As I have been working the last two weeks, I have run across different ideas from different churches that affect children who are my clients. These differences have to do with how holidays are celebrated. Needless to say, I have definitely had a few flashbacks to how holidays were celebrated when I was growing up in a United Pentecostal Church pastor’s home.
While I have run across several different churches in my area that do not believe in celebrating Christmas at all, that was not the case while I was growing up. We celebrated the Christmas holiday as the birth of Christ, even though my father was aware that was not actually the birth of Christ. He did however preach against having a Christmas tree, because he taught that the history of the Christmas tree was rooted in paganism. I remember once when my ex-husband, who also was against Christmas trees, gave a very vivid explanation of how these pagans apparently burned their babies in worship to their gods and it somehow had something to do with the decorated tree.
I always found Christmas trees to be gorgeous. Of course, I love pretty things and I always have, so it wasn’t just Christmas trees but also jewelry and make up, fingernail polish and many other beautiful things from which I would learn to avert my eyes because they were “evil”, and could not be admired.
My mother, like me, always loved decorating and had a fancy for pretty things. She made wreaths and flower arrangements as well as garlands with which she decorated our home for Christmas. Our Christmas decorations usually included every element that one would find on a Christmas tree: greenery, lights, ornaments, and often words of scripture such as a Isaiah 9:10.
I loved Christmas and could not wait to help her decorate the whole house. She would usually give us a string of lights and some tinsel to put in our bedrooms once everything else was decorated. This is a tradition that I carry on with my sons to this day. Putting out the nativity was always a very special part of the decorations, because it was the “reason for the season.”
We never believed in Santa Claus, but neither was he made into an evil being. We grew up with adults joking about Santa, so we took it as a joke as well. There was often wrapping paper with Santa Claus on it and we would look at children getting their picture taken with Santa in the mall. I don’t remember ever even wanting to get my picture taken with Santa. My earliest recollection is remembering that I knew it was just some man dressed up in a suit, pretending.
Still, the magic of Christmas was part of my childhood. Not knowing what was in the presents, and the excitement of getting to open them on Christmas Eve after supper, are special childhood memories.
Some of my most embarrassing moments also had to do with Christmas. In a church where the pastor is lifted up to a position of respect just under that of God himself, Christmas was a time when the church people pooled their money together to honor my father as their pastor. I remember the embarrassment I felt in having to go to the front of the church and open presents with my family when none of the other kids had presents. I always felt very uncomfortable, because some of the presents weren’t anything that I would want, but even as a child I knew that these people meant well and I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. It was so hard to try to make sure that my face did not reveal any true feelings and to make sure that I spoke up loud enough for them to hear my thanks. I always did have the softest voice!
I remember when they started giving family gifts instead of individual gifts to unwrap. This was a lot more comfortable for me, but it also felt a bit odd. The family gift might be a new sofa, or one year it was two lazy boy recliners, covered in dollar bills. I remember wondering if my mother would not have preferred to go pick out her own sofa. Mostly I was just embarrassed to be singled out in this manner and didn’t feel comfortable with the way things played out. As an adult, looking back, I now wonder if the instinct of a child is not wiser than the adulation of the adults at that point.
Once I grew up and married a preacher in the same cult, Christmas became a bone of contention. He had been raised in a country that was predominately Catholic, as a missionary’s son. His parents were under the impression that Catholics worshiped the nativity figures and that they were not simply representations. As a result, he would not allow me to have a nativity scene as a decoration at Christmas time, no matter where we were living. To me it felt like taking Christ out of Christmas to eliminate this important reminder from my decorations.
In addition, I was not allowed to mix lights with greenery. I could have greenery and I could have lights, but not together. I could even have ornaments, but not in the greenery. The rules got so complicated that it ruined the joy of decorating for Christmas. My feelings about the holiday begin to be very mixed every year, and honestly I grew bitter at not being able to celebrate freely from the heart.
We were not allowed to use wrapping paper that had Santa on it, and he taught our children that Santa was evil. There were so many rules about every little thing in regards to Christmas, that the focus became more on the rules and less on celebrating the birth of Christ. I lost the joy of celebration. It became a very materialistic time as he worked hard to make sure we spent the exact same dollar amount on people with the same relationship status.
After we divorced, and once I left the cult environment, I was so excited to buy my first Christmas tree! The kids loved it, and we decorated it together while listening to Christmas carols. I bought the happiest Santa Claus paper I could find in which to wrap my presents, and since my littlest one was the only son who didn’t already know that Santa didn’t exist, he got to be the one to believe in Santa…briefly ( big brothers had to blab of course).
Approximately seven years later, this Christmas we had two Christmas trees! The house we are renting happens to have two living rooms, and we found a large Christmas tree on sale at a liquidation outlet. In the living room I had our beautiful big tree decorated all in blue and silver, and in the other living room, the smaller tree was decorated like the kids wanted it to be. It had Santa and penguins, reindeer and all sorts of other fun things on it. Our stockings were hung on the mantle, and we joked about Santa coming down the chimney to fill them. The nativity scene was on the mantle, along with Christmas cards from friends and family. The joy was back in Christmas! We celebrated freely any way we wished!
New Year’s Eve
When I was a kid, New Year’s was always a spiritual celebration. It usually included a “watch night service“, which meant that we had a very long service, lasting from about 7:30 on New Year’s Eve to at least midnight. It was a very serious service, and didn’t feel much like a celebration, at least not to a kid.
The service would start out pretty normal, but often the preaching would be very “convicting”, something to do with the rapture, or how time was running out if we wanted to be saved. Sometime before or after the preaching there would be a time of “soul-searching” to repent and get our hearts right so that we could take communion without “taking it unworthily”. Looking back, I’m not very sure exactly what curse would befall us if we weren’t right with God when we took the bread and grape juice, but whatever it was, it was a fearful moment.
I remember a couple of times when I had trouble squeezing out any tears, and I felt so guilty, because it seemed like it was almost expected that everybody would cry and weep and wail in order to get their hearts right.
Sometime, usually towards the end of the service, there would be a “foot washing service”. This would have been announced previously, along with the admonition that everybody should wash their feet before coming. The women and girls would be separated into one room, while the men and boys went into another room. The purpose of this ceremony was to humble ourselves before one another, like Jesus did when he washed his disciples feet. Since leaving the cult I have found it very odd to realize that most other churches have never even heard of such a ceremony.
The footwashing ceremony was kind of uncomfortable for me as well, because I’ve always had very large personal boundaries and I am not much of a touchy person. However, the worst moment was always when the lady who had ended up across from me got down to wash my feet.
First of all, for whatever reason, the ceremony usually involved a lot of weeping and crying and praying for one another while you slowly run your hands over this person’s feet top and bottom while the person’s feet are immersed in warm water. Then, you would take a towel that had just dried everybody else’s feet and you would dab this person’s feet, continuing to cry and pray for them. After that, you would give them the towel and put your own feet in the bucket of water, letting them repeat this ceremony to you.
The problem was that my feet are extremely ticklish. No matter how I would try to steel myself to be serious and weep and cry, the moment that person’s hand ran over the bottom of my foot, instinctive action would take place.
My feet would jerk and kick, surprising the foot washer, and causing everyone around to instantly chuckle. It was very embarrassing to be the person who made everybody lose their spiritual vibe and turn such a serious occasion into giggles. After that, it was always a little hard to weep and cry over my feet. I can’t say I miss that ceremony at all.
After leaving the cult, I’ve never quite know what to do with myself on New Year’s Eve. Those “watch night services” usually were the introduction to January’s church wide fasts. The entire month of January all of the congregants were encouraged to be involved in different types of fasting. Some of them would fast the entire month and have nothing but water, while others would do a “Daniel fast”. Still others would fast one day a week during the month. The purpose of this was to get everyone’s heart prepared for starting the year out with a “revival”.
For the last few years we haven’t really celebrated on New Year’s Eve at all. We will stay up late watching movies and reading books, and then go to bed once midnight has arrived. This year I wanted to figure out the joy of celebration for New Years as well. We shall see how that goes, as I really have no idea how to celebrate it. It’s a far cry to go from a sad, serious, and fear filled “watch night service” to a fun celebration. Only time will tell how we manage to put the past behind us and create new traditions that are fun and celebratory.