Holidays in a house of dissent
There’s nothing like Christmas to highlight religious differences in a family. On Christmas Eve, which already seems much longer ago than the crate of not-yet-stored decorations on my office floor suggests, my wife, sister and mother shuttled Tony and his cousins off to church. After they trekked off, my father, brother-in-law and I settled down to the serious business of discovering just how many obscure and unlikely cocktails could be mixed with the contents of my old man’s preposterously well-stocked liquor cabinet.
How many? Answer: Holy shit!
Which was about as holy as the male side of Christmas Eve ever became, in a continuation of a long family tradition. If the women in my family occasionally commune with the Spirits, the men prefer to commune with spirits — a pattern that was set before I was born.
My father these days is slippery in characterizing his religious views; a few years ago, he described himself to me as a “zen Judeo-Christian”at a time when he occasionally attended my mother’s church — mostly, so far as anybody could tell, in order to spar with the minister over politics. I say “minister” because my mother decided some years ago, despite all available evidence, that she is a WASP. The theological implications of this odd revelation she initially addressed by attending a Congregational church. Having since discovered that Congregationalism is something of a New England eccentricity, she now makes do in her mid-Atlantic digs with Episcopalianism. Come to think of it, Episcopalian churches are probably better venues for political debate than for religious discussion, so my father may have been on to something.
My old man has since abandoned his peculiar entertainment, and now confines himself to spiritual musings that, honestly, I find a little bizarre. But when I was a child, he called himself an atheist, and so I was raised in an environment in which maternal religion and paternal irreligion were given equal time, leaving me free to make my own choices.
I chose the path of irreligion, myself. Not the fervent anti-theism of Christopher Hitchens, mind you, who, despite the pleasure I take in reading his work, seemed to have carried over his old Leftist joy in absolutist factionalism to a fresh jihad (with a twist) against believers, but more of an unconvinced eye-roll against the world of commandments, clerics and invisible, all-powerful beings. My stance, I think, isn’t far from that of Epicurus, who essentially dismissed the existence or non-existence of gods and their alleged desires as irrelevant to the business of living.
My wife, on the other hand believes … in something. She was raised in a divided house, herself. Her father was Jewish, her mother also Episcopalian (an odd convergence in my life). She has variously identified with one side or the other — mostly depending on which of her now-divorced progenitors she got along with better at any given moment. Having come to a mid-life truce with them both, she currently professes to believe in a god (or God, if you prefer), without worrying whether he or she prefers bagels or martinis.
I want Tony to be raised knowing that there are a multitude of religious beliefs, including the divergent views of his parents. So he marched off to his first Christmas Eve service — first church service of any kind, really — with mom, knowing that dad chose to abstain. All for the best, it seems, since he ended up enjoying the music and the pageantry. He may end up being a believer, at least for a while, just for the theatrical aspect of it all.
Whatever our differences, we all agree that we like the smell of pine in the house, that we enjoy exchanging gifts, and that Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra still can’t be beat when it comes to Christmas carols.