The huge haul of top-of-the-line 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 neighborhood, my town, and even my whole country in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Things weren’t perfect, but they were better. And better in a certain way.
Kitchens that were normally empty, only waystations for frantic parents to rush home from work in time to pick up the children for private tutoring or soccer practice or violin lessons, were suddenly filled with laughter and the smells of apple cider and baked goods. School was out, lessons and sports were on hiatus, workloads were lighter, and kids leaned on the counter and chatted with their parents as they cooked dinners from the old family recipe book.
Neighborhood folks who usually offered little more than a terse smile and a half wave opened their homes for Christmas parties, showering neighbors with the warm welcomes, relaxed conversation and even some homemade cookies.
Airports were filled with the sounds of high-pitched 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.
Workplaces normally filled with politics and stress came together to adopt families in need; miserly curmudgeons uncharacteristically slipped a couple bucks into the Salvation Army bucket; longstanding grudges were more likely to be 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’d point to.
We’d explain that the kindness, togetherness and love 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, kindness and goodwill toward men,” the thinking went. For us, Christmas was a season of love, 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 neighbors celebrated the One who is Peace, Love and Goodness itself.
Later in life I would come to see that the love I sensed back then seemed so palpable, so real, because it was real, and it was bigger than I could have ever imagined; I would come to understand that wherever I sensed love I sensed God, because he is pure, perfect Love; I would come to know 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 in those cold December nights was not something, but Someone. Whenever someone feels love, they feel God — even if, like me for so long, they don’t even know he’s there. That’s why I see now that what I loved about Christmas all along, even when I was an atheist, was Christ.