Christmas: it’s complicated, to say the least. Beneath the Joy, Good Cheer, and Peace on Earth, the reality is often anything but. From the anti-corporatization movements to the annual “War on Christmas” spat between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly, it’s hard to say it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Let’s not forget the road rage, travel delays, and just all around frustration. Is it any secret that we have so many pop songs themed around the true meaning of Christmas?
I have mixed feelings writing this post, so let me try to get one thing straight. The following is not meant to gloss over any of these issues, but rather to share a personal experience of discovering Christmas. I believe that Christmas is an experience that has meaning and really is a fixed point for society, at least in this country. This creates all sorts of flashpoints and it’s easy to become cynical and lose sight of the “meaning of Christmas” (oh geez I can’t believe I just used that phrase). There is an overarching good in Christmas. How do I know this? Well, sit back and let me tell you a good old Christmas story….[divider] [/divider]
This is the tale of a young girl growing up in Los Angeles. While she wouldn’t realize it for a long time, she had been born into a fundamentalist evangelical cult called The Assembly, which controlled every aspect of her life. She had two loving parents who meant well. They were young and idealistic college students when they fell in with a father figure who promised closeness to God and family, which they had never previously known. There were just a few rules. Of course, a few became more and more and, by the time they had their daughter, life was very regulated indeed.
Growing up, the young girl only knew that she had a huge family of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and of course, her grandparents (the cult leaders) all looking out for her. All seemed fluffy, happy, and fine, except for one thing: The cult forbade the celebration of Christmas. When she was 7, the girl’s mother carefully explained the pagan roots of Christmas, that it had simply been fabricated to unify the Roman Empire by Constantine, and how horrible it was that parents lied to their children each year by telling them about Santa. Logically, it all seemed to make sense. Most of the time that was enough for her, but each December she felt a deep longing and alienation from the rest of society. While her peers made Santa crafts she had to make snowmen. She always looked with longing at the light displays and holiday bustle at malls. And it wasn’t really even about the presents (although she would have liked them), it was about being part of it all. She felt like she was on the outside of a snow globe looking in at everyone else and she just wanted to be inside as a part of it all.
There were moments when she could pretend to participate. Even though the assembly forbade the celebration of Christmas, it did not begrudge others from celebrating it. So each year, her family adopted a needy family through the Salvation Army and bought presents and a full Christmas dinner for them. She adored shopping for the perfect gifts for the children and wrapping the gifts. She didn’t realize at the time, but her mother also had a hard time being forbidden to celebrate Christmas with her daughter. For this reason, her mother created alternative traditions. Each year, there would be a Christmas play of some type that she would direct, she set aside special time for holiday baking each year with her daughter, and she made sure that they always went to the after-Christmas sales to buy a nutcracker.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that her world came crashing down on Christmas Day 2002. Her family was about to go see “The Return of the King” when her father received a phone call. He emerged from his study looking shaken and, in her heart, she knew that everything was about to change. It came to light that her the cult leader—her “grandfather”—had been sexually abusing young women for years and one of them had finally come forward. It broke the spell for many, and a civil war of sorts began. After a horrible few weeks of fighting with former “brothers” and “sisters,” her parents left.
She was totally adrift. The cult had controlled what she wore, her friends, her college choices—everything. But she knew one thing. She was free to celebrate Christmas. To be sure that first one was a bit rocky for all involved. Her parents were drawing from childhood memories and all she had to go on were stories that she’d read and movies that she’d seen. They got a tree, ornaments, gifts and even a toy train to go around the trunk. Truth be told it was all rather surreal and at times felt like she was acting out a story. It took many years before she truly stopped feeling like an outsider, but eventually she did. Out of all of the strides she made in her post-cult recovery, it was one of the most momentous. Having Christmas decorations that she brings out each year means a lot to her. In fact, to the horror of just about everyone, she decorates for Christmas on November 1st.
For this woman, Christmas is freedom and hope. Each year she looks back and knows that she’s getting better, that she has her own identity, and that her path is her own. Above all, she feels safe and warm, no longer on the outside.
So what’s the point of this story you might say? Well, obviously it’s a story about recovery, but note the central place that Christmas occupies. This should tell us something about what this time of year really represents. It’s about a shared moment in time and community. So take a moment and appreciate this. This time of year is a gift.[divider] [/divider]
What’s your Christmas story? Tweet us @litdarling
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