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What Heathen Child is This?

One Christmas (or Easter), my mom taught me the word C-R-E-A-S-T-E-R. This blend of words, also called a “portmanteau,” delighted my senses. Life was a Dr. Seuss book or a poem I couldn’t memorize fast enough. Thank god for this phenomenon. Twice annual pilgrimages to church – by so-called “Creasters” – had inspired, at least in me, consummate linguistic pleasure.

Serious church-goers tend to be, at best annoyed, and at worst offended, when strangers crash their Christmas party, beating regulars to their favorite pews. Several years ago, an article in Catholic Journal announced “The Creasters Are Coming,” as if celebrating Jesus’ birth entailed defending churches in some long-standing inter-galactic warfare. Every Christmas is just another Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake.

I prefer the word “heathen.” Mary Anne Schwalbe in her son Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club uses this epithet affectionately to describe friends not of the church, and I love the absurdity of this image: barbarians yielding bats or sticks, circling houses of worship – from chapels to cathedrals – gnashing their teeth savagely.

“I’m just a heathen,” I tell people, a joke unto myself, amusing and incongruous. Do barbarians stop at crosswalks, round up for charity in check-out lines, volunteer in their children’s classrooms, and donate to food pantries?

Any language linked to religion – fitting or not – piques my interest. When Fern was a baby, obsessed with the story of Jesus’ birth, she called him “Lord Genius,” the best malapropism I’d ever heard uttered.

I often find myself reiterating this expression: “I was raised in a church,” as if the First Presbyterian Church were my house. I stop to ask myself, why do I insist on mentioning my old life if I neither attend nor wish to attend church in adulthood?

I guess even heathens get sentimental.

Otherwise bland memories of church-going are replaced by nostalgia around Christmas time. Reared on Sunday School and children’s sermons, I rarely long for church except when the spectacle of a Christmas service washes over me from Alexa’s Classical Christmas playlist, Irie singing along from the couch, her voice angelic. What Child is this who laid to rest on Mary's lap is sleeping? Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?

Pastor Paul, my dad’s best friend, baptized me, and thirteen years (or so) later, Pastor Sue, my mom’s best friend, blessed my confirmation of faith on the same altar. Becoming a member of the church was unfortunately an act of obedience, not of conviction. Somewhere between an honest question about God’s existence, and another too brazen, Pastor Jane ran from our classroom crying. Her outburst was my fault. Choosing to be confirmed was my apology.

Fortunately, when sisters of the Catholic Church and ministers of the Lutheran and Congregational churches, comprising my parents’ social network, learned I was skeptical about God, they remained entirely unfazed. To them, I was N-O-R-M-A-L.

In the Presbyterian tradition, our Lord’s Prayer, I’d later learn, differed from what parishioners recited in other denominations. They said, “Forgive us our sins,” whereas our version went like this: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This single word – “debts” – is one of the most essential vocabulary lessons I retained from my Christian upbringing. We filled grocery sacks with box dinners and lined them along padded pews in the side chapel for the hungry and homeless. Religion paved the way for empathy and generosity, the only lessons I needed.

“Believe” is a crucial word at Christmas too – in God, in the Angel Gabriel, and in the Virgin Birth. Can I hang the word B-E-L-I-E-V-E over the arch of my front door if I “give credence” to other spiritual things like storytelling, literature, theater, art, music, education, and perhaps most important of all, motherhood?

My parents had explained to me very early in life – because I asked, and they could neither deflect nor lie – how babies are made. Earlier than any friend, I knew everything there was to know about birds and bees such that I also doubted the possibility of a virgin birth.

Surprisingly, though, this didn’t diminish the nativity of Jesus in my agnostic brain.

Every Christmas, as a little girl and teenager, I eagerly awaited this retelling of Jesus’ story, unable to resist a newborn baby in a stable, flanked by horses or cattle, maybe even a barn cat or a mouse, as depicted in dozens of children’s picture books.

From as early as September, every year, I’d gladly anticipate Advent and Christmas.

Three decades later, mother of five now, I am more enchanted than ever by the story of Jesus’ birth. How long did Mary labor; how many times did she push until Jesus crowned? Did Joseph cut the umbilical cord, and did the donkey bray, a full-throated ovation from the animal kingdom? Mary would have offered her breast to the newborn baby, though neither the Gospel of Luke nor the Gospel of Matthew says so. I crave more knowledge. Where have all the details gone?

In the days leading up to Christmas, I often toy with the notion of attending a Christmas Eve service – my family gathered beneath that First Presbyterian Church dome, candles flickering, thanks to acolytes donning the same royal garb I once wore.

What Creasters we’d make, all seven of us, enough to invade an entire pew, drowsy sugar-addled children overflowing into the aisles!

Though Christianity holds baby Jesus in higher regard than anyone else, ultimately I find I’m happy enough – fulfilled to spiritual contentedness, in fact – to adore my own children at home, where together, hand-in-hand, Christmas carols on the sound box, family dog Archie as witness, we repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

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