Eli McCann: O come, all ye faithless, to a ‘perfect’ Jesus-rich Christmas

We godless heathens are but visitors to these celebrations, but they still bring joy to our world.

(Photos courtesy of Purdie Distribution) John (Michael McLean, left) plays a song for Constance (Adrien Swenson), a nurse sent to care for the old man, in the movie version of McLean's "The Forgotten Carols."

It never occurred to me how religious my family members were until I saw my husband experience a Christmas with them.

Suddenly, I saw cultural traditions through his eyes, and they turned into foreign rituals to me, like the reading of Luke 2 and a screening of a film produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with hot white people portraying the story of Jesus’ birth.

“That was a lot of Jesus,” he said to me on the drive home after Christmas Eve dinner at my parents’ house six years ago.

“Oh?” I asked him. “More Jesus than at Christmas with your family?”

He told me there was no Jesus at his family’s Christmas. “Just wine and a lot of fighting, and usually in that order.” Then we debated the correct amount of Jesus that should be a part of the holiday festivities, like we were discussing appropriate salsa spice levels.

“Well, it is a religious holiday,” I reminded him.

We godless heathens are but visitors to their celebrations, cosplaying as believers on an annual basis to get presents. Certainly we can’t expect them to accommodate us, here.

When I put it in those terms, he seemed to agree.

“I wasn’t trying to be critical,” he assured me. “I’ve just never really experienced anything like that before.”

From time to time, I’ll joke about his lack of familiarity with religion, since he was raised without any. His mother will protest if she’s ever within earshot.

“My children weren’t completely devoid of exposure to religion,” she once told me. “I’m pretty sure we had a Bible somewhere in the house — or at least a copy of ‘The Secret.’”

My husband once objected when he heard me assert that he never went to church growing up. “That’s not true,” he said. “I went to church one time as a kid, and I loved it. They had live music and mini-muffins and coffee.” Then he paused, looked up as if hit with an epiphany, and muttered to himself, “actually, that might have been a bakery.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christmas trees at the new Modern Display store in Murray on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022.

By the time our second Christmas together rolled around, he seemed much more prepared for the religious celebrations. That is, until my family attended a live performance of Michael McLean’s “The Forgotten Carols” on a Thursday night in mid-December.

“Here’s what you need to know,” I started downloading onto him on the drive to the concert venue. “A man wrote a musical in the ‘80s about various people from the New Testament whose stories never get told singing about the birth of Jesus. Like the innkeeper who has allegedly regretted his decision to reject Mary and Joseph and so now he takes the stage every year to remind audiences to ‘Let Him In.’”

“And,” my husband started to ask with caution, “this is, like, important to your family?”

“I don’t know,” I confessed. “Somehow we end up with tickets to this nearly every year. The tickets are like candy canes; no one is sure where they come from, but it would feel wrong if we didn’t see them every December.”

It was inconsiderate of me not to warn him about how the show ends, but I simply had to omit this part out of an interest in self-preservation. For the uninitiated: McLean concludes each of these shows by instructing audience members to hold hands with the people on either side of them, rock back and forth, and sing an eternal round of “we can be together forever someday.” The most hurtful things I’ve ever heard my siblings say to one another have happened at these concerts when we all fight over whose turn it is to sit on the end of our set of seats and next to a stranger. Keeping my husband in the dark on this would ensure he didn’t question the seating arrangement when we invited him to enter the row first and sit down next to the bearded man wearing an American flag T-shirt and cowboy hat.

After the two of them swayed together singing their eternal commitment for 10 or so minutes, my now-enlightened husband leaned over to me and whispered, “I was owed this information before we got married.”

In the years since, he has adjusted more fully to these religious traditions, helping me arrange the Nativity sets my mother has given us, humming Michael McLean tunes while we decorate our tree, and singing at 70% accuracy the words to “Silent Night” with my parents on Christmas Eve.

He even persuaded my family to get tickets to “The Forgotten Carols” again this year. (Although he acknowledged he saw this mostly as a hazing opportunity for our new brother-in-law who has married into the family.)

His cultural ignorance still pops up here and there. He recently met Kurt Bestor at a fundraiser and hit it off with him in the corner of the room. He called me over after chatting with Bestor for a half-hour or so and said, “Eli, I want you to meet Kurt. He says he’s a musician, and I think we should support him.”

His education is ongoing.

Even still, this Christmas, we’ll hang our secular ornaments like we always do. We’ll video chat with his family in Portland, Ore., over glasses of wine and get caught up on family gossip. And then, on Christmas Eve, we’ll drive to my parents’ house for dinner and a full biblical recounting of the holiday’s significance, including immaculate birth reenactments by my most willing nieces and nephews in period costumes made out of old bathrobes.

As we leave to drive back home, my mother will hug us and whisper a half-facetious apology to my husband. “Sorry,” she’ll say. “I know you didn’t grow up religious and would probably prefer to celebrate this differently, but we can’t help ourselves.”

“Please don’t apologize,” he’ll respond, in absolute sincerity. “This was perfect.”

(Pat Bagley) Eli McCann, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

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