Unbelief, Life, and Death: A Christmas Eve Story

Steve MerrymanStories

The End of a Relationship, and Christmas

“I can’t do this anymore.”

We were sitting in our car after church. I had put the key in the ignition, but after a heavy sigh had pulled it back out and said to The Missus.

“I can’t be a part of this.”

It was the spring of 2002, the Catholic Church was experiencing a priest sex scandal. The one that particular year was big and, combined with the rising power and reach of the internet, spread like wildfire, growing in size to encompass nearly every diocese in the nation, despite desperate efforts by the Church to keep it quiet.

That morning, we and our neighbors sat in the pews listening to the monsignor urging us Faithful to not let shock and disgust at a few bad apples shake our faith in the good work done by the Church, and to prayerfully let our steady faith in our Mother (meaning The Church) guide us so that we may keep supporting Her financially.

It bothered me when I heard him say it, and it bothered me even more sitting in the car afterwards.

“They’re lying to us,” I said, turning to The Missus. “They want us to think it’s just a few bad priests. It’s much worse than that.”

“It usually is,” she agreed.

“These perverts have been shielded from the law by the Church. They’ve been shuffled around from parish to parish and scandal to scandal without repercussions. Victims have been paid off and sworn to secrecy. How? It’s so obvious! The only ones powerful enough to hide these sick freaks, shuffle them around, and pay off victims are the Bishops. The Bishops are the monsters! They’ve known all along and they’ve done nothing. They allowed lives to be ruined. They stood by as families have been destroyed. And children? Kids have been abused, brutalized, betrayed…”

“Yep.”

“…and all these bastards are worried about is money!” I said with disgust. “I promise, they’ll never get another cent out of me. NEVER. I’m done and I’m not coming back.”

“Good. I’m glad you said it. I’ve been thinking it for a while myself,” agreed The Missus.

That was the start of my journey away from the Catholic Church. It would lead me, eventually, into total non-belief.

I don’t believe in God or Jesus anymore.

The weird thing is, I love Christmas now even more.

I think perhaps it’s because I’m free to celebrate Christmas my way, without religious trappings, absurd sentimentality, or pressure to “feel” something spiritually enriching that is imposed on me from an institution that, in my experience, only wants my money.

That’s just me. You are obviously free to celebrate in whatever way you please.

The World Lightens Up.

One of my earliest memories of Christmas was when I was six. Dad strung some Christmas lights outside our house, and one of the strings wrapped around the window to my bedroom. They were the big, heavy, old-fashioned screw-in Christmas lights on a massive cord that everyone had in the sixties. They were big and bright. As I lay there snuggled in bed looking at the red, green, blue, orange and yellow lights, I didn’t have thoughts of Jesus or God, Mary, Bethlehem or angels.

For me, even at that young age, I knew: Christmas was about light.

I don’t need religious meanings to enjoy the darkest time of the year. I just need lights. The hope I feel is the certain hope of longer days, and the eventual coming of Spring (after a couple more brutal months). It’s a secular belief, and completely corroborated by events; no element of faith is required.

Jesus may be the “Reason for the Season” to many, but from a historical perspective, Christmas is really about the Winter Solstice. That’s what everyone in the Northern Hemisphere celebrated at this time long before anyone made it about God’s baby in a manger. Christianity is a brash upstart glued and stitched over the more ancient and more secular celebration of the Solstice and the coming of longer, warmer days. The Romans called it Solis Invicti for a reason; the Sun indeed will Conquer the darkness. It does so every year, whether or not you pray for it.

By celebrating the lengthening of days, I’m joining a more ancient and authentic celebration we as northerners have participated in as long as we could look into the sky and calculate.

I may no longer be Christian, but I’m certainly no pagan. I don’t dance naked in the snow on Solstice and pray to the fields for a good crop (but if that’s your thing, really, go crazy). I’m content to goof around with my astronomy software to watch the Sun reach its lowest declination, and slowly begin the turn. This year that moment occurred at December 21, 2:23 p.m. in my area.

By the way, did you know the Sun is actually closer to Earth this time of year than during Summer? It’s counter-intuitive, but the warmth we feel in Summer is largely due to our angle to the sun, not the distance. Interesting.

Life, and Death, Goes On

It was Christmas Eve, 2006. I remember The Missus and I had just returned from our Annual Christmas Eve Desperate Shopping Husband Count. The Rules are simple:

  1. Prior to entering, each contestant estimates the number of Desperate Shopping Husbands they think they will see.
  2. Contestants Walk the total length of the mall together once and back
  3. Contestants together count the number of men out desperately searching for Christmas gifts. Elderly mall-walkers are not counted.
  4. Extra points are awarded for each child in tow under the age of five.
  5. The Price Is Right rules apply in that the winner is whoever comes closest without going over.

It’s a fun game. We play it every year. Currently I am on a winning streak.

Anyway, back to my story…

Having returned from the mall on Christmas Eve, 2006, I had a phone message from my dad that said simply, “Call me.”

So I called Dad.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Dad! Merry Christmas! Did you get our packa…”

He cut me off, “Steve, I’ve got something important to tell you.”

“Oh. What’s up, Dad?”

Here’s the thing. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you have to tell someone their mother has died, then perhaps you know there’s no easy way to do it. Dad, having been a fireman for many years, knew that the best way is to say it like you’re ripping a Band-Aid off; quick and plain. There was no pre-amble. No “What I’m about to tell you is…” he didn’t even choke-up, and he was talking about the death of his wife, for crying out loud. That was Dad. He was all business. He just came out with it:

“You’re mother is dead.”

It wasn’t a surprise. She had experienced a stroke six months earlier and had been going downhill ever since. A couple days prior to Christmas Eve she had evidently decided she’d had enough and stopped taking her medication. Dad couldn’t get her to take any pills. They’d been married forty-nine years, so he knew to respect her decision.

On the morning of Christmas Eve she was in bed, suffered a seizure and fell to the floor. She hit the floor stone-cold dead.

We had Christmas events that day, which we attended, but we kept the news to ourselves. It wasn’t a day to bring everyone down.

Over time, I did what I could for Dad. But what can a son do? I had my own grief to deal with.

It was Christmas. Solus Invicti (The Unconquered Sun). But where was the Invincible Sun on that day?

I didn’t believe in God. But I believed in light. And I think Dad, after caring for Mom all-day, every-day for six long months, was exhausted nearly beyond mending. She saw that, I’m sure. So her last Christmas gift to him was a lifting of the burden she had become.

Dad was struggling in darkness, tired, alone, and Mom gave him back the Light. And like the light here in December, it took a few months to come back, but come back it did, though with Mom gone, his light shone a little dimmer the rest of his life.

So that’s my Christmas Eve Story for this year. It’s not a saccharine-sweet Hallmark Movie Channel story. It's not even very good, or uplifting. There’s no magical Santa at the end shooting presents out of his butt making things better (not sure I'd want to see that movie anyway). Not even a Red-Rider BB-gun or “Yer gonna poke yer eye out!” But life is like that. Our Christmas stories are not all filled with happy-endings, even if we wish they could be.

I think that makes our family stories important. They tell us, "life is… random, so be strong."

Thanks for reading. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and a bright and sunny 2019.

And, on a lighter note:

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Me

Steve Merryman is a cranky old fart. He writes about things that make him tick, and things that tick him off. You may object to his views; you may think he's a moron; and you might wish to tell him so. In return he would remind you that his lack of concern for your feelings is only exceeded by his indifference to your opinions. Good day, Sir!