Born Again

Christmas Believer

 by Elaine Stevens

As a child, I guess you could say I was pretty normal around Christmastime. I believed in magic. That is like millions of other children around the world I was deluded by the image of a robust bearded man falling down a sooty chimney, eating my Greek Christmas cookies, and leaving behind my Christmas dreams beneath an elaborate tree.

Well, as the years passed, I managed somehow to leave my own Christmas dreams behind.   As I ran down the path of capitalistic materialism climbing the career ladder towards the star of success, I lost sight of the other star.  The magic of Christmas faded into oblivion. A discolored world of childhood memories and fantasies that I could barely revive in my cynical adulthood replaced the excitement of Christmases past.

A dozen tragedies and major matrimonial disappointments later, I found myself dreading the sounds and smells of that Deck the Halls and Strip Your Pocketbook Season. Every year like clockwork, my anxiety and panic would begin to build on November 1st.   I needed belief to give me relief.

However, rediscovering the magic of Christmas required great courage on my part, somewhat like Dorothy’s adventure to the Emerald City. There were many lions and tigers and bears along the way. To regenerate my belief I had to cross the continental United States, change my life—once again—and dig way down deep into my Southern roots.

As I resisted the urge to free fall back into the Bible Belt of the deep South, which I had happily left eight years earlier for the freedom of the west coast, I suddenly found myself taken up with the spirit and at long last, the magic of Christmas for the first time in many years. It happened on a chilly Sunday evening--December 15,2002 to be exact in what I had been told for years was a forbidden place for me —the First Baptist Church of Biloxi.

Going to such a place had remained a long-standing taboo of my Greek heritage.  In fact, walking through the doors of any institution where you had not been christened a follower by being dunked into a tub of holy water and nearly drowned as a sinful infant and slathered in olive oil was a big no-no for a Greek—especially one growing up in a South that couldn’t even spell Greek Orthodox way back when.

There I was told I would find the land of unreality when it came to religion and spirit. No icons, no priest decked out in golden threads, no ancient text being spoken, and certainly very few contemporaries in the congregation. Of course, becoming overwhelmingly inspired was in itself a complete impossibility I was consistently informed by my ethnic elders.

Ten days before Christmas, surely sufficient time to erase at least a percentage of my cynicism I set out on a two-fold mission:

  1. To cheer up my 81-year-old mother (who remains a bit morose after her recent knee replacement surgery)

  2. To rediscover the true meaning of Christmas.

So I took on the great burden of attending a Christmas service “outside our faith.”  In my naïve determination I was willing to try just about anything—even a Baptist church. Having read about the Singing Christmas Tree in our local paper I was even more determined to see and hear—and hopefully feel—something I had yet to experience in several decades.

We were turned away on our first attempt for the 2:30 afternoon production. Not because we didn’t belong, but because, as is my norm, we were running late and the church was filled to capacity and beyond.  Were that many people as desperate to find the magic of Christmas here in my hometown?  Or, did they already know something I didn’t know?

Still determined to get results, Mother and I set out an hour and forty-five minutes early for the 6 pm service.  It’s a good thing. If I had done my usual Greek time routine, we’d have been turned away again. “Alas! We are early for something,” my mother exclaimed, elated at our primo third row seats.

Waiting with the anticipation of any theatre audience, neither of us knew quite what to expect. To pass the time, I picked up an available Bible and was reading the Book of Revelation (That’s a clear indication of my holiday state of mind!) when I heard a voice from the past. A high school chum I hadn’t seen in years was nearly as surprised at our attendance in his church as we were.  

As the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church darkened a rush of Frank Capra magic from It’s a Wonderful Life hit me in one fell swoop.

A gigantic magical Christmas tree, bursting with rows of rainbow lights and ornamented with human voices praising the Gift of a Lifetime; dancing angels pirouetting around the Baby Jesus; the illuminating lyrics from Mary and Joseph; a young unpretentious pastor who shared his beliefs passionately yet sincerely; an inspired minister of music who conducted a production the caliber of a Tony Award winning Broadway extravaganza—these were the visible elements contributing to my Christmas transformation.

The perfection of the production went beyond the sound of Christmas bells, inspirational music, jubilant dancing and remarkable stage performances.  The Singing Christmas Tree was an all-inclusive creation, involving multi-generations of talent. Young, old and in-between took on their roles with heart and spirit.  Thus, song-by-song, entrance by entrance, my holiday cynicism and anxiety were peeled away layer by layer.

Not easily caught up in any religious fervor of the moment, I was surprisingly awakened to the true meaning of Christmas as a church filled with loving family members and friends applauded each beautifully performed hymn.

Mother and I could hardly believe our eyes or our ears. We kept looking at one another in amazement.  Tears of joy and understanding were streaming down my face.  I felt renewed. Since December 15th, Mother has been on the phone with all of her church friends and family members telling them about our spiritual experience at the First Baptist Church of Biloxi.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” she keeps repeating.  “Thank you, Elaine, for taking me to see it.” 

I had been waiting a long time to feel this feeling again—it was the only Christmas gift I have ever really wanted—and it was one that could not be purchased by anyone anywhere in the world.  I had to uncover it in my own heart—with the help of a phenomenal Singing Christmas Tree and the dedicated members of a very special church.

Thank you to the First Baptist Church of Biloxi for giving me the Christmas gift of a lifetime!

 

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