December 24, 2012

The Christmas Eve Church Service

church bell
One of the many holiday traditions from my childhood that I am happy to be rid of is the Christmas Eve church service. I was forced to join my family for an evening church service on Christmas Eve until I was about 16-17 and they finally agreed to stop forcing me to attend church. When I think back on it now, I realize that I disliked it for different reasons over the years, depending on my age at the time.

Prior to about age 12, I disliked the Christmas Eve service even though I was still a Christian. Church was the last thing I wanted to be thinking about on Christmas Eve. It was late, I was tired, and I was excited about Christmas the next morning. The last thing I wanted to do was get dressed up in uncomfortable clothes and listen to adults sing badly and hear the same Jesus story I'd heard so often it felt like it was seared into my young brain. I had no interest in holding a dripping candle outside the sanctuary while old ladies who smelled like they had used an entire bottle of perfume pinched me. I was a Christian, but believing this stuff did not make me want to waste the night in church.

For the next few years, say 13-16, the Christmas Eve service seemed even worse. It was worse because I wanted to see my friends or at least talk to them on the phone. None of them went to my church, and the few people my age who did were not the sort with whom I wanted to socialize. It was also worse because these were the years during which I gradually started to realize that I did not believe in any gods, ghosts, angels, demons, and the like. It would take me until about 16 to come to terms with this and be able to admit to myself that I did not believe it, but the doubts were there. But the main reason it was worse at this age was that I wanted to be able to decide for myself whether to partake in these primitive rituals. I simply could not comprehend why my parents continued to force me to attend no matter how strenuously I objected.

I think I was about 16 or 17 when my parents finally decided to change tactics. Instead of forcing me to join them at church, they tried guilt. "You can make your own decision, but we really hope you will join us." It failed miserably. I made my own decision; I wanted nothing to do with church. I did not believe in gods, and I had no interest in being party to the mass delusion. As difficult as this might be for those of you who haven't experienced to understand, sitting in church at this point in my life made me feel like a complete fraud. It was as if I was betraying who I was, and it was simply not something I could stomach. A few of my friends and I started our own Christmas Eve tradition of hanging out together.

I would return to my parents' church for one more Christmas Eve service one more time. I think I was 21 or 22 at the time, and I was visiting my family with my ex-wife before we were married. She really wanted to go to church, and I agreed to go for her. I was a bit surprised to find that my feelings had not changed much. What I remember from that last time, sitting there in the sanctuary during the service, was having the thought that I was betraying my principles by being there. It seemed as if I was supporting, through my presence and participation, something to which I was adamantly opposed. It was an unpleasant realization, and that would be the last time I would find myself in a church on Christmas Eve.

For those of you who will attend such a service tonight because you are young and compelled to do so by your family, console yourself with the knowledge that you will not have to do so forever. And for those who are adults and will attend for someone else, I am glad that you are able to do so without having visceral experience I used to. To those who will be skipping church, I hope you enjoy yourself doing whatever you find meaningful. As for me, I'll be doing what I do every Christmas Eve - trying to sleep while my neighbors set of fireworks until 2:00 AM.

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