GHOSTS

A (TRUE) CHRISTMAS STORY

—LUX INFERNI

I. INTRODUCTION

Over the last few weeks of 2018 I watched my daughter become more and more excited about Christmas every day that the holiday drew nearer. She is almost three years old now, and, while this was her third Christmas, it was the first time that she had really grasped and come to revel in the main concepts of the holiday: the lights, the images of snowmen (because real snowmen don’t live in the desert), Santa Claus, the time spent with family, and, of course, the bases of Christmas trees littered with presents. Stories about virgin births and baby Jesuses don’t factor in, thankfully. I’m sure that my daughter has caught wind of the associated christian myths at daycare or from one or two members of her mom’s family, but those stories get no reinforcement in our home. As long as it is in my power to have a say in which seasonal myths we venerate as a family, we’re going with magical, jolly fat men who fly around and pop through chimneys to deliver presents, or with magical singing and dancing snowmen (who don’t sing or dance in the desert)—like I said, the main concepts of Christmas.

The 2018 holiday season was a strange period of time for me, though, and it prompted a series of deep reflections. This was not just because I am an atheistic Satanist who (surprisingly?) felt utter joy in seeing my daughter get so excited about and participate in a holiday that was named after (but was definitely not based on) the religious figure of Christ. In fact, because of my daughter, I ended up coming to the realization that I don’t mind getting excited about and participating in the holiday myself. But this excitement and participation has been absent for a long time in my life, and perhaps that is the main reason why the few weeks leading up to December 25th felt so strange, why they had put me on such a reflective path, why they have inspired me to write a true Christmas story. [1]

II. THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST

I loved Christmas when I was a kid. I loved the lights, the images of snowmen (even though the real ones didn’t live or sing or dance in the desert), Santa Claus, the time spent with family, and, of course, the base of our Christmas tree moderately littered with presents. For most of my childhood, mom and I lived with her parents at their large ranch style home in El Paso, Texas. It had three bedrooms, two baths, three living rooms, a dining room, kitchen, garage, and two extra rooms at the back that granddad used as his workshop. Every December, granddad would labor away at putting up a modest display of lights on the exterior of the house and he would join the rest of us in one of the living rooms to put together and decorate an artificial tree that was older than I was. Lights, garlands, ornaments, and a bright five-pointed star that towered over me at the top of the tree: I was in awe every year, and every year I felt complete bliss.

A typical Christmas morning in the 1980s—I wake up some time between five and six in the morning. Just like the year before and the year before that one, I am the first one up. I sit at the base of the Christmas tree for what feels like eons, staring at the fantastic spread of presents in front of me. I go to each present and look carefully to see who is getting what, and which ones “Santa” snuck into the pile while I was sleeping (I know Santa isn’t real, but he is a powerful symbol that represents the holiday). When the waiting gets to be too much, I begin pacing between the tree and the door of mom’s bedroom, back and forth, back and forth, my courage slowly inching closer to the level it needs to be for me to knock. Once mom is up (or, once I have become emboldened enough to wake her up) I come close to losing my mind while we wait for granny and granddad to make their way to the holy Christmas relic. After the mess of shredded wrapping paper is made on the floor, I’m in charge of cleanup. Mom retreats to her bedroom, granny starts on the day’s food, granddad retires to his chair in the den to smoke his pipe, and, when the mess is cleaned enough (but not fully), I indulge in that morning’s take.

Stories about virgin births and baby Jesuses didn’t factor in then, and they didn’t need to, because that wasn’t what Christmas was about.

Even after I began to foster a Christian identity in the latter part of my childhood, which consisted of sporadic trips to church on Sunday with mom, who had always struggled in fostering her own Christian identity, Christmas continued to signify for me what it always had: lights, snowmen, Santa, family, and that old, musty-smelling artificial tree with the presents beneath it. I remember when I finally got a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas in 1989, the same year that most of my friends were adding Gameboys to their video game system collections. I had developed an interesting habit of opening all of my smaller presents first, which, that year, included two NES games. I broke into a sprint around the house when I realized that the games weren’t for me to play in contractual five-day periods on a rented system from Blockbuster Video, but were rather intended for the larger still-wrapped present awaiting my excited nine-year-old fingers to tear open.

Christmas was about seeing my hopes, dreams, and desires come to fruition. It was about excitement, fulfillment, and indulgence. But it would lose this sacred meaning toward the end of my childhood, and a new one would soon take its place, grabbing hold of those hopes, dreams, and desires and choking their capacity for fruition. It would cast a long, dark shadow over my excitement, fulfillment, and indulgence, and eclipse them for decades into my adult life.

III. THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENTS

Granddad died in 1992. It was not a good death. It was not a quick one. And, to be clear, it wasn’t his death that would have such a profound effect on me. It was rather what I had learned about the man during the last couple years of his life and the difficulty I had processing that information which would change my perspective on human nature and rob Christmas of its meaning.

Granddad was a war hero—a tank driver in World War II and in Korea—a business owner, an author, a rock and mineral collector, a retiree, a husband to granny for more than fifty years, and a father of four children—mom and her three older brothers. He was many things, but he was not a nice man when it wasn’t Christmas. He had cold, gray eyes, a sharp tongue, a heavy hand, and, for an extended period of his life before I was born, a proclivity for molesting his daughter. He also had cancer. I remember mom doing her best to explain it to me as if I were too young to understand: “He has a bug inside of him that keeps growing, and the doctors can’t stop it.” I imagined a literal bug set squarely in his ribcage, antennae and legs spread out through his limbs, controlling his movements, his speech, and the horrible things I learned that he did in his life. Just before spring in 1992, granddad decided that he didn’t want to end up a vegetable as a result of that bug.

An atypical weekday in sixth grade—School ends typically. But as I walk through the school yard toward a street corner where Shane and I always meet before walking home together, he’s waiting for me in the passenger seat of his mom’s van instead of on the sidewalk. “You’re gonna come home with us today,” his mom says, and I hop in, excited to put off homework for as long as I can. We take a detour, stop for burgers, drive around, and after about an hour, finally head to our street. The scene is terrifying as we pull past the news cameras and reporters and into Shane’s driveway: a fire truck has cut traffic off just past their house, police cars are parked haphazardly along half the block, and a large white van is parked in the middle of the street with its back doors open, exposing all sorts of strange machinery and devices. Across the street, there is a line of yellow tape marking a radius around my house and several people in hazmat suits are hurriedly walking in and out of the front door. I have no idea what’s going on except for the fact that I’m crying. I’m crying and I don’t know why. I don’t see mom until after sunset and, through trembling words and not a lot of detail, she explains that I’ll be spending the next couple of nights at Shane’s house. In a couple of weeks, mom will take a leap of faith and explain everything to me as if I am old enough to understand.

As a collector of rocks and minerals, granddad often used his workshop to clean and polish all of his rare finds. But on one atypical weekday in 1992, when no one else was home, he mixed some of his chemicals for rock polishing to make hydrogen cyanide and turned his workshop into a gas chamber. Granny just happened to come home early from her bridge game that day and, as a result, granddad’s cyanide-induced stroke didn’t kill him as he had intended. Instead, it turned him into a vegetable.

 

The man who was trying to commit suicide to avoid becoming a vegetable ended up turning himself into a vegetable.

 

It was a lot to process for a twelve-year-old while simultaneously watching granddad’s speech, motor functions, and overall mental state deteriorate over the several weeks that followed an atypical weekday that year until, one day, in the middle of spring, he died. It was more of a challenge for his widow and daughter, however, and by the time December rolled around, living life without grandad—a war hero (murderer), a family man (child molester), a respectable member of the community (asshole)—was still a process. The modest display of Christmas lights didn’t go up. Neither did the tree. When I asked about it, granny walked out of the room without saying a word whereas mom responded, “If you want to have a tree, you’ll have to put it up yourself.” I did. But Christmas lost its meaning when all that was good about grandad died, leaving me to discover a part of human nature that left me feeling uneasy. How could one person bring so much joy and yet cause so much pain? It frightened me. How capable am I of inflicting pain on others? On myself? Of committing suicide? It was confusing. If Christmas could lose its meaning then what the fuck does anything else mean? It left a vacuum that I desperately needed to fill, and, nearly two years later, as I sat in the front row of an evangelical church at a Wednesday night service that my new friend in freshman biology class invited me to, I filled it.

IV. INTERMISSION

The history of religions, of the birth, grandeur, and decline of the gods who have succeeded one another in human belief, is nothing … but the development of the collective intelligence and conscience of mankind. As fast as they discovered, in the course of their historically progressive advance, either in themselves or in external nature, a power, a quality, or even any great defect whatever, they attributed them to their gods, after having exaggerated and enlarged them beyond measure, after the manner of children, by an act of their religious fancy. Thanks to the modesty and pious generosity of believing and credulous men, heaven has grown rich with the spoils of the earth, and, by a necessary consequence, the richer heaven became, the more wretched became humanity and the earth. God once installed, he was naturally proclaimed the cause, reason, arbiter, and absolute disposer of all things: the world thenceforth was nothing, God was all; and man, his real creator, after having unknowingly extracted him from the void, bowed down before him, worshipped him, and avowed himself his creature and his slave. [2]

—Mikhail Bakunin (1882)

 

I’ve said ‘Merry Christmas’ for most of my life. In the past when people have asked me, “Why do you say Merry Christmas if you don’t believe in God?” I generally have answered: “Why do you say Thursday if you don’t believe in Thor?” [3]

—Greg Stevens (2016)

V. THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS FUTURITY

I bought it. Every last venomous drop. Hook, line, and sinker. “Yes, I am a sinner,” and “Yes, I am a failure,” and “Yes, I am unable to fix my fucked up life by myself.” Or, in other words, “Yes, I am a piece of shit, and the only way for me (or anyone else) to not be a piece of shit is to give my soul to Jesus.” It was 1994, I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, Kurt Cobain had just killed himself a few months ago, granddad had (ultimately) killed himself two years before that, and I was desperate enough for answers and meaning in life to become a born-again Christian. But making the decision to sacrifice my life as I knew it to a such mythical idea was not necessarily a far leap for me.

I wasn’t exactly raised a Christian. More specifically, I didn’t have the Christian religion shoved down my throat as a child. Despite this, however, I was raised in a Christian culture, just like most kids in the United States. I often hear or see people arguing about whether or not the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” but oftentimes these arguments never progress further than the cursory surface levels of debate (or rather, insults?), and those involved in the arguments are rarely ever able to embrace the complex reality of the relationship between religion and the modern state. The truth is that most Western countries are Christian nations, at least to the extent that their social, cultural, and political practices are in some way, and some more directly than others, rooted in those of the most powerhungry and bloodthirsty of all global empires: Christendom. In his unfinished and posthumously published manuscript God and the State, Mikhail Bakunin addresses this problematic relationship directly. The Russian philosopher argues that “belief in God” is ultimately “the root of all the absurdities that torment the world,” and that one of those tormenting “absurdities” is the state. Together, god and the state serve as “the vampires of history, ever nourished upon human blood.” [4]

The fundament of all religion is the idea that anything good, beautiful, or positive is the product of the divine, whereas humanity itself is only capable of producing all that is bad, ugly, or negative. [5] In essence, god—manmade and mythical—is the “negation” of humanity, and the church functions as a central institution of reeducation which reinforces this principle, brainwashing us to believe that humans are nothing without god. This dichotomy translates easily to the social, cultural, and political practices of the modern state. For Bakunin, the state operates much like the church: “[T]hat is, a tutelage officially and regularly established by a minority of competent men, men of virtuous genius or talent, who will watch and guide the conduct of this great, incorrigible, and terrible child, the people.” [6] Consider, for example, that the rights you possess as a citizen of your nation are dependent upon your citizenship. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as they are outlined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, are “unalienable” rights given to us by a divine “Creator.” But the authors of the Declaration suggest that “we” were not exercising these rights before our political saviors came along and freed them from the tyrannous grip of the government that “we” declared independence from. As such, the state serves as an intermediary between the goodness of god—manifested in our unalienable rights—and “us.” [7] Being raised in the U.S., which, by Bakunin’s definition, is a modern state that serves as a quasi-church and employs the fundament of all religion as its governing principle, my teenage conversion to a religion which hallows “the disparagement of humanity for the greater glory of divinity” was not a far stretch for me. [8]

 

“Yes, I am a piece of shit, and the only way for me to not be a piece of shit is to [insert snake oil salesman pitch here].”

 

But what does this have to do with Christmas? In a word, sacrifice. As a Christian holiday, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, the mythical figure who represents the ultimate sacrifice, or the bridge between the good (divinity) and the bad (humanity), through his death on the cross. The Christian message is often that goodness can only be obtained through the emulation of Christ’s sacrifice and, as an impressionable fourteen year-old boy, what better way to emulate the ultimate sacrifice than to forego the real meaning of Christmas—lights, snowmen, Santa, family, and presents under the tree—and replace it with the solemn veneration of the idea that, ultimately, I am a piece of shit in need of the sacrifice of a magical baby turned mythical savior?

The empty Christmas vacuum that was left by granddad’s death, or rather, the truth about granddad’s death, was finally filled with a measure of self-loathing and self-denial that was of biblical proportions. Literally. The impact of this change and that of my continued cultural indoctrination as a teenager in the U.S. was so much that, even after I had renounced my slavery to an antiquated religious belief system and forsaken the stories about virgin births and baby Jesuses, Christmas was still a miserable time for me. It became an annual season in which I would loathe the human condition, reflect on the cruelty of life and death, wallow in the irony of intention vs. actualization, and mourn all that Christmas used to mean to me.

But now that this has changed, now that I don’t mind getting excited about and participating in the holiday, now that I identify as an atheistic Satanist, it’s a good time to reevaluate Christmas and its meaning.

VI.VI.VI. THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS SACRIFICE

When I began to identify as an atheistic Satanist almost two years ago, I really let go. And I don’t just mean that I started to let my hair grow long or started wearing more black or started to be less apologetic about being me. I mean that I let go of all of it—every last vestige of my culturally christian upbringing that I hadn’t yet successfully ejected from my life. The idea that I, as a human, and not as a god, am unable to attain goodness or beauty or that which is right and rightfully owed to me—gone. The notion that my thoughts or my actions or my very life is somehow in debt to and must pay atonement for some shitty memory or the fact that I am grandad’s grandson—gone. My attachment to anything that could serve as a weight to hold me or my aspirations down—gone.

I really let go, and that continues to have effects on how I see things today.

I get a little tickled around the holidays when I hear or read about people getting miffed at someone wishing them a “Merry Christmas.” “I’m not a Christian!” they say, or “That’s offensive!” And I get it. I used to bitch about it, too. Bakunin doesn’t call god “a corrosive poison, which destroys and decomposes life, falsifies and kills it” for no reason. [9] Religion in general, and Christianity specifically, has done much irreparable harm to many people, and for some, the words “Merry Christmas” equate to “Fuck You and everything you (don’t) believe in!” But as producer, blogger, and all-around Satanist extraordinaire Greg Stevens infers in a December 2016 post about Christmas and the alleged war against it, perhaps we should reconsider the meaning we give to the holiday:

When you insist that a bunch of Jews, and Muslims, and Satanists, and Pastafarians, and Buddhists, and Zoroastrians, and non-religious folks of all types, use the phrase “Merry Christmas” over and over again… what is it, exactly, that you think is going to happen?

What’s the strategy, here?

Do you honestly think that having them use those words every December will make them think of their winter holiday more religiously? Do you think that hearing the word “Christmas” will magically burrow into their minds and make them think: “Oh… now that I utter the word Christmas, I may as well change my core moral and metaphysical beliefs!”

Because that’s not how I see this playing out at all. [10]

In the same spirit behind Stevens’ 2016 pledge to wish everyone a Merry Christmas that year, I’m going to take it one step further:

I’m going to celebrate Christmas from now on, and I’m going to enjoy it!

I’m going to drive my daughter around to look at all the Christmas lights every year, celebrating the marvels of electricity and the science that harbors it into such a spectacular display of Christmas cheer. I’m going to tell my daughter stories every December about Santa Claus (but not the part about him “always watching kids”—that’s creepy) and put Christmas presents marked “From: Santa” under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, just so I can watch her indulge joyously in the next morning’s take. I’m going to watch Frosty the Snowman with my daughter every November and, if we’re lucky, we’ll make a one-foot-tall desert snowman (three parts snow, one part dirt) once every ten years. We’re going to celebrate Christmas as a day for our family to come together over food, presents, and, most of all, indulgence, because what is a better reason to celebrate than indulging in being alive and free? We’re going to stand up every December 25th and declare that we don’t owe anything to anyone! And we will never, ever sacrifice any piece of ourselves, especially not our excitement, fulfillment, or indulgence.

Fuck sacrifice.

Fuck the god or church or state that demands it.

 

  1. By “a true” story, I mean that this is how I remember it. Others involved might remember a detail or two differently, but this account is true to me and my memory.
  2. Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin, God and the State, trans. Carlo Cafiero and Elisée Reclus (1882), 22-23.
  3. Greg Stevens, “The (not very Christian) reason I will say ‘Merry Christmas’ this year” (2016), https://gregstevens.com/2016/12/03/not-christian-reason-merry-christmas-year/.
  4. Bakunin, 21, 59.
  5. The word “fundament” has a double meaning: first, it means the buttocks or anus; secondly, it means a foundation or underlying principle. I employ both meanings simultaneously in my use of the word because, ultimately, I’m a cheeky little shit who loves wordplay.
  6. Bakunin, 39.
  7. Declaration of Independence, U.S., www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/.
  8. Bakunin, 38
  9. Ibid., 64.
  10. Stevens.
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