“It’s Christmas Eve! It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be!”
— Bill Murray as Frank Cross in Scrooged.
In my family we didn’t have very many, aside from putting up a fake tree, dragging out decorations (most of which were religious in nature), opening tiny doors on the Advent calendar, going to church on Christmas Eve, and making a birthday cake for Jesus, after which we sang “Happy birthday” to him, candles and all. They are, in fact, probably doing that right now.
Christmas for my family was about remembering the “reason for the season,” which was Jesus, and now that I don’t believe in him anymore I’m at a bit of a loss for what to even do. So today I’m engaged in probably the only holiday tradition I’ll ever follow: Streaming the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College on the BBC 4 radio online. I encountered it quite by accident one year while driving to the airport to do some holiday caroling and have never missed a broadcast since. I still remember sitting in the car in the car park, mesmerized, listening to the intoning of the Christmas story, and then an audience carol led by organ. It’s more for effect than anything else; and anything read or sung by a Brit just sounds fantastic, but they really know how to do Christmas.
Right now everyone is gathered downstairs for Christmas festivities: Opening presents, having dinner, and generally enjoying themselves—or at least pretending to. I really don’t know what goes on in peoples’ heads this time of year; whether or not they actually buy into the “goodwill” message of the season, or if it’s just another social obligation. I went to bed last night feeling rather depressed, and the feeling only deepened in the hours since. It’s a special feeling, spending Christmas hiding in your room, curled up in bed in the fetal position and wishing that you could just hibernate until spring.
We had Christmas Eve at the house last night. Since I won’t have anything to do with my own family, this group has functionally become my clan, and I’m grateful to have friends who care and who are including me in their own holiday traditions. My roommate’s sister came over, and their dad and his lady friend came up from Rochester for the weekend. (The lady friend was drunk for most of the evening and managed to insult and offend me several times over the course of the night, so I’m really not in the mood to deal with her today—not when I’m feeling like this.) I was pretty drunk too as I’d started doing shots of whisky around noon, and then mixing whisky with just about any drinkable liquid. Everyone seemed to have a good time, wrapping presents, enjoying hors d’oeuvres, and watching Christmas films.
Everyone except me, that is.
As an introvert, it takes a lot of energy to be around people, and usually I have no clue what’s going on but I’m adept at faking emotions when the need arises. Most of the time I feel next to nothing, and it’s only around people whose emotions I can mirror that I can typically feel anything. But once they’re gone, it’s back to feeling “blank.” Or sad.
This is my first year as a nontheist. This is also my first year not celebrating with my own family—my own family who, for nearly two decades, I had to pretend around in order to maintain a modicum of tranquility; for whom I had to pretend I was heterosexual for (like the rest of them) to avoid any unwelcome questions or insinuations. I watched as my sister brought home her boyfriend and then, after they were married, her husband and look on as he more or less effortlessly took the place that I hadn’t been able to fill as the favorite Christian son. Now they’re bringing their son—my nephew—to Christmas, with everyone fawning over him like families do, celebrating the miracle of life and the love of god (or some such rot). Once I was out, there was something of a tacit agreement or an unspoken shift in thinking that we weren’t to bring up my being gay (homosexuality being the one sin their so-called god can’t stand), and my parents explicitly stated that they’d never accept anyone I ever dated. After all, we wouldn’t be dating. We’d be “living in sin.”
I’ve always been depressed around this time of year. That’s probably not really anything remarkable. A lot of people get depressed around the holidays for sundry reasons. For me, it comes down to the fact that I just feel like an outsider. I don’t understand family. I don’t get how it operates, how people relate, how they function, how they do it. If you were to press most people they’d probably admit that they don’t really know what they’re doing either. But even around this new family, I feel like a non-English speaker stuck with Americans, able to communicate in broken phrases and get the gist across but not truly understanding; or like Margaret Mead, studying the cultural practices and traditions of a native population to which I am an outsider.
A large part of it probably is that for so long I was so focused on keeping my family (my parents in particular, who are master interrogators) out that I never really learned how to let anyone in. I was so afraid of my parents finding out that I was gay and trying to ship me off to some ex-gay camp that I never learned how properly to interact with a family. And now here I am, nearly 29 and pathetically single, deeply desiring to share my life with someone but unable to speak the language. I’m like a Helen Keller, possessed of all my senses but emotionally deaf and dumb. I can communicate in a rudimentary manner, but it takes a lot of work. Writing is one medium in which I’ve been able to speak, but it still leaves me removed from normal society.
So what’s the point?
It’s painful seeing everyone else celebrating, going home for the holidays and looking forward to it; taking part in the festivities when I feel none of the joy or sense of merriment that they seem to. It feels as though I missed something; that I’m not trying hard enough, or doing something the wrong way. I’m looking in the window at everyone gathered around the table, sharing in each other’s company, and I can’t find the door to get in, which augments the feeling of emptiness that I have, and the loneliness.
And it didn’t always used to be this way. They say that memories aren’t enduring, but I can look back into my early childhood and recall the sense of magic that I used to feel around Christmas: The lights all around the living room, our tiny tree decked to the nines (which seemed a lot bigger then), the special candles lit, opening presents, and looking forward to receiving a new tree ornament from my parents. I remember going to church on Christmas Eve and feeling the sense of community and love all around, and that sense of being a part of something ancient and real as we lit candles and sang carols together.
But then I grew up.
We never did Santa Claus or anything like that. We knew that presents came from our parents and other family members, so there was never that belief balloon to pop. The excitement of getting presents was fun for a while, but then it gradually wore off, as most pleasures of childhood do. And then I began to notice that I was different from the rest of my family. They smiled a little easier. They joined in the fun more wholeheartedly. They loved Jesus, while I—ever like Margaret Mead—looked on in puzzlement, but all the time feeling left out, like there was something I’d missed that the others had latched onto, but I hadn’t figured out in time.
This is going to be a very different year, full of adjustments and opportunities to learn and figuring things out. I have to figure out how to handle myself around religion without turning into an iconoclastic berserker, as well as be around my religious friends. I have to find community with nontheists, and hopefully a boyfriend to boot. That’s what I really wanted for Christmas and, as usual, I was disappointed.
The ancients believed that during the solstice the sun died and was reborn. In some ways this Christmas was like that. I’m finally, truly on my own and having to find a new way to be.
It sucks being an adult.