BARUCH SPINOZA WAS, of course, excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish community in 1656 for (among other things) being a secularist heretic, and therefore seems about as unlikely a Christmas hero as Charlie Brown’s doleful sapling—and yet he is mine.
Because after four hundred years of deep conjecture, brilliant argument, and theological posturing, it is still the Spinozan conception of god which I choose to embrace. And that god is harmony, one infinite substance of which all matter in the universe is comprised and through which we all inhabit temporary forms. “God” and “nature” are not only synonyms, they exist in a causal loop. We are God and he is us. We willed each other into existence. We are god because the universe and any possible rational or theological conception of it relies on our conscious acknowledgment. And if there is some kind of electrochemical stew or anti-matter vacuum that predates substance, that was somehow the catalyst for Chaotic Inflation or the Big Bang or the Eternal Prevailing, it seems implausible to me that it can be viewed even as a passive “creator,” let alone one which fields prayers, intervenes divinely, or is capable of displaying anything but a vast airless indifference to the follies of man.
At least that’s what gets me through the day. And often some very long nights.
Oddly, I only find these convictions precarious at Christmas time.
Because I love Christmas. Each year an intentionally unexamined part of myself longs for the nostalgic set pieces of my youth: lying on the rug in footie pajamas with my sister, watching the terrifying and unjust struggles of the Little Drummer Boy and his run-over lamb, or dancing like maniacs, grooving along to the coordinated steps of the Heat Miser. Settling into matching sleeping bags on Christmas Eve, sugar plums and Barbies and Atari game consoles dancing in our heads, we would stay up late, trying to prolong the anticipation past long-burned stores of adrenaline by talking about what awaited us under the tree. Which, by the way, was shoved into the dreaded corner of the family room that smelled permanently of dog and pine and spilled eggnog.
One thing we never spoke of was our shared secret dread of that anticlimactic post-frenzy moment when everything was finally open, the apron bare and gift-less, the depression setting in as my father crammed torn paper and pine needles into lawn bags while our mother hummed Johnny Mathis in the kitchen while arranging a platter of cold cuts.
But not only do I think fondly of my associations with The Bumble and animatronic Fred Astaire and Cindy Loo Who, I can easily be brought to tears just at the sight of the Peanuts cast taking deep breaths as they sing “Christmas Time is Here.” Because it is during the last week in December in which I long to believe. An even deeper part of me wants to forge through the nostalgia and fully embrace the virgin birth. To stand off to the left of the three wise men and cease questioning manger hay and myrrh. There is a deep comfort there, and it is almost intoxicating. The desire to stop fighting a considered lack of faith. Instead I want to swallow it all, the body and the blood, the eucharist and the sacrament, the beard and the throne and the lonely road to Damascus.
At least for somewhere between twenty-four and forty-eight hours.
I can close my eyes and still smell the incense of the 9pm mass my grandmother would take us to every year, I can feel the worn pews beneath my hands and the pleasurable ache in my knees from kneeling and mumbling verses. I loved the part of the sermon when we would turn to our neighbors and nod and say “peace be with you.” I was always impressed with the seriousness with which adults would take this admonition—shaking my hand and looking me in the eye as they rarely did otherwise. My grandmother would give my sister and I fifty cents each and it was always fun to jangle the change into the collection basket as if we were contributing something important—as well as ignore the thrilling temptation to grab some of the money and run, just to see what would happen.
Mostly, I love the memories of our weird 80’s tree decorating, the years when my sister and I had long since stopped believing, when we struggled with cynicism and acne and ill-fitting clothes, barely deigning to participate while my parents tried to pretend there was a justification to continue using the ancient fake tree we dragged out of the attic each year, gamely masking its bald spots with tinsel and popcorn strings.
And I love what Christmas means to my daughter now—her savage lust for gifts, the boundless excitement, the need to believe, the embrace of ritual. The sheer unrestrained glee. Cousins and cookies and matching pajamas. Sorting and stacking shiny boxes, arranging and inventorying the opened loot.
Of course, by New Years, I’ll be fully back on Spinoza’s team. But for a fortnight every year I waver for a few days. Or at least allow myself to pretend to.