For many of us in the exvangelical and deconstruction communities, navigating the holidays can be a very tricky and even triggering time. Even though it is considered to be a season in which we are expected to be giving off the perpetually positive vibes of holiday cheer – “peace on Earth, good will toward men,” and all of that obligatory bullshit – many of us church abuse survivors legitimately struggle to feel much of anything but resentment when these flashy seasonal festivities rear their cheerful heads. Sometimes our religious trauma feels so overwhelming that we just want to keep our eyes ducked down, pull our coats even tighter around our shoulders, avoid all the tinsel, and try very hard not to contemplate just how much Scrooge was onto something.
I suspect that this impulse may be a difficult thing to comprehend for those who have not experienced church abuse. I mean, sure – it is easy to be cynical about Christmas no matter your upbringing. It has become a capitalist’s wet dream for the way that it cranks spending to levels of absolute vulgarity. (I remember, even as an evangelical, once trying to navigate a Wal-Mart on Black Friday and watching a fist fight break out when someone literally pulled the last DVD player out of another person’s cart; when I looked around, I saw similar fisticuffs happening all over the store and prayed that God would forgive me for thinking to myself that something had gone seriously haywire about the holiday season .) There’s also all of the clichés associated with tolerating family during Christmas, which certainly transcends the evangelical experience. So much of Christmas now seems like forcing on a happy face and pretending that any of this is tolerable.
On the other hand, there’s much to love about Christmas time. Like the sight of children giddily opening presents on Christmas morning – so long as they’re not brats (and as a preschool teacher, I give you permission to acknowledge that some of them deserve a lump of coal in their stocking). There’s the general air of good cheer floating above all our heads – people smiling with a little more warmth when they pass each other on the street, the gift-giving (I always get movies and books – my two happy places!), the inclination toward feeling part of a shared humanity that is bigger than just us. And hey,“The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” constantly playing on TV – who doesn’t love those movies? Hot chocolate, festive lights, warm fires, the smell of pine, soy egg nog. And, yes – “peace on Earth, good will toward men.” Maybe the commercialization of Christmas has gotten out of hand, but there’s still plenty to appreciate about a season dedicated to good will and aggressive positivity. Isn’t there still a place for all of that in an exvangelical’s world?
The answer is simple: Yes, of course there is. I don’t know any exvangelical who isn’t rooting for peace on Earth – and in fact, the reason many of us walked away is due to the fact that we can no longer deny the palpable link connecting Evangelical Christianity to war, genocide, oppression, racism, misogyny, homophobia, hate crimes, and sexual assault. But beyond all of the philosophical reasons for deconstructing, Christmas for many of us has come to represent shame, guilt, and general feelings of being unsafe. For those who know what I’m talking about, these are probably not scenarios that I need to explain – just reading the above paragraph has made you shudder at the idea of being surrounded by your conservative evangelical family for the holidays; depending where you are in your deconstruction journey, many of them may not even know that you are no longer a “believer.”
Honestly, in my experience, I’m not even sure which scenario is worse: That your Aunt Lou (apologies to anyone who has a wonderful aunt by that name, but she will be my evangelical scapegoat for the rest of this article) knows that you no longer believe and therefore makes as many passive aggressive passes at you as possible in her looks, gestures, and well-intentioned references that she’s “praying for you,” or the awkwardness of tightening down that fake smile as she talks to you about the peace that passes all understanding that she believes that you share. In the first scenario, you’re experiencing gaslighting and passive aggressive abuse from people brainwashed into believing you have lost your way and have succumbed to sin. In the second scenario, you have to get into character for your own safety and play along with a belief system which you now understand is just the oppressive cover story for empires to come up with unspeakably evil ways to keep us oppressed and stupid. It’s REALLY fucking hard to keep faking any of that for the sake of Aunt Lou. Either way – both scenarios are exhausting, both leave you drained, and both probably will require you to excuse yourself so that you can quietly collapse into a fetal position in the bathroom for a little while.
And that is saying nothing of the imagery often surrounding Christmas linked to the abusive theology in which we were raised. Here’s the thing: One of the most painful aspects of growing up as an evangelical was doctrine taught to me since I was a baby that I was a fallen creature – born imperfect and unworthy of God’s love. This message was transmitted as good news (“the” Good News), because it meant that even though we were no-good dirty sinners utterly hopeless and incomplete without God’s mercy and grace, God offered us love and salvation through the sacrifice of His Son, who came to us when he was born sinless and of a virgin in a manger. The angels, the shepherds, the wise men – all present to worship Christ our King who arrived as a baby only to be savagely massacred on the cross to pay the price for our inherently sinful nature.
It was this image – of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for our 13-year old wandering eyes and wicked, wicked ways – that was drilled constantly down our throats… and Christmas was one of the ultimate opportunities to reinforce our essential Gospel message – the absolute truth not only for us, but for all of humankind: Having been bought by Jesus’s shed blood, we were now redeemed from our pitiful, sinful ways. Unworthy of love ourselves, it was only Jesus’s brutal execution for our sins that saved us from ourselves and made salvation possible. And, of course, that sacrificial act still wasn’t enough: Without accepting that sacrifice, we would still burn in Hell forever. Evangelicals love to stress that a relationship with Jesus isn’t about reward and punishment, but let’s be honest: You can’t introduce the concept of eternal suffering for your lack of belief to a child without that eternal suffering ultimately becoming the point.
In short, many of us in this community grew up believing we were unworthy of love because of our sinful nature. Christmas, for as much as I loved being a kid opening up presents, was taught to me as an essential part of that hurtful narrative. I was told that without Christ, God would condemn me to Hell forever. I was taught that everyone around me was equally unworthy, and that if you are not saved, you could be used as Satan’s instrument to lead me astray. Trust no one, therefore, except the fellow saved. I was taught that even the most minor of offenses was enough to get me banished to Hell forever. I was taught that only by being covered in Jesus’s blood would God hear my prayers at all. That because I was saved through faith in Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross for my sins, every mistake I made was the same as nailing Jesus to the cross again. In the same way, questioning any of this because it didn’t make any sense – like the virgin birth, for example, which depends on an ancient concept of women’s womb merely being the vessel for sperm to incubate into babies (hence God’s impregnation enabling Jesus to be fully divine) – was like crucifying Christ again as well. Doubt was either giving into Satan’s weakness or my own fault for not having enough faith.
This is a lot of self-loathing for anyone — let alone a child still trying to figure out what to do with their trust, hopes, dreams, and sense of self-value. Carrying all of this certainty about my lack of self worth from a young age lead to perpetual feelings of shame, guilt, doubt – plus extra shame and guilt for feeling doubt. It built up to a belief in my own worthlessness that manifested as depression, anxiety, self harm, and suicidal idealization. I’m fortunate that I survived those thoughts, because many did not; it is difficult for my thoughts not to drift back toward some of those we’ve lost whenever I hear Christians bantering about putting Christ back into Christmas.
Growing up evangelical, all of this suffering went straight back to the manger in Bethlehem. Being a preacher’s kid – specifically, a minister of music’s kid – the whole holiday season was inexorably linked to Christmas pageants in which I was expected to participate that utilized the Nativity story to preach this toxic gospel to adults and children alike. Every season was seen as an opportunity to share the Gospel (including Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Valentine’s Day – and don’t even get me fucking started on Easter), but never more so than Christmas. So today, listening to those carols and watching those Nativity scenes isn’t just something I can simply dismiss as cultural or folkloric phenomenon. To see those imagines reminds me of my spiritual abuse, and subsequently of how I was taught to hate myself since before I could speak syllables.
And oh yeah – the “War on Christmas” was most definitely a thing. We were brought up being taught that the Satanic socialist takeover of America was so imminent that our right to be Christians without being persecuted hung on the tiniest of threads. Our Christian nation, we were brainwashed into believing, could only be preserved by the revolutionary act of getting gung-ho about Christmas traditions and celebrations – because hey, all those Christmas lights up and down the block and the row of holiday décor at every local store were sure-fire signs that Christmas was being oppressed in our country. But make no mistake: Every “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” card you saw was a deliberate attempt to cancel the word “Christmas” by the pagan heathens secretly running this country. (Santa was often targeted too as the secular anti-Christ of Christmas, but my family cleverly side-stepped that by pointing out that Santa was once Saint Nick – a devout Christian. Anyway, old Saint Nick still brought presents, and those presents were far more tangible than eternal paradise or punishment – so believing in him was still an effective tool for parents to regulate our behaviors throughout the year.)
If you did not grow up in the evangelical tradition, you may noticed that many former evangelicals react to Christmas with a sort of shell-shocked PTSD. That’s because we were literally taught that this season was all about a battle between good and evil, and our level of participation revealed which side we were really on. Pastors encouraged us from their pulpits to treat all our seasonal decoration with reverence of a war front – setting up Christmas lights and Nativity scenes that you could see all the way down the block, attending and participating in church pageants in mass (I was a shepherd nearly every year), getting angry when Starbucks cups would dare to read, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and reinforcing the Gospel message found in the Christmas story at every turn. This War was very real to us, and it was a war against Satan manifested in any friend, neighbor, store, or media outlet that would dare not utter the word “Christmas.” Even as children eagerly awaiting our presents under the tree, we were instructed to engage in this war by inviting others to and participating in every church-related Christmas event, all the while never forgetting that Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection (but oddly, rarely his actual teachings) were the real reason for the season. If you ever forgot that, even for a moment as you eagerly unwrapped your gifts, you were part of the problem. Mostly, I remember my evangelical Christmases as emotionally and physically exhausting.
So yeah – as an exvangelical, sometimes finding myself right smack-dab in the middle of the Christmas season kind of sucks. I just want you to know that if any of this resonates, your feelings are valid.
That being said, I can honestly say that I got lucky when it came to my post-Christian Christmas participation. The truth is, I didn’t begin the deconstruction process that ultimately led to my exit from the Christian faith tradition until well until my 20s. By then, I was living away from my parents and in a city that I’d made my own apart from my identity with them. I was able to celebrate Christmas on my own terms, even if it meant I would still need to make excuses to do so with the little church where I sometimes pastored that expected me to show up and be part of their silly little pageants. I didn’t have to go to church if I didn’t want to and could wiggle my way out. When I did find myself visiting family and having to put on the fake smile in order to save face and keep from embarrassing my parents (I did that for years before finally making my de-conversion public), I was fortunate enough to have my siblings with me – all in various forms of deconstruction themselves.
Hell, my brother Seth and I basically left the faith at the same time, on our own separate paths. Christmas with him AND the extended family was actually pretty hilarious, with all the double-meanings that we’d try to insert into every conversation. The grins and side-glances; the times we’d sneak away to process all of the nonsense that our family was espousing about the imminent second coming of Christ that was linked to the war that the socialist left was waging on Christmas. We played this game where we’d see how many times we could flip each other off when everyone’s head was bowed for the long prayer over our Christmas dinner – if anyone ever caught us, they kept it to themselves (I’m looking at YOU, Hope). Jesus, it was a riot – and it got us through with mostly minimal damage. I really don’t know how I would have gotten along without him.
For the most part, I had coping skills in place for every time I needed to make a courtesy call to my Christian family. One of my favorite Christmas Eves started off with my evangelical people, with whom I smiled and laughed and prayed with them all – and it concluded when I finally made my escape to my adopted sister Jane’s house. I barged in, sighed deeply, collapsed onto Jane’s couch, and she was ready with a 12-pack of beers for me to pound back until I’d put myself into a numb, thoughtless stupor. I drunkenly drifted away remembering how deeply thankful I was to have Jane close by – knowing she’d be there got me through that day and provided its perfect ending.
People had my back, all this to say, and I am so grateful for the support that I’ve had over the years when I was required to holiday with my evangelical family. When I write about my own aversion to the general Christmas experience, I can only reemphasize my good fortune. Because I know that many who are reading right now cannot say that they are facing this holiday season with a support network. You’re going to have to do something that I rarely had to do: Face all of this shit without a wing-man.
If you are reading and relate, I want you to know that I see you. I want you to know that I’m rooting for you. And I want you to know that you’re not really alone. I can’t say that I cannot imagine how lonely it will probably be for you, having to face Christmas with family members who are all in various stages of awareness about the sacred and courageous journey that you are taking right now (and once they know, they will ALL have an opinion about it.) The truth is – I can imagine EXACTLY how you are feeling. And I’m so, so sorry that you have to endure it.
I just want you to understand this: You are allowed to be feel proud of yourself for being so fucking brave for facing your family and all of the toxic theology inside the church that you’re inevitably attending because you want/need/have to be there with them. You are allowed to to feel sick to your stomach when “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” or “O Holy Night” starts playing on the church organ, because those songs make you remember how you have been made to feel about your own value. You are allowed to excuse yourself.
Feel as sick as you want – it’s not only okay to feel that way, but it makes sense that you do. Because you’ve come to learn just how those toxic traditions are, and that’s one of the reasons why you are sick. You’re learning how to be free of these lies, which is why they feel so much heavier when you’re around the people and things that remind you of the hurt these lies have caused. Within that trauma is a birth-pang, and I am so proud of you for the courage you have summoned to get through this holiday. You are stronger than you know, because remember – you already had the courage to start questioning eternal certainty. I truly believe that after surviving that soul-crushing gasp of reality (and many of us know some who didn’t), you’ve got this.
Please remember, no matter how hard it gets: You have value, and you are allowed to set boundaries. Excuse yourself to have a nervous breakdown in the bathroom as many times as you need to. Tell Aunt Lou that you’d like to change the subject. You are allowed to walk away if she doesn’t listen. Evangelicals in particular have a way of bleeding you to death with a million little paper cuts, to chip away our defenses with their “well-meaning” intentions and find ways to constantly remind us that we’ve had to work very hard to not feel unworthy of love, respect, and positive attention. I will not question Aunt Lou’s sincerity or good intentions, but that does not invalidate how you feel about the way they make YOU feel.
If you are feeling defensive, don’t give an explanation to anyone who hasn’t earned it. They’re not listening anyway – they were never taught how. Just walk away as quickly as you can. You are allowed to seek that positive attention wherever you can find it – and if you can’t find it with them, then to go find it with your own company. Keep items near you – and it can literally be the smallest things – that remind you of your own value. Write yourself a note you can read over and over with positive validations to yourself. And never forget: No matter how you have been made to feel, you are not broken. In fact, you are healing, and that’s why this particular holiday experience sucks so badly.
I hope you have the option of not going to church – that you are in a safe place to express that wish and have it be respected to a point where you don’t feel ashamed to set that boundary. No matter how much they make you feel ashamed for declining the opportunity with their gentle sighs and disappointed eyes and promises of prayer on your behalf – it will still be safer for you not to walk into that building, and it took strength to stand up for yourself. I hope you can be proud of you for declining the offer, but even if you can’t – I see you, and I am SO proud of you.
If you are not in the position to turn down church, try to remember this: It has no power over you, because none of it is real. And that which does hold power over you that forces you within those walls will not always have control of your leash. A day will come when it will be safe to get out of there, to find a path into your own metaphors that best help you walk into the divine mystery (I believe in Bigfoot. There, I said it). Until then, you absolutely stun me with your bravery. Don’t give up – no matter how long it takes, someday you will be safe; someday, you will be free; someday you will be in a place where you will be able to speak your mind to people who are actually ready to listen – and you deserve nothing less than that. No matter how long it takes, our community will be waiting for you. Until then – we see you and love you and thank you for the courage you have to show this week. For those of you who have no choice – you are not alone.
For those of you who have nowhere to go, who are away from your family this Christmas for whatever reason – maybe because it’s simply so much easier, or because you have been made to feel unwelcome, or because it is just the safest option, or it just wasn’t in the cards this year: You are allowed to make this day into whatever you want it to be. Need to smoke a bowl or have some drinks and binge-watch something trashy? This is your day. Want do go out on the town with your friends and toast to a day of merriment? Nothing is stopping you anymore. Need to scream into a pillow and sob yourself to sleep? You owe no one any excuses – scream as loud as you want. You deserve not to owe yourself a goddamn thing that you don’t feel like owing, because we have paid our dues to the feelings that this holiday season evokes.
For those of you alone, it is my sincere hope for you that during this time of the year, you remain safe and healthy and as happy as can possibly be. Also, try to do something kind for yourself, or a few kind things. Not because of any “’tis the season” bullshit, but just because you deserve kindness. Self-empowerment is a long, painful journey for people with a history of religious abuse.
Or maybe you’re in a place where you can finally start considering Christmas on terms that don’t leave you feeling ashamed of yourself. I think I’ve reached that place, at last. I still don’t get into Christmas the way that others do, and it is particularly hard this time of year to fight off that seasonal gloom. It helps that I’m surrounded only by safe people in my home, so I can simply relax and be myself. I hope such a day comes for you as well, because it’s enabled me to feel like I can actually get into the spirit of the thing and come up with traditions of my own, surrounded by the post-evangelical family I have forged.
I’ve learned that personally, I don’t mind the Christmas trees and the stockings anymore. The gift-giving associated with these traditions are finally great now that they are free from the requirements of the Gospel-sharing war front; also, the more you know about the origin of the Christmas tree, the more it fully emerges as an amusing distortion of a pretty great pagan tradition. I love getting gifts for the people I care about the most, and receiving them from the same people. I can do without the nativity scene and overtly evangelical carols, but I almost always successfully elude my triggers. That’s made Christmas finally feel safe.
I’ve adjusted Christmas to my own style – and I’ve always been much more of a Halloween guy. My sentimentality for this season is fulfilled by a small gathering of a community that validates and encourages each other, and I’ve made it a tradition to light a candle every Christmas Eve night to symbolically light the way for all my absent loved ones — both those I’ve lost and those just far away. I plan to do it again this year.
The rest of my traditions are developing, but they are a glorious tribute to my personal oddities. Inside my tree are hidden Bigfoots (my partner’s cute idea) and a lament configuration (“Is that a Catholic thing?” someone once asked me, to which I answered, “Yes, it is most certainly a Catholic thing.”). I prefer the darker-edged Christmas movies – check out “Rare Exports,” “The Mothman Prophecies,” or “Krampus” some time if you like your yuletide celebrations a little more twisted. This year, I watched BBC’s 2019 dark and twisted“A Christmas Carol” television adaptation and felt strangely validated by how it rewrote the ending so that it was so very un-evangelical. All this to say, it’s fun to look for yuletide stuff more catered to my kind of weird. And my partner, who has been so supportive of my journey, has decided to introduce some pagan Yule traditions into our annual festivities. Earlier this week, we walked around scattering bird seed along the path, as an idea of giving back to your home’s original community. It was a lovely little walk to the setting sun, coupled with a lovely talk about future goals for ourselves that didn’t make me think at all about any of the church abuse associated with more traditional Christmas traditions.
In short – when you are ready, when you are safe, and if you want … it is okay to make your own traditions to celebrate this holiday season.
I suppose it would be appropriate to conclude this article with some sort of season’s greeting or wish of happy holidays. After talking about the triggers many of us still find in Christmas, I don’t want to perpetuate anyone’s suffering. I suppose it begs the question: What exactly IS an exvangelical’s Christmas benediction? I think I’ve been writing this article to process enough that I could finally get around to figuring out some version of an answer to that question.
And what do you know: Maybe I have.
Here’s to the War on Christmas, and to all of us who have found ourselves in the trenches fighting it. And make no mistake: It’s not a war about the persecution of the faithful by a socialist takeover of Christian American values. Actually, it’s a war about something far simpler. Evangelicals love to talk about keep “Christ” in Christmas, but their idea of what that means seems more skewed and distorted every season. Maybe the exvangelical path (when and if we feel ready to participate in it, and it’s okay if you don’t) is to actually take that idea seriously.
Because to put Christ back into Christmas is actually kind of a radical idea. The War on Christmas begins with the story – and that’s all it needs to be, just a story – of a woman cradling her new baby, fearing for that child’s safety in a world that she knows will be cruel. It is that woman choosing to teach that child to be a source of love and life, no matter those adversities. It is the celebration of the courage it took for that woman to make that choice, and the child born from that love, who waged war against the system, challenged the status quo, and was persecuted for teaching people that the only way to change hearts is through loving others and ourselves completely and fully – seeing the value in each and every individual’s humanity at every turn… including our own. It is a war waged against poverty, oppression, and hate in all of their forms.
We STILL crucify people for that shit.
The War on Christmas is the wish that every child will be as safe as this child’s mother wished her babe to be, that we may all celebrate or not celebrate any holiday that we wish – so long as those holidays remind us to be kind to ourselves and to each other as we take time to remember empathy and compassion. Because days like that are so important for our collective humanity, even if it means doing nothing at all except taking care of yourself. This is a war to transform this holiday back into the ideal that we simply need to remember to be kind. It is a war not to topple Christmas, but to make it a safe day for everyone – no matter if their path leads them to celebrate many holidays or none.
Oh, and call it whatever you want – Christmas, solstice, Pajama Day, Bourbon Day – so long as it may it be a day when we all turn to each other and say, “You have value and you deserve love, just the way you are. You are not fallen or broken, just unfinished. Keep walking along your path, but remember to use this day to take care of yourself, to be kind to yourself, to celebrate yourself – and when you have a chance and when you feel ready, to encourage others to do the same. Peace be with you, and with all of us. We all deserve nothing less.”
Also, if you need to flip off a few people over the Christmas dinner prayer, may it be a day when you can do that too.
*Pictured above: My brother Seth and me, Christmas of 2007. We took a break from the festivities with our evangelical family to play with a gigantic evangecube that we found in a church office. If you haven’t heard of them, look up an “evangecube” when you’re feeling in a safe but goofy head space and need a good laugh. Consider this tip my contribution to your stocking .
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