When I was an atheist, Christmas was my favourite time of year. The haul of gifts stuffed under the tree each year – the spoils of being an only child – certainly helped my enjoyment of the season. But that actually wasn’t the most important thing to me. There was something else, something that stirred my soul more than any number of boxes wrapped with shiny paper ever could. I could never quite put my finger on what it was, but I sensed it every year when December rolled around.
There was a change that came over my family, my neighbourhood, my town and my country in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Things weren’t perfect, but they were better – and they were better in a certain way.
Kitchens that were normally empty, only way stations for frantic parents rushing home from work in time to pick up the children for tutoring or soccer practice, were suddenly filled with laughter and the smells of apple cider and stew. Ovens that sat cold and dark for most of the year were now hot and piping out the aroma of bread and cookies. School was on break, lessons and sports were on hiatus and workloads were lighter. Kids leaned on the counter and chatted with their parents as they cooked dinners from the worn pages of the old family recipe book.
Neighbours who usually offered little more than a terse smile and a half wave opened their homes for Christmas parties, the silence of their homes now replaced with convivial chatter and bursts of laughter. Airport hallways echoed with the squealed greetings of loved ones who hadn’t hugged one another in months or years. Highways were dotted with cars jammed with luggage and presents, families driving for hours and hours just to be in the same room with the people they loved on Christmas morning.
Tense workplaces came together to adopt families in need; miserly curmudgeons uncharacteristically slipped a couple of bucks into the Salvation Army bucket; longstanding grudges were forgiven; people seemed to spend more time thinking about others than about themselves.
When people would ask why my family loved Christmas, even though we weren’t Christians, these are the images we would cite. We’d explain that the selflessness and goodwill that permeated the holiday season were what made it magical for us. “You don’t have to be burdened by religious superstition to appreciate love and kindness,” the thinking went. For us, Christmas was a season of love in its highest form, and that’s what we were celebrating.
What we didn’t understand, however, is that we weren’t as different from the Christians as we thought we were. We atheists celebrated peace, love and goodness; our Christian neighbours celebrated the One who is Peace, Love and Goodness itself.
After my conversion to Christianity, I came to see that the love I sensed back then seemed so palpable, so real, because it was real. I would discover that all of those wonderful sensations of the season had a source, and that source is God himself. I would encounter the shocking truth that God became a man to walk with us, to suffer with us, to suffer for us, and that his coming into this world was the coming of Love itself.
It was only then that I could see that the warmth and beauty I sensed all around me those cold December nights was not something, but Someone. Whenever someone feels love, she feels God – even if, like me for so long, she doesn’t even know he’s there.
I could never have imagined it at the time, but when I remember how my heart would swell upon witnessing the selfless generosity that filled the air at Christmastime, I see now that, even when I was an atheist, what I loved about Christmas was Christ.
Jennifer Fulwiler is a radio host and the author of Something Other than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It . She blogs at ConversionDiary.com
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald (19/12/14)