My atheist Christmas: How I overcame my personal struggle with the holiday

The holiday and its religious trappings used to offend me deeply. Here's how I overcame my feelings of oppression

Published December 25, 2014 5:00PM (EST)

   (Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach)
(Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach)

Only recently have I come to accept Christmas as a secular holiday. Because of my religious awakening in high school and the subsequent falling out I had with God in college, its symbols and stories were too freighted with meaning for me just to enjoy the pretty colors.

But I used to be a true believer. My parents made sure all five of their children were baptized and went to catechism until they had their first communion, which among Catholics is the first time a child receives the body of Christ in the form of unleavened bread and His blood in the form of wine.

For those who may not know, Catholics (like I was) are taught that, when consecrated by a priest, a thin piece of bread that looks like a Vanilla Wafer that’s been left out in the sun and tastes like glue smells is the body of the messiah.

For some reason, this doctrine of “transubstantiation” was always the most difficult for me to accept — even during my conservative Catholic phase, which lasted from my sophomore year of high school until my second year of college. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been so hard, given the other things I thought at the time. If you believe in the virgin birth of Christ, the miracles He performed — see, my feelings toward religion are so ambivalent I questioned whether capitalizing “He” would constitute a betrayal of my values — that a man rose from the dead after three days and then ascended to heaven, it shouldn’t have been such a stretch.

For a gay teen not ready to come to terms with his sexuality, the Church’s teachings about homosexuality also offered a convenient way to hide. I wasn’t attracted to women, but the expectation of sexual purity took sexuality out of the picture — I could simply ignore my attraction to men.

My attraction to religion wasn’t all about self-hatred, though. Catholicism was the first intellectual tradition I was introduced to. Growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, where no one I know reads the uppity New Yorker, the writings of Saint Augustin, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Blaise Pascal provided a rich lens through which I could view and parse the world. During high school I spent many a late night discussing theology with my grandmother, a devout Catholic and the person who is most like me in the family.

I was an absolutist as a Catholic, and to this day I can’t understand “cafeteria Catholics” — a term orthodox Catholics use to describe those who pick and choose which things to believe. If people were to be expected to believe all this out-there stuff without proof, the authority behind the information would have to be pretty strong and reliable. The Catholic Church makes claims consistent with this point of view. Take, for instance, the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, which dictates that, when speaking on the subjects of faith and morals and the full authority of the Papal office, the pope is infallible. Wouldn’t God be likely to give him the keys while He was out? The Church’s authoritarianism and absolutism made its claim to infallibility more credible.

But I also grew to admire its rituals deeply as well as its music, art and literature. Midnight Mass on Christmas was my favorite. At the church in my hometown, the entire congregation held candles in the pitch dark at midnight as the flame from a single candle spread person to person from the back until it reached the altar. My husband will confirm that I have an unhealthy obsession with Schubert’s Ave Maria, which still stirs my emotions whenever I hear it, but there are a number of songs, in English and Spanish, that can send me back in time. I find stained glass and gothic architecture beautiful. Catholicism is so theatrical; it’s not hard to see why so many of us gays are drawn to it.

I decided I didn’t believe in God in college, though “decide” feels like the wrong word. As I was introduced to other intellectual traditions and studied the philosophies of famous atheists like Richard Dawkins, the frame Catholicism provided simply seemed too small to fit the world.

But even more important, I couldn’t accept my sexuality and the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality and marriage. Like many LGBT people, I had to choose between my happiness and my faith or live in conflict. Over the years I’ve met some Catholics whose dedication is so deep they are willing to give up their sexuality, or indulge in the occasional “slip-up” while maintaining their view that gay sex and relationships are immoral.

I fell away slowly. I stopped going to church at college, where the liberal Catholic church just off campus was way too liberal for an 18-year-old Buckley-ite — they called God a “them” to avoid gendering Him or Her. For a year after I entered college I held on to my Catholic identity, but one of my saving graces and greatest faults is my rebellious streak and inability to deny myself things, whether it’s food, sex, alcohol — you get the picture.

When I came to accept my sexuality, I didn’t see how one couldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If Catholic social teachings weren’t true, why would the institution have credibility on other topics? Why should I believe any of the things I had taken on the Church’s authority?

The pendulum swung in the other direction, and I went from being a hard-nosed Catholic to an extreme secularist. I remember reading about how the French, hoping to cleanse society of all religious influence during the French Revolution, renamed the months of the calendar year, and thinking it was a good idea. I thought Christmas displays were an affront to democracy, and a violation of the separation of church and state. I’d make a big deal about going to Catholic weddings without a guarantee that the priest would not talk about “man and woman” coming together.

My most rabidly secular self would have set the Christmas tree on fire at our yearly family gathering and lectured my relatives about how religious teaching amounted to child abuse and indoctrination, all while the kids cried as they watched their presents went up in flames.

I still make a big deal about going to weddings where the priest might offend me, but as I’ve become more secure in my sexuality, I’ve lightened up on Christmas displays. They aren’t necessarily there to oppress me or transport me back to my closeted high-school self. As long as other religious traditions are allowed to put up religious symbols as well, I’m willing to learn to live with them.

You might compare my feelings about Christmas to the feeling one might get from opening a time capsule from your worst relationship — like rereading a Valentine’s Day letter from your worst relationship, the experience is tinged with both nostalgia and resentment. I have similar feelings when I come across a nativity scene, and the feelings are less strong every year.

By Gabriel Arana

Gabriel Arana is a contributing writer at Salon. You can contact him by visiting his website.

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Atheism Catholic Church Catholicism Christmas Church Faith Gay Religion