It is around this time of year that I have that inevitable conversation - the one about how I didn't have Christmas until I was 16 years old. Sometimes, I'll admit, I do it for sympathy if I'm feeling especially pathetic or cheeky, but usually it's simply a way of explaining the reason for my apathy at this time of year. Hating Christmas is exhausting and just as tiresome and clichéd as all the constantly replayed songs, and yet loving it seems like a chore all the same. When you are brought up as a Jehovah's Witness, the world of Christmas festivities looks very different.
There are all sorts of presumptions made about us wayward children of the Christian-based religion infamous for their refusal to celebrate birthday or Christmas. The idea that we were tortured by this lack of celebration or that we could never feel loved by our families has always sounded ridiculous whenever I have heard it said. Whilst some would rather believe the lack of these holidays creates in us an emptiness, or an inner anger that bursts when we finally leave the faith, this has always remained the easiest memory of my unusual religious upbringing.
Many Jehovah's Witness families find a way around the doctrine against Christmas by simply reserving another day to celebrate just being together. There are no trees in the living room, festive decorations along the windows or special foods, but there are sometimes presents and family activities. I've heard these days called "Family Day", but I'm relieved my family never did the same - just the name makes me cringe.
The 25th of December was much like any other day in my house, whilst my parents would have the day off, my brother and I would be busy fighting in our rooms. Presents would have made an appearance around a week beforehand (sans seasonal wrapping) - our father, being a toy salesman at the time, was a Santa substitute and, if need be, we could always head back to school after the holidays with a list like an armoury in case any of our friends asked "what we got for Christmas." Sometime during the week, it was an unwritten custom for all members of the local congregations to meet up and go for a walk together. In one of my last ever outings with our congregation, I remember a group of about forty people walking and chatting below frost tipped trees in the woods outside our town. Ironically, it has always felt a rather Christmassy memory.
Of course, the tales are varied. I have spoken to some whose families were less than thoughtful when it came to dealing with Christmas. For these, mere mention of presents or festive food was out of the question, to indulge in such thoughts was straying from the straight and narrow path, in their parents' minds. And so I have to be thankful not only for the substitutes that I had, but also for the subtle subversions of the rules committed by the less religious members of my family. My mother, who left the religion a few years after I was born, respected the majority view of the relatives, but would always make sure gifts would turn up hidden behind the couch for my brother and I to find, wrapped in red paper with labels on, suspiciously as close to Christmas Day as possible.
Whether the Witnesses are right to decry the celebration of Christmas in the way they do is down to each individual person, their own beliefs and, most importantly, the level of unbiased research they decide to do on the matter. Now, seven years after that first Christmas spent with a friend's family, my view of this holiday has changed from the way I was told to view it. I still hate the blind consumerism my religious family always warned against, the lie of 'Special' offers and the guilt felt by parents of media brainwashed children; the same songs, the simply awful perfume adverts, and the fake smiles that you can hear even through the radio are enough to make me call out to my Lord Scrooge.
And yet I love this time of year. What I love at Christmas though isn't actually Christmas in the way the advertising companies want us to belief, it's not even the story of a Hare and a Bear and certainly not its religious aspect, it's the simple notion that, if we choose to, December 25th can be a reminder to be nicer to each other more often - and hopefully that idea will stick around.