My father picked me up from the bus. I was too busy talking about semester finals and problems with my landlord to notice his silence. When we pulled up to the house, I knew something was wrong. No wreath on the door. No electrically lit candles in the windows. Inside there was nothing to show Christmas was in two days. My mother sat at the kitchen table pealing onions and blamed her tears on them.
“Where’s all the Christmas stuff?”
"You aren't Christians anymore so why bother?" I looked at my father. He shrugged and left the room.
Growing up, my mother began playing Christmas albums the day after Thanksgiving. She listened to everything from Mahaliah Jackson’s “Oh Holy Night” to "Deck the Halls” by Alvin and The Chipmunks. We gathered pine cones from the yard and tore off branches. She decorated the fireplace, doorways, windows, mirrors, the buffet, the garage, and toilet. A week before Christmas my father got the tree. He waited that long to keep it from drying out and to get a better price. Dad put the star on top and divided it into threes. I was the youngest and got the bottom. My brothers and I took turns picking ornaments and fought over the tinsel. They won, but I snatched more when they weren’t looking.
We went to the Christmas Eve program at church and came home to do our own. Sometimes we skipped the church because we liked ours better. My brothers and I played the songs we practiced for weeks so there were no surprises, just relief it would be the last time. My mother’s talent was cookies. We ate them while my father read the Biblical story of Christ’s birth and then "T’was the Night Before Christmas".
My parents didn’t know I quit calling myself a Christian when I was fourteen. I wasn’t brave enough to tell them so they thought it happened when I went to college and became a Bahá’i... just like my older brothers did.
Three things happened when I was fourteen that made me reject the church. First, the minister of my childhood committed suicide. My father said he felt too responsible for everyone’s souls. Then the replacement minister had an affair with a divorcee and preached while drunk. He was sent to a special rehab for wayward ministers. People said he broke under the pressure. I wondered how could God call them to be ministers and make it so hard they had mental break downs?
Friends who said they were Christians demanded I give up my black friends. They saw no conflict between that demand and their faith. Jesus loves us all, but doesn’t want us to mingle. My church seemed to agree. All the members were white. I asked why and was told Blacks had their own church and that’s what they wanted. “People like to be with their own kind. It’s natural.” That was disappointing. I thought we were all the same kind.
The last thing clinched it. My world history teacher gave us a page of quotations and asked which one of these did we think Jesus said. If I had better knowledge of the Bible, I might have known the answer. Every quote seemed like something Jesus would have said. None of them were. They were from other sacred scriptures. It confirmed something that bothered me. How could Jesus be the only way to heaven? That wasn’t fair. Other religions were good too. These quotes proved that.
In college I became a Bahá’i. We believe all faiths come from the same Source. If you mark off the religions on a time-line, a new one emerges every 500-1000 years. We believe the most recent was Bahá’u’lláh and we have no conflict with any religion. They all say we should love each other.
I looked forward to celebrating Christmas with my parents now that I was a believer again. I tried to explain, but Mom switched on the TV and turned up the volume.
My brothers arrived later that night and after our parents went to bed, we talked about what to do. The next day we bought a tree and then searched the attic for decorations. We played all the Christmas albums, even the ones we hated. Mom sat in the living room watching soap operas and ignoring us until I invaded her kitchen.
“What are you looking for?”
“The Christmas cookie cutters.”
She used the step stool to get them. I looked through her cookbooks and she handed me a card from a recipe box I didn’t know existed. “This was your Grandmother’s” She helped me find the spices, showed me how to sift the flour and took over when I ruined the first batch.
On Christmas Eve we asked if we could go with them to the church service. We greeted old friends and sat in the pew as we once did. Me between Mom and Dad, my brothers on either side.
That night we ate cookies, sipped hot chocolate and told the stories. The time my brother asked why Mom and Dad didn’t give him any presents. Everything came from Santa Claus. The year mom wrapped our underwear in a refrigerator box. My theatrical debut as a camel in the Nativity Play. My part was too dull so I sniffed and licked the baby Jesus.
My brother handed my father the Bible and Twas the Night Before Christmas. “Aren’t you guys too old for this?” We said yes and begged him to read it anyway and Mom got another plate of cookies.
Every Christmas after that I spent with my parents. At my children’s request, my father resurrected his Santa in the Attic routine. They remember the middle of the night trip, sleeping and rolling in the back of the SUV long before we knew how dangerous it was. I remember them up before dawn on Christmas morning whispering in my ear “Mom??? Are you awake?” I pretended to snore and they lifted my eyelids. “Now are you awake?”
“Don’t bother getting us anything.” My parents said this every year but we didn’t listen. They got a two-cup coffee pot, a blender, a sandwich griddle, an electric massager, and a CD player with a boxed set of old radio shows. Three years ago they both died within a month of each other. We cleaned out their apartment and found our presents unused, still in boxes.
We already gave them the only gift they ever wanted.