Left Behind: An Agnostic’s Christmas Carol

“If it was just religion, maybe it would be easier to agree to disagree, but unfortunately my family’s religious views are tightly wound to a toxic trinity of racism, homophobia, and patriarchal rule.”


I blame the baby Jesus. He’s still presiding over my extended family’s holiday gatherings, the plaster version of him anyway, nestled in his tiny bed of straw in my parents’ 1950s crèche. I used to steal him when I was a toddler. In an old family album, there’s a tattered photo of me clutching him in my pudgy hand. Maybe he’s still peeved about that. Maybe that’s why he’s been absconding with my family, one by one, and every Christmas I’m left wondering who he’ll snag next.

I write this from the back of an auditorium while my six-year-old daughter rehearses her role as a caroler in our local art center’s production of A Christmas Carol. Marley shakes his chains and informs the heartless Scrooge of the impending visits of three ghosts. My family—they’re not ghosts. They’re alive and well, Jesus having taken not their bodies but their souls.

Christmas Past

One of my brothers revealed a boxful of gifts hidden behind his chair—The One Year Bible. There was one for each of us. On its shiny red cover, it promised we could read the entire thing if we just read a few minutes each day. He must have sensed it might be a hard sell; he wanted to make things easy. With his new wife beaming by his side, he fumbled a quick explanation about being “saved” and how he wanted all of us to be saved, too. He handed out the Bibles while most of us cast our eyes downward at the wrapping paper-strewn carpet. I was in college at the time, and my boyfriend (now husband) attended the festivities that year. We laughed about it later that night, but I should have taken it more seriously—a harbinger of the Christmases to come.

But first, let’s back up, to Christmases much farther past, to that large chunk of time between when I was a toddler treating the nativity set as my personal plaything and when I packed up for college. I boxed enough stuff to fill a small U-Haul, but left The One Year Bible, which I still owned but hadn’t read, at home. We were not an uber-religious family, though Sunday Mass was a requirement. We all attended Catholic school through eighth grade, mostly because my parents felt the education offered was better than the public school. I studied the Bible in religion class when I wasn’t passing notes. But outside Mass and school, religion was barely mentioned.

I don’t think there was much time for it. My four siblings are very close in age, and between taking care of them and holding down several part-time jobs, my parents had more on their minds than our spiritual upbringing. By the time I was born, ten years after their fourth, my mom and dad thought the parenting stuff was mostly behind them, as most of my siblings were busy being teenagers. The ten-year age gap often caused my sibs to refer to me as “the mistake,” to which my mom would sigh and reply, “You were all mistakes.”

Christmas Present

Almost twenty years have passed since the younger of my two brothers gave us Bibles. He’s gotten increasingly serious about his faith since then. My other brother (eighteen years my senior) joined him on the born-again bandwagon, largely through the encouragement of his own wife. He and I had been especially close once. He’d moved back home for a few years after college, when I was in early elementary school, to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. It was almost like having a second father around, a younger, cooler father who never seemed too busy to play a board game or go on walks with our dogs. Soon he married and started a family, and I saw him less frequently.

We still talked, though, and saw each other when we could. When I was in my twenties and newly married, my husband and I accompanied him and his family to their new church. We did so to be polite. We were spending the weekend at their place, and it seemed like accepting the invitation was the nice thing to do. It certainly wouldn’t kill us, I thought. But forty-five minutes into the sermon, the topic of which was various biblical proofs of why women are inferior to men, I think I may have questioned my will to live.

Following the service was a small group session (again my brother asked me to go and I didn’t have the heart, or spine, to say no) that took on the question of whether our pets could go to heaven. And that wasn’t even the worst part of the day. The worst part was seeing my brother’s face as we walked to the car—my brother the thinker, the guy who taught me how to play chess, the education major, the animal lover. He was crestfallen. He so wanted our former dogs to be in heaven, but the group leader, after offering an hour of  so-called proofs said, “Nope.” My brother shrugged sadly and murmured, “Oh, well.” It was then I knew I’d really lost him, and he was probably never coming back.

The elder of my two sisters, after leaving an abusive marriage, was “saved” seemingly to take part in the church’s active singles club. She got a new husband and subsequently wore her new religion on her sleeve. This was in evidence when she declared loudly at my uncle’s funeral visitation (he shot himself) that he was not in heaven unless he accepted Jesus as his savior and asked forgiveness before he did the deed. Now that she had all the answers, it seemed she was going to wield them with the force of a blunt object.

That leaves one, a sister who has never liked to venture far from her comfort zone. She stayed Catholic, like my parents, and though she’s very committed to her faith, she doesn’t proselytize. I think that’s a key reason we’ve been able to talk outside of forced family get-togethers, although there are still many differences between us. Though she may not see the need to be born-again, she does share the rest of the family’s conservatism on many other issues.

If I must choose, I’d say I’m agnostic, which to my siblings means I’m having my cake and eating it, too. But there’s no war on Christmas in my own house. My daughter is, after all, participating in A Christmas Carol, there’s a tree in the corner of our living room and “Silent Night” mingles with “Jingle Bell Rock” on the stereo. When I do attend church, it’s at a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship where my children can attend religious exploration class (they don’t call it education there) and where the man sitting next to me might very well be wearing a dress.

Christmas Present II

My extended family is growing, with more than thirty-five of us straining the tiny living room of my parents’ ranch house. My siblings’ children are grown, married, and having children of their own. Each new birth, another soul claimed for Christ. And with strength in numbers, every year they grow bolder, louder in their pronouncements. Just like those unsaved slobs in the popular LaHaye novels, I’ll be left behind to roast, like a chestnut in eternal fire.

My strategy at these increasingly large and Christ-centered get-togethers has been to keep the topics neutral, but I’m running out of options.

Sports? This is problematic in any case as there are both Bears and Packers fans present. Plus, any talk of football leads to talk of athletes’ personal problems, which leads to talk of godlessness and the inevitable deification of “that good Christian Tim Tebow.”

Weather? My parents are farmers, as were both of my brothers at one point or another. Weather talk should be an easy sell. But not anymore. Talk of the weather always leads someone to mention how global warming is a crock cooked up by liberal alarmists. And if some environmental catastrophe does occur? God is punishing us for turning away from him.

Work? None of them have jobs that are religiously based (although my sister teaches computer classes at a Catholic elementary) and none of them seem to particularly love their jobs. Their 9-5 is something to endure so they can go to church functions afterwards. My husband and I, however, do love our work and enjoy talking about it with our friends. After floundering around in marketing jobs, I’ve finally devoted myself to writing. Very little of what I’ve published would be palatable to my family, however. I remember one long ago Christmas, when my mom wanted to proudly pass around my college’s literary journal, which featured my first published short story. She handed it to the brother who’d brought us all Bibles. He read the first line (which mentioned a divorced woman) and declared to his wife, and everyone else within earshot that “this is not for us,” and handed it back.

Perhaps my husband could take the pressure off and talk about his own job. But he’s a biology professor specializing in evolution. Should he talk shop with my sisters-in-law, who are sitting at the dining room table comparing notes from their recent visit to the Creation Museum?

Even though my parents haven’t been “saved” either (from three siblings’ points of view), they add their voices to the conversation, which never just sticks to religion. If it was just religion, maybe it would be easier to agree to disagree, but unfortunately my family’s religious views are tightly wound to a toxic trinity of racism, homophobia, and patriarchal rule.

I’m not about to utter an “Amen” after my brothers hijack our formerly short and simple recitation of grace. Now it’s a sermon, about how we all need to understand Jesus the way they do, about how our government (note: this only applies when Democrats have the majority) needs to turn to Christ. Our president’s a Muslim, haven’t you heard?

But I’m not always silent. I called out a brother once during an anti-immigration rant, which only led to a bunch of others coming to his rescue. I demanded my parents turn off FOX News, for the duration of the gathering at least. I let it be known that if anyone said the n-word around my children, we’d be out of there. But it’s not much use. Every Christmas finds me retreating to the bathroom to take deep breaths. I’m tense for weeks prior; it takes me a week afterwards to calm down.

My friends will be the first to tell you I’m a bit “touchy” on the topic of religion, especially around the holidays. But I’d like to counter: If a rogue clown kidnapped your family, would you not be “touchy” on the topic of the circus?

Christmas Future

In the Charles Dickens tale, Ebenezer Scrooge changed his ways and reunited with the bit of family he had left. Sadly, in my own family play I don’t see the likelihood of anyone changing; it seems fitting that my parents’ house is on Dead End Rd.—there’s no escape. This year, however, we’ve made the decision not to go. I suppose it’s a cowardly choice to stay home but I’m breathing easier having made it.

Next year, who knows? Maybe we’ll go. But this year we’ll have a quiet holiday with friends, some of whom would consider themselves Christians, though most would not. We’ll watch my daughter perform in her play, and when it gets to the end and Tiny Tim proclaims, “God bless us, every one,” I’ll make a little wish, not for God to bless us, but for all of us just to get along.