A week before Christmas, I feel compelled to write a brief bit about the ongoing nativity debate in my head. I’ll preface by saying that I was raised a Catholic, became an agnostic sometime during adolescence and firmed up that identity more as an adult. I celebrate Christmas but in a secular, gift-giving-and-getting sort of way. I find stories from all religions, including Christianity, to be symbolically fascinating and rich in meaning, but that’s about as far as I take it.
Anyway, my partner, James, identifies himself as a Muslim, though he does not practice much of Islam beyond generally believing in a creator and not eating pork. (I’m oversimplifying to a certain extent. My point is that he identifies with belief much more than practice, and Islam has always struck me as a very practice-based religion). James is my second partner and is also my second partner of a different faith. When I had a Jewish boy friend, I did not decorate at all for Christmas. I thought with all of the music and decorations everywhere from Halloween on, the least I could do was to respect the fact that he did not participate in the celebration except to attend family dinners with me. But I also felt a little
uncomfortable about expressing this tradition with him. When I dated James, I felt more comfortable trying to keep up the traditions I liked, so I decorated but swore that all of my decorations would be secular, and I kept that promise until this year. All of my tree ornaments were secular. I had a couple angels which were antiques from my childhood tucked away on a shelf, but I didn’t introduce any religion beyond the antiques into the Christmas decorating.
Then this year came, and my mother, who is not particularly religious, gave me a nativity Christmas ornament which promptly broke, because it was not well-made. But she also said, “You’re missing a nativity!”
Did I say right back to her, “Well, James is a Muslim, and I’m trying to keep religion out of the holiday.”? Of course not. I thought, “Damn, I really miss the nativity!”
I had a lot of random snippets of childhood memories connected with the nativity. I remembered the nativity we’ve had forever: all the characters already glued into place in their stable. I remember that I bought Mom a “children’s nativity,” characters that looked like kids dressed up as the different characters, mainly because I also wanted a nativity in which I could pick up each piece and examine it. I remembered being really jealous of my friend, Emily’s, family’s nativity, because it had so many animals, angels and people, all beautifully made of ceramic. I remember a couple of nativities Mom got for me when I went through my decorating the entire bedroom for Christmas phase.
So a day or two later, I told James I was going to buy one and put it up, and I did. My sheepish explanation to him was, “It’s pretty.” James took it well. Still I wonder how to incorporate Islam more into our lives when he doesn’t practice very much. I bought a nativity with separate pieces as I had liked as a child, but the pieces are wooden, so they won’t break. (I do remember some casualties from the Sieranskis’ set). And it’s sitting on the hall table for all two people who happen to visit. (Usually we go out rather than having people over. And there go my inclusion principles. I talked to a friend about this, a fellow Atheist/agnostic type person, and she said, “Oh I totally know what you mean! We used to sing all the carols–the more Jesusy, the better!” I agree about those songs! So what is it about the religious elements that hold sway over the secular? Some Jesus songs are even considered ok for playing on the radio and in stores. What is it that blurs separation between church and state?
For me, a clue might lie in my immediate fascination with religious songs about ten years ago when I was pretty vehemently antireligious. I loved the “Rose in Bloom” song. I choked up over “When a Child Is Born.” Somehow Jesus’s birth as a miracle seemed to translate into the potential miracle of each person’s existence. There was something broad about appreciation of life in the bleakest part of the year that I could take from these songs and from the nativity.
I never much cared for the “wise men.” They just seemed like rich men to me, even though they were supposedly wise enough to know that Jesus was important. I put them up, because they came with the set, but if they didn’t I would be just as happy. But the scene among the animals fascinates me. The family with the baby touches some pang of maternal instinct. So here I am: secular and liking the Jesus parts of this holiday. It’s very odd.