Holidays from the Watchtower: Why an ex-JW Atheist Loves Christmas
Bust out the prayer beads, call the exorcist, and hide the children, I am an Atheist. When you come from a religious background, telling someone you’re Atheist can feel like admitting you’ve committed murder. Okay maybe I’m being a bit hyperbolic (don’t @ me), but any time I mention that fact out loud it definitely leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths. Not all, but even open-minded believers often still have a hard time fathoming why anyone would forgo the concept of God if the Big Guy is suppose to represent goodness. Rejecting something people almost universally think is great tends to make you look like a jerk. It’s like telling people you don’t like music or puppies, except this puppy governs the cosmos and created life. Let me just say that while I can be a jerk sometimes, I don’t think I am one most of the time, and when I am it has nothing to do with me being Atheist.
So let’s first dispel some preconceptions (ones that at least apply to me).
I’m not out to convert anyone. If Atheists are waging a war on things like Christmas, there’s never been a single formation that I know of. Maybe I’m AWOL or just not on the email list, whatever the case my goal isn’t to turn you into a filthy Godless heathen. I’d honestly be happier being the only one of my kind, a beautiful and rare secular unicorn, than bolster the ranks of non-believers. I grew up a Jehovah’s Witness (oh I’ll get to that part don’t you worry), so I spent plenty of weekends knocking on doors trying to convert others. I promise, I’ve hung up my clip-on tie and tiny suit long ago.
There’s also this idea that I am arrogant to presume I know the answer to an age old question. I certainly don’t know everything, my GPA proves it. But how I’ve come to this personal conclusion isn’t because I’m pretentious enough to think I’m smarter than anyone. There’s a massive list of people I respect and admire who believe in God, and even some of them are why I don’t. I don’t believe that believing makes anyone an idiot or fool. I completely understand why people need faith and its been integral in defining what it means to be human. Better yet, I understand because I was raised in a very religious household.
My parents brought me up as a Jehovah’s Witness when I was young. From birth up until their divorce when I was eleven, my folks raised me with a tangible fear of God. We went to church-the Kingdom Hall- Sundays and Tuesdays while Saturday I was up at the crack of dawn, clutching the church’s publications (The Watchtower and Awake) to hand out to those we met or slip them in the cracks of their doors if no one answered. I even had read and discussed scripture in front of the entire congregation. Our family went to conventions in Dallas and Houston and made sandwiches for thousands of Witnesses, who were similarly gathered to hear this massive sermon.
When my parents divorced all those things came to an end. We stopped going. In the span of a week everything I believed was undone. Trust me when I say you don’t truly know who you are until you discover the life you’ve lived was a fabrication, especially when you are a child and it is your parents; the very same people who convinced you in the first place. A few years later, at the age of eleven, I had my first Christmas. It was followed by my first New Years fireworks, Valentine’s Day cards, green shirt for Saint Patrick’s Day, and when June swung around in the summer, I celebrated my first birthday. From that moment on I was hooked. Jehovah’s Witnesses are often recognized for their non-participation in holidays and my life in it wasn’t an exception. Birthday’s are considered sins of vanity that border on idolatry. A person should be cherished every moment, every day, not flowered with attention on a particular day. Twelve year old me didn’t care. I didn’t believe in Santa Claus but I believed in that sweet new Playstation and that was enough to get me on board.
I struggled participating in holidays while still believing what my parents and the church had taught me. Those beliefs don't just vanish immediately, after all. As I soaked in all these sinful things becoming what Witnesses call “worldly” I started consuming religious literature more than any other time in my life. I scoured the Bible, Quran, and more on this journey to understand my new spirituality with the end of my old one. The thing is, once you meet a grifter on a road who takes you for a fool, it’s hard to fall for the next grifter’s con. And that’s what they all felt like. Each new religion had something to offer, but what they offered I didn’t really want...or need, and they also came with their own set of rules. That was something I couldn’t tolerate again. What they did have, something I wanted, was a sense of community. The best thing that came out of being a Witness were the people. While I certainly didn’t agree with them in the matters of spirituality, I did value my time with the people. To this day they’re still wonderful friends of mine.
Reading about so many different faiths exposed me to new ways of thought, but it also started allowing me to develop my own. Faith is, after all, an intimate experience for believers and non-believers alike, and while I am Atheist I am not without my own faith and system of belief. One thing I kept as a Witness was their keen skepticism and analytical reasoning for why they do not celebrate holidays. As much as it truly sucked passing out those Watchtowers instead of watching X-Men and other Saturday cartoons like other kids, being a JW helped develop my critical mind. It however came at a cost. I missed out on a lot of normal American kid experiences. You hear it all the time, but I just wanted to belong and be a part of this bigger community that I missed out on. I wanted to be normal. So I traded one community for another, and even then, even as I joined the majority of Americans in celebrating these holidays, I did not belong. I was not Jehovah’s Witness and the ‘Christ’ in Christmas was irrelevant to me.
Witnesses are also forbidden from military service and I stood out like a Russian spy during the Pledge of Allegiance sitting there in my desk rather than standing to recite the words with my hand over my heart, and still I served in the Army for nearly a decade. The reason was the same. The military was a community I admired, and since I did not have one (again Atheists are not an organized force) the Army was good enough to issue one to me. I belonged to something. I still do. And despite the politics surrounding the military, leading to its misuse, I believe in its ideals of honor, self sacrifice, integrity, and duty. I love America. A lot. America is my community. I know its states, highways, landmarks, and landscape. Despite what I was told to believe, I always took pride in my home. It felt morally wrong to not serve. I wouldn’t have joined if not for being an Atheist, and all those experiences, the lives that I influenced and that influenced me, would have never been.
It’s 2020, and while I no longer serve in the military I am still an Atheist. It’s been a long journey since those days and I am still just as fascinated with religion as I was then. To go from one end of that spectrum to the polar opposite jarred me as a person and at thirty-three, a father of four, I can still feel those aftershocks that resonate in how I raise my kids. In my house we say, “Merry Christmas.” We also say, “Happy Holidays,” and if we were in the UK we’d say “Happy Christmas” like those bunch of weirdos. I don’t raise the kids Atheist. I teach them to be skeptical and critical of all new information. I encourage curiosity as much as I stress the values and ethics I learned while serving.
I also lie to them and tell them Santa is real, and each night I have to remember to move that damned elf around the house. It would certainly be cheaper and less of a hassle, as a non-believer, to just not celebrate the holidays like I did as a kid, but sometimes belief is important, even if it is in something that isn’t real. Sometimes you need that lie to keep a bit of wonder in your life at the time of your life when it’s most important. Little kid me needed that more than a skeptical mind and so do my kids. At least for now, because childhood should have a sense of fantasy and awe. My religion not only caused me to miss out on holidays, but also literature, music, cinema, and art. Sure I don’t think God and Santa are objectively real but they do exist nonetheless; like money. Americans spent around 460 billion dollars on Christmas, and while money has no actual value (except maybe as kindling in a post apocalyptic world) the value we put on it matters. There are a great many things that aren’t real but that still influence all of us. We are influenced by fictional superheroes, literary protagonists, and characters in film. As a writer I certainly hold the imaginary sacred, so while I do not believe in God that does not mean I do not see the importance of its place in our human experience.
People suffer the bitter winter air to hang decorations just to add some light and magic to the darkness. They struggle and save money for presents to give to loved ones in order to show them that they are cherished. Mothers and fathers stay up nights moving the Elf on the Shelf to put a smile on their children’s faces. We do all these things for each other during the darkest and coldest time of the year to spread the message of hope. Humans have imagined many things for the sake of kindness and have humbly given credit to higher powers, but in my eyes it is the everyday person who is a hero, who deserves the praise. Christmas, is to me, a communal moment, a chance to see us come together as our best selves as we did in ancient times, when primitive people sat around the fire to sing songs and tell tales. I do not believe in God but I believe in the power of the imagination, the value of community, and hope in ourselves and each other. So while we are divided most of the year for many reasons, perhaps we can set aside our differences these holidays and come together, as a human community, to embrace the message of kindness and peace. I think that’s a message God would be cool with.