Erin Petersen

The Christmas Virgin

By - Dec 21st, 2009 09:04 am
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email

In spite of the overstuffed decadence that marks this time of year, I have to admit that I’m a real sucker for Christmas. Not the Christ part or the crazed, glossy-eyed freak shopper part, but somehow when the season gets into full swing and quaint little homes are draped in twinkling lights and everything is yuletide carols, peace and goodwill … I simply can’t help myself.

My obsession started in childhood, back when I was a good little Jehovah’s Witness, back when Christmas was just one of many, many things that were forbidden. (It’s always awkward to admit this detail, as it elicits such odd responses. I feel like I could introduce myself as Throk, lizard princess from  planet Moon Zoot, here to feast on Earth’s finest baby brains and soft toadstools and be received with less shock and general creepiness than when I admit my former evangelical affiliation. It was bizarre, yes, but it wasn’t the People’s Temple or anything).

I was taught to (respectfully) loathe such pagan rituals as Christmas, and at the time, I suppose part of me actually did. I was the kid who told your kid that Santa Claus didn’t exist and that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. I refused gifts from kids at school and got used to saying, “It’s against my religion,” in defense of everything. Yet, the aesthetic and all of the luxurious ephemera that accompanied the holiday made me want to crawl right up inside Christmas and stay there until spring. It fascinated me with it’s mysterious traditions and folklore — even the carols could inspire  emotions that shook me to my core. To this day, Bing Crosby’s velvety rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear” seizes me in a way that I cannot describe. As he croons “a song, a song / high above the tree / with a voice as big as the sea/ with a voice as big as the sea,” my heart swells and I can barely sing along.

A voice as big as the sea.

The majority of my relatives weren’t affiliated with the religion — and protested my parents conversion — so I  had a taste of life on the other side via my extended family. Granny insisted that we (my sister and I) never missed out on  holidays, even if it meant creating a rift between herself and my mother. And, it did.

Me at age 6, trying not to freak out.

Me at age 6, trying not to freak out.

At Christmas, we’d  inspect every box under her tree, trying  our best to remain subdued and nonchalant — even when we saw boxes marked with our names “From Santa.” There’s no such thing as Santa. We don’t need a special day to give; every day is a gift from God. Over and over, like a mantra. We’re not supposed to like this stuff. Inside we were giddy with anticipation, ready to rip open every neatly wrapped package and roll around on top of the wreckage.

This dance lasted for years, it was just one of the many times that I found myself trying to marry proper Christian behavior with my intense craving for all things “other.” Eventually, I realized that they were mutually exclusive. Everything inside of me wanted to break away from that life and the power it held over me.

At 18, after years of tumult, I left the organization. I tried so desperately to make myself believe, but it was never right.  As a baptized Witness,  leaving meant living in obscurity (see Matthew 5:30). I had to be absolutely certain; otherwise, all of the pain and utter humiliation would be for naught. There were three  interviews, an interrogation before a panel of elders and dozens of phone calls and cards begging me to reconsider. But my mind was made up. This was right. And so it was done and formally announced.

“Brothers and sisters, Sister Erin Petersen has been dis-fellowshipped.” It felt like my ears were on fire.

My father made me attend, so I sat in the back  and watched as the congregation gasped, seized by some unspeakable pain. One man, a Brother Jensen if I recall, just looked over at me and shook his head.

In the months that followed, I was in a manic state of ecstasy — I was liberated, empowered and in control. Finally, I answered to no one but myself!

But then again, who was around to ask questions?

Celebrating Christmas was just another milestone in my newfound independence. I plunged  into the holiday season, sure that the universe owed me something for my troubles. It was an incredible rush to claw through crammed shopping malls, shuffling amid the frenzied crowd with a wallet full of cash, weighed down with a dozen overstuffed bags. Pure, unadulterated consumption was a cathartic alternative to the mania.

I was mincing about on my spree when, from the ether, my parents appeared. My first instinct was to hide the obvious Christmas presents that I was towing , or maybe crawl into a rack of coats and wait it out.

This was exactly what they expected — to see me indulging in the bloated, superficial things of the world without concern for modesty or virtue. I was overtaken by hot, prickly guilt. By Christmas Eve, my high had been effectively grounded.

Another non-christmas. Note that Ghostbusters II is on TV

Another non-Christmas. Note that Ghostbusters II is on TV.

“Mornin’ Bee-bee,” my grandpa said as he woke me on Christmas morning. “Did you see Santa?” He smiled over me.  It was a little past 7 a.m., and I could barely speak, much less feign enthusiasm. I hobbled up the stairs where my grandparents and aunt were waiting, presumably for me. Everyone was smiling, and I realized that they were all genuinely excited for my first Christmas. I saw a tiny box tied with a giant gold ribbon sitting on the table marked: “To Erin, From Santa.” I felt oddly relieved.

It was my first, real Christmas present without the latent guilt trip. I pressed my thumb to the seam, savoring the slow, ratchety sound as the glossy paper tore open. Inside was a hefty stack of lottery tickets and one for the evening Powerball drawing. I could feel their eyes on me, measuring my reaction as I studied the box in my hands. I was so overwhelmed I could barely stand it. “How wonderful,” I thought.

Grandpa squeezed my shoulder.

“Merry Christmas, kid,” he said, handing me a quarter. “Dig in.”

0 thoughts on “The Christmas Virgin”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Erin, what a great — and very different — Christmas story! Thanks so much for sharing it. — Tom

  2. Anonymous says:

    Erin, I needed something to drink my tears down and cool my heart after reading this golden piece. Joy & May All yr. Christmas’ be Bright.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I echo the above. What a powerful, wonderful piece. I almost cried at “A voice as big as the sea,” considering the line in a way I never had before.

    This is greatness.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I read your story twice, heart clenched, and holding my breath, knowing that there’s so much between these lines! You’ve recalled the most tender moments, and turned them (from painful memories) into wonderfully gilded stories. Bravo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *