I’d felt myself drifting for years. My mom became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was 10-ish, and for most of my kid-dom, I truly believed as much as any kid can “believe” in anything. But the older I got and the more I read and learned, the more I began to doubt the foundation of the whole thing, Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible at all. I was starting to doubt the very idea that there’s any truth to life, a fairly common thought at age 17 but one that’s kind of scary when you’ve been raised in a religion that refers to itself, and only itself, as The Truth.
Thursday was hot dog night. Thursday was hot dog night because we were Jehovah’s Witnesses and Thursday was also book study night. Book study night was basically a book club except you only read the books the Witnesses themselves published and discussed all the signs evident in this rotten world that showed us all the end was nigh.
There were three weekly meetings we were obliged to attend but book study night was the only one that happened on a weeknight. Me and my brothers got home from school at about 3:45 which left me a tiny window in which to finish homework and set up a tape for The Simpsons because this was the only show on TV I could not miss and make sure I had a shirt and tie and pants to wear to the meeting. If I was feeling fancy I would wear a blazer I got at the Salvation Army. The sleeves were too short so my cuffs stuck out defiantly and I could not fasten any of the buttons without fear of popping them.
We went to the movies today. We not only went to the movies, we went to the Chinese buffet place in the strip mall next to the movie theater. I loaded up on egg rolls and lo mein and these weird doughy buns sprinkled with powdered sugar that taste like oversized Chinese zeppoles.
A movie and dinner out is unheard of luxury for this family. We splurge on a few select days a year. Today is such a day. Today is Halloween.
We do this, rather than get dressed up and trick-or-treat, because my mom is currently a Jehovah’s Witness. Witnesses don’t do any holidays for various reasons, most of which relate to those holidays’ origins in either pagan ritual or jingoistic nationalism.
Halloween is tops on the no-no list, deriving as it does from scare-away-the-demons practices of ancient Celtic tribespeople. Witnesses don’t believe in hell per se (long story), but they do believe in Satan and his minions. They believe that Satan is actively causing mayhem on this earth. They also have the same Slippery Slope theory about demonic possession as law enforcement has about drug abuse. A cop will tell you pot leads to smack and crack. A Witness will tell you dressing up like a ghost on Halloween leads to actual devil worship, be it passive or active.
I’ve been religious at some times in my life, and not religious in others. I’ve believed in God, not believed in God, and occupied several intermediate spots in between those two poles. So I feel that I can understand beliefs that motivate statements like that of Richard Mourdock, who called a hypothetical pregnancy resulting from rape “a gift from god.” I also feel I can denounce them regardless.
Mourdock’s statement touched a nerve in a campaign season that’s seen many candidates (all of them men) chomping at the bit to address the subject of rape for some reason. It also points to a big divide in our country when it comes to people’s notions about The Man Upstairs.
Very few Americans are full-fledged atheists; that’s a leap not many of us are comfortable making. But most of us aren’t super-religious, either. Most of us believe in God in a “sure, why not?” way that makes few demands of our time, because passive faith is a lot easier than active agnosticism. However, we also don’t enjoy the concept of a micromanaging God that directs and influences every single event in our daily lives. We like the idea of a God that made everything and has a cool crash pad ready for us when this life is over, but he’s not gonna give us a big plastic hassle about what we do day to day, man.
But, there are a significant number of people in this country who do believe in a hands-on God, one that takes an active role in our existence. This brings up the thorny issue of why such a God allows bad things to happen, over and over and over again.
I experienced an awkward moment at a PTA meeting I attended recently. This was something above and beyond the normal awkwardness I feel in a room full of people I do not know and whose only connection to me is having children who attend the same school as my child, as I struggle to form some cruel parody of conversation. “So, I hear your kid likes Justin Bieber?”
The moment came at the beginning of the meeting, when the PTA president insisted we all rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Once I heard this, I was gripped by a childlike but very real panic. I hadn’t been asked to do this seriously* since high school, and for a terrifying split second I wasn’t sure what I should do with myself.
*I include the adverb seriously here because the live Pee-Wee Herman Show I saw with my daughter opened with Pee-Wee reciting the Pledge along with the audience, which I don’t think counts, really.
The reason I wasn’t sure what to do is because I spent a good chunk of my childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness. Witnesses refuse the say the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t do a lot of things, due to their selectively literal interpretation of the Bible (or their translation thereof; it’s a very long story, the more you hear of the less you truly know). Being a Witness is almost like keeping kosher, but instead of worrying about what you eat, you have to worry about everything else.
A few weeks ago, I did a reading for St. Patrick’s Day as part of the Show and Tell Show in Brooklyn. This was super fun and convinced me I should do stuff like this more often. (If you have any suggestions about how to do that, I’m all ears.) This also reminded me that there was a time in my life when I would speak in front of other people very often.
When I was a kid, my mom was a Jehovah’s Witness. Only in retrospect does this seem strange in any way to me. On the few occasions I talk to other people about it, I must receive a few quizzical looks before I remember Oh, that’s right, that was kind of weird.
Between Qadaffi going nuts, insane earthquakes, and nuclear power plant explosions, I feel like all of my childhood fears have come to life. As a little kid, I was terrified of earthquakes (despite living nowhere near a fault line), and the Libyan dictator was America’s Biggest Enemy.
But more than anything, I lived in mortal fear of a nuclear holocaust. It all started when I went to a friend’s house that was equipped with HBO. In between 800 showings of Beastmaster, we saw The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, a creepy-as-hell documentary on Nostradamus narrated by Orson Welles. Among its many predictions for the future was a cataclysmic event that would destroy a major city. The city was assumed to be New York, and with the Cold War still raging, the cataclysm had to be a nuclear attack.
Me and my friend literally ran upstairs to tell his mom. She laughed it off, of course, but we were terrified. “We never shoulda moved out of New Jersey!” my friend whined to his mom, without realizing that he used to live closer to the city than he did now in upstate New York.
Me, I went home feeling sick and doomed. My mom sensed something was wrong and managed to wring out of me that I was afraid the whole world was gonna get blown the eff up. This was around the time that she started going to Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings, so she handed me a recent issue of Awake! magazine. (The exclamation mark was part of the title, kinda like Wham!) The cover had a huge mushroom cloud, flanked by the caption “Will Man Destroy Himself?”
You’ve probably heard of or seen Watchtower, which is the Witnesses’ more Biblically-focused publication. Awake! is kind a current affairs magazine, viewing things in the news through the lens of their own band of theology. In the case of nuclear weapons, this article did not cheer me up at all. It basically said that nuclear weapons could be launched at any moment should the Cold War turn suddenly hot, and that Dr. Strangelove-type scenarios were totally plausible. And if those didn’t kill us all, then nuclear power plant meltdowns would. Chernobyl had just happened, so that frightening possibility was on everyone’s mind as well (including mine).
The solution, according to Awake!: You have nothing to worry about–as long as you believe in God. Because if you do, you will survive The End Times (which we are currently in, according to them) and will survive whatever monstrous conclusion God has for the Earth as we know it. You will then live in a paradise on Earth ruled by Jesus Christ for a thousand years. After that, Satan will return for some reason, only to be defeated for good.
Got it? No? Neither did I. But I did like the Not Having to Worry part. Just believe in the guy in the clouds and everything will be taken care of? Sold!
I used to like reading Awake!, because it would give you an overview of historical events or things going on in the news, in language even an eight-year-old could understand. No matter the problem–urban crime waves, poisoned Tylenol, weak job markets–their inevitable conclusion was Shit’s kinda fucked on earth, but don’t worry, cuz soon earth as you know it won’t exist.
Of course, the implication of an attitude like this–and that of many apocalyptic Christian sects–is that you don’t need to do anything to improve the world. Witnesses specifically say they do not want to be “part of the world.” So they don’t vote, they don’t donate to any causes outside of the church itself, and they don’t get involved in anything remotely political. They believe this world is sinking like the Titanic, so why bother polishing the deck chairs?
This extends to any kind of suffering, physical or emotional. It will all be better when God makes it better. Any relief you provide will be temporary, so just sit back and be patient. This once made sense to me, but now I consider it a reprehensible point of view. It’s like not throwing a drowning man a life jacket because you believe the Coast Guard will eventually come along.
As an adult, there is a terror involved in not believing that everything happens for a reason. But I think I’d rather live with that uncertainty than believe in a God who could end all suffering now but hasn’t for bureaucratic reasons that sound like they were lifted from early drafts of Dogma. Believing that the alleviation of suffering in this world is tantamount to sin is an idea worse than any nuclear winter could be.
Continuing the fabled tradition begun all the way back in 2009, Scratchbomb presents Holiday Horrors and Holiday Triumphs: an advent calendar of some of the more hideous aspects of this most stressful time of year–with a few bits of awesomeness sprinkled in.
I got caught up in Christmas each year as a little kid, as most little kids do. Putting up the tree, decorating the house, pulling out my collection of Christmas LPs. My favorite was the Sesame Street Christmas Album, and ironically, my favorite tune on that record was Oscar the Grouch singing “I Hate Christmas”. I also recall a Disney Christmas album, though I can’t remember much of its content, except a version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” where Goofy kept singing “five…onion rings! hyuk!” (Learning disabilities are funny!)
But obviously, the presents were the biggest reason I loved Christmas. I didn’t just get stuff as a matter of course as a kid, mostly because my immediate family didn’t have enough dough to get stuff with. So Christmas brought the promise of a decent haul of toys, and at least one Big Thing for me and my brothers to share.
The biggest one of all came when, after lusting after it for years, I finally got an Atari. I can still remember two of my uncles hooking it up to our TV, and then testing it out, and then playing with it for far too long, or what felt like far too long to me, because I thought my head might explode if I had to wait any longer to use it.
When you don’t get many toys for a good chunk of the year, the stakes for Christmas are raised to a ridiculous height. You want EVERYTHING right then, because you know if you don’t get it, you’re SOL for the rest of the year. So even though I wasn’t a greedy or ungrateful kid (at least I like to think I wasn’t), I could get carried away at Christmastime. Which I definitely did one fateful December 25.
Continue reading Holiday Horrors: The Year I Destroyed Christmas
Why do I celebrate Christmas?
I have a feeling most people don’t think about this. I celebrate Christmas because I celebrate Christmas. What’s to wonder about? But I think about it a lot because I took a roundabout route away from and back to Christmas.
For my first few years on Earth, my immediate family did the whole Christmas thing. I looked forward to trimming the tree and putting up the decorations like any kid did. My favorite part was pulling down a heavy pile of Christmas records to throw on my clunky portable turntable. (The Sesame Street Christmas album was my favorite, although I don’t think it had the cover seen here.)
Then, around age 7 or 8, my mom became a Jehovah’s Witness and we all followed suit (as I’ve alluded to on the site a few times). As you probably know, Witnesses don’t do holidays, because most holidays have weird pagan origins, which Witnesses perceive as being Satanic (no, really). So all of a sudden, no presents, no tree, no “I Hate Christmas”. Nothing.
However, my extended family (which remained varying degrees of Catholic) always had Christmas at my grandparents’ house, which was literally next door to me. So my mom and brothers and I all got dressed up nice and went to their house and drank egg nog and ate too much…in other words did all the things people do at Christmas. Except for the whole exchanging gifts thing.
I should note that this is not standard operating procedure for Witnesses. Most Witnesses wouldn’t come within a ten foot pole of any holiday, unless if was to preach about how it was secretly demonic. But my extended family is very big and very tight, and my mom couldn’t bear the thought of us not seeing each other when we were so close. Even if it meant endangering our survival of the impending Apocalypse.*
* Witnesses don’t really believe in Heaven and Hell, in the sense that they’re places you go when you die, but they do believe the end of the world is coming very soon, and if you don’t get on the right side post-haste you’re gonna be shit outta luck when God’s whip comes down.
I was chatting with some folks online earlier this week, and when I revealed this biographical tidbit, all reactions were in the ballpark of “yeesh”, “yikes”, and “so sad”. But I didn’t see it that way at the time, and I really don’t see it that way now. In retrospect, yes, it was very weird. But I don’t feel traumatized by the experience. If anything, I feel it enhanced my love of the holiday.
Maybe it’s because we didn’t have much money (or any money) when I was growing up, and I didn’t expect presents anyway. Maybe it’s because I was lucky enough to have a large family that likes getting together and doesn’t explode into arguments every five minutes. Whatever the reason, because an odd set of personal circumstances, I got to experience the good things about Christmas (family, togetherness, good times) without the bad stuff (disappointment).
I was never disappointed I didn’t get a certain toy because I knew I’d get nothing. I didn’t expect anything out of Christmas except playing with my cousins and staying up way too late and laughing at old family photos. And I got to have that every year.
It’s very difficult for me to not worry and not think about Everything. Even when I was a kid, I found it hard to be happy (as I wrote about here). But at Christmas with my family, I was happy.
By the time I went to college, my mom had abandoned Witnessery, and so had I. Christmas was a-ok again. None of us reverted back to Catholicism. We just entered that vague, irreligious sphere where most people live. But I had to ask myself, if I’m not a devout Christian, then why do I celebrate Christmas? Why am I honoring the birth of someone I don’t really believe in?
My best answer is, Christmas is an alibi. It allows us to get together and think of one another and, hopefully, be happy for a little while. Absent any expectation of gift-getting (or the pressure of gift-giving), that’s what it was for me as a kid. Absent any real religious belief, that’s what it is for most people.
Christmas has always been an alibi. December 25 used to be a pagan holiday honoring The Inconquerable Sun (or Sol Invictus, depicted to your left) a holiday that always involved plenty of merriment–possibly because even before it was a day to honor the sun, it was a day to honor Bacchus, the god of wine.
Then the pagans became Christians, but they didn’t want to lose their bitchin’ holiday. So the priests said, Fine, we’ll call it Jesus’ birthday. Just go to church in the morning and everything’s cool.
I hesitate to call it a lie. How about a seasonally appropriate word: a humbug. In the P.T. Barnum sense, a humbug is a flashy hoax that captivates everyone, even people who know it’s not real. It doesn’t matter that it’s not real, because it gives you pleasure.
Or call it the Jebediah Springfield Principal: If a story inspires us to do good, does it matter if it’s not true?
That may make me sound hypocritical, since I recently denounced Santa as a lie. The difference to me is, Santa is a lie that, one day, I’ll have to tell my daughter is a lie. As for Christmas itself, I can keep on pretending for as long as I want. And the pretending hurts no one. I can let myself be caught up in the wonder and spectacle and the love of it all, and not think about the fact that I don’t believe in The Reason for The Season.
If you’re one of those people who can’t stand their family, I hope Christmas is an excuse to get together with friends and other loved ones. And if you don’t do Christmas at all, I hope you have an excuse that’s just as wonderful.
If you’re a Christian and you celebrate Christmas religiously, presumably you do so either not knowing or not caring about the holiday’s weird pagan origins, or the fact that Jesus was probably not born on December 25. Even if it’s really not Jesus’ real birthday, for you it’s an excuse to celebrate the fact that he was born.
If Christmas is nothing more than an alibi for us all to be Christmas-y, that’s enough for me.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
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|A Colbert Christmas: Colbert/Costello Duet|
Paul Schrader (director/screenwriter, mastermind behind Taxi Driver and buncha other awesome movies) grew up in an extremely strict Calvinist household, one in which any form of idleness was an expressway to damnation. He wrote about going to see a film in a theatre, sweating, panicked, absolutely convinced that this simple act would send him to hell. But he was so transfixed by the experience–obviously realizing that this was his calling–that he couldn’t tear himself out of his seat.
I still get that doomed but defiant feeling whenever Halloween comes around, at once resisting its trappings and wanting to dive head first into it. Growing up, my mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. As I’m sure you know, they celebrate very few holidays for various reasons. In the case of Halloween, the reason is: They think it’s evil.
Ironically, I bet very few people who “celebrate” Halloween truly believe in demons and witches and whatnot. Witnesses do. This is odd, because they don’t believe in Hell, and they don’t have same idea of the Soul that you find in most Christian sects (it’s due to their unique interpretation of the Bible, which would take way too much time to get into). But they do believe in Satan, that he has minions at his beck and call, and that he could sic his cronies on you if you took him too lightly. “Taking him too lightly” includes dressing up as a sexy nurse, somehow.
That’s why, to this day, I have seen very few horror movies. Witnesses believe–no, for real–that anything depicting the occult, the devil, demons, etc. etc., can actually serve as a gateway for the Horned One to enter your mortal vessel. It’s almost like the DARE argument against pot. “Yeah, sure, you think A Nightmare on Elm Street is innocent enough. Then you move on to Friday the 13th. Then it’s Hellraiser. Pretty soon, you’re painting pentagrams in blood on your basement floor! And smoking crack with ghetto people!”
There is a certain age bracket during which you’re anxious to see Retarded Horror Movies. It’s more or less ages 12-16; for some people, it’s longer, and for others, it never ends. See these kinds of films at the aforementioned impressionable age, and they will imprint themselves on your psyche. But if you don’t see Retarded Horror Movies during this period, you will probably never see them, because if you watch them for the first time as an adult, you’ll realize how unbelievably stupid and poorly made most of them are.
At least that’s been my experience. Scary Movies were verboten in our household, for the same reason as Halloween itself, so I’ve always been curious about them. But for every honestly terrifying, well-done piece of Bone-Chilling Cinema, I’ve seen ten flicks that temporarily lowered my IQ 10 points and just left me laughing and scratching my head. “This is what they thought was gonna doom my Christian well being?! I could see the strings on the monster’s mask!”
Most kids have a battle plan on Halloween: what costume they’ll wear, which houses they’re gonna hit, what other kids they’re gonna go with, whose houses they’re gonna destroy with shaving cream and toilet paper, where they’re gonna hide out afterwards. Our family had a very different battle plan. It depended on whether the Evil Day fell on a weekday or a weekend. But in either case, the goal was: Get out of the house. Don’t be at home when trick or treaters arrive. Because we didn’t want to have to answer the door empty handed and face the consequences. Those consequences might be the “trick” portion of “trick or treat”. But mostly, we just didn’t want to be exposed and shamed.
I should note that this was not Standard Witness Procedure. You were all but encouraged to be home, so you could explain to the little tykes who rung your doorbell why you didn’t have any goodies for them. And if that sounds like an invitation to an egging to you, then you understand why my mother decided to skip town.
But beyond that, it wasn’t in my mother’s nature to stick out, to look odd, to not fit in with other people. Her default emotional setting was “out of place”, and she felt no need to invite further potential ridicule on herself or her family. Of course, simply being a Witness demanded of its adherents that they be “in the world but not of the world”. So the faith wasn’t particularly conducive to my mother’s desire to remain unnoticed, which should explain why she eventually fell out of The Truth (as they humbly refer to their theology).
The Family would usually go to a local mall, see a movie, then probably enjoy some fine dining like Pizza Hut or an all-you-can-eat $6.95 Chinese buffet joint. It was a treat, because these weren’t things we did with any kind of regularity. Nothing to do with religion on this front. We were just broke. For most of this period in our lives, my father was only intermittently employed, and my mother worked at a picture framing factory. An outing like this put a considerable dent in mom’s pocketbook, but the investment was worth it simply to avoid the tiny ghouls and goblins converging on our house.
Of course, we couldn’t stay away from home forever. We’d always get home after dark, which was usually late enough to avoid most of the trick-or-treaters in our scaredy cat neighborhood. But there was the occasional hardliner–either really determined kiddies or older punks looking more for trouble than treats.
So for the rest of the night, we’d hole up in the basement, watching the little TV that could only get three channels and eating ice cream in the dark. Our basement was only partially underground. Behind our house, beyond the backyard lawn, were woods that seemed to go on forever. Through a back window, you could see the moon lighting up the gnarled branches of the already bare trees, scraping the sky and bowing in the breeze.
And every few minutes, another person would ring our doorbell, looking for candy. We’d stop moving, sometimes even hold our breath. There’s no way somebody at the front door could have heard us in the basement, but we’d get as silent as if we were hiding from actual demons and goblins.
I spent most of my school life hoping not to get Found Out. There was a time when I truly believed, had faith the same way my mother did. But even so, I was afraid like her of seeming different. I was already a Fat, Weird Dork. I didn’t need to be the Fat, Weird Dork who Didn’t Celebrate Halloween For Reasons That Would Confuse The Average Junior High School Student. If asked, I never lied. But I tried to make sure I was never asked.
And so we all hid in the basement, the only light coming from terrible, flickering TV reception and the moon outside. Hemmed in on one side by the endless woods and on the other by hordes of sugar-jacked zombies seeking sweets. And though none of us believed in it, at that moment we all felt like we knew Hell.