, the season of (supposed) togetherness, and I couldn’t tell you, of the Republicans and the Democrats, the Populists and the Progressives, the Americans and the rest of the global community, who is more deserving of love.
The truth is, I’ve never been as close as I’ve wanted to be with my family nor as enamored as I’d like to be with the Christmas holiday. By the time I was a teenager, my mother was tired of hosting the holidays, preferring I and my siblings spend the day with our respective friends and partners. My father could rarely grant us the gift of seasonal sobriety, and the best my sister and I could hope for was a dinner put on by one of his girlfriends/wives. We didn’t have religious traditions, what with my mother having been raised as an Independent Fundamental Baptist and my father as a Polish Catholic. There was no church that held us all together. We all took our leaps of faith separately.
So the holidays, while they were a time of twinkle light beauty and surface level generosity, always felt a little empty to me. Enjoying the gift-giving and the time with partners’ families had always left me feeling a little like an interloper in a holiday that didn’t truly belong to me. It made the season a little bittersweet, a little lonely. And then you, my darling dear, gift of gifts, were granted to me. And it was, as the poet Ilya Kaminsky wrote, like I’d been granted “a human window / in a house whose roof is my life.”
Suddenly, the miracle of just one birth had a new meaning for me. It was as if I had been experiencing in the past not the real Christmas, but a condensed Christmas card version of the holiday, and you–mystical, magical you–put the season back into 3-D. The tree, which you pronounce “tee,” was a little twinklier to me. The presents underneath weren’t just trivial consumerism slapped into haphazardly wrapped boxes, but symbols of my undying affection for your existence. Penguins/”pingys,”, Snowmen/”nat-men,” every word you master this year has become a priceless bauble I’ll hang on the tree of my memory.
And my faith, Lily June, has changed dimensions, too, maybe because I find myself a little more desperate, even while I lose my faith in the body politic and the supposedly American ideals of life, liberty and equal pursuit of happiness for everybody, to try to restore my faith in humanity. And that starts with caring more about the storytellers than their stories.
At Christmastime, Christians, on the one hand, tell the story of a man named Jesus who may have been born in December. They tell of his mother scouting about for aid and shelter and finding only a manger. They tell of angels and wise men and a whole host of earthly and heavenly visitors coming to see the child who will represent salvation and forgiveness for all humanity. They tell of God and sinners being reconciled, of a baby born to a virgin who would have given her life to see through the birth of her son, a son who will in turn die in order to save the souls of everyone who believes, and lives through and by, the Christian story. But of Mary and Joseph or of those who, not believing or not understanding, turned them away, I cannot tell you who is more deserving of love.
Historians, on the other hand, tell the story of a man named Jesus who may not have even been born in December. And yet, a Roman almanac tells of nativity festivals being held as early as 336 A.D. It could be that the final date of these was set to December 25 not because of its legitimacy as Jesus’s birthday, but because early Christian church leaders were looking to elbow out the then popular pagan holidays, usually ending on the 25, but beginning on or around December 17. The story there is one of contention and division, of the competitions between religions. And yet, of the Christians and the Pagans, I cannot tell you who is more deserving of love.
Some (and truly, only some, not all or even most, a point I emphasize after a thoughtful critique from a reader I deeply admire) American Christians have propagated the myth that in this country, there is a war on Christmas, and they need for proof no more than the evolving picture on the side of a Starbucks cup. That Starbucks’ purpose is to hawk caffeinated beverages and not to proselytize doesn’t seem to deter those who are angry, who feel prosecuted and disconnected from their own holiday. Some other Americans of all faiths, more seriously, have argued that their Middle eastern brothers and neighbors, when they immigrate here, ought to have their names added to a registry. In some ways, the fear of a cup and the fear of a Muslim are both, to me, as ludicrous of stories: Neither has the power to take away from any person their faith.
And I think of those American Muslims during a holiday where all the dominant imagery and iconography in the country is Christian and how lonely and isolating that must seem, just as it must be for American Jews or multitudinous Americans practicing Asian religions or even American atheists. No faith’s holidays seem to be given center stage in America as much as Christianity, though I cannot tell you, of the Christians and the Muslims and the Jews, of the Buddhists and the Hindus and the Taoists, of any faithful or any atheist, who is more deserving of love.
If I raise you in one story, Lily June, it will be the story of loving everybody, regardless of what they believe, and that is what we will practice on the holiday, as a metaphor of, and reminder for, all the other days we have here, too few in number for any of us to practice living perfectly right. You will meet an endless stream of people who will try to convince that their story is the better story, the only story, the capital-T Truth, your mother included. Forgive us, Lily June. And treat everybody, anyway, as if they were all members of your biological and chosen families.
And if you can’t, forgive yourself, and love yourself harder. And then try again to Love Everybody. And then, try again. And then, try again. Forever and ever, amen. To infinity.
- By Roberto frison – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2785757
4 thoughts on “God Help Me through the Holidays–On the Occasion that You’re Contemplating Faith at Christmastime”
What touched me most about this post is that you aren’t allowing your lack of traditions growing up to affect you creating new ones with Lily June. Well done. .
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My own students in Ireland became so hooked onto the American election footage, it became like reality TV over real life. I don’t envy the crises of conscience many Americans faced in that battle. As it stands, I think you were all very brave and hope it all works out.
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Lovely, lovely. Alyssa, you have captured the spirit of this season, which is often muddied and muddled, and expressed it as the light of love, which should brighten every home everywhere. Thank you. Lily is a lucky little girl.
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DLJ, your words are a prayer
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