Last year, we enlisted our very own Megan Phelps-Roper to share her Christmas story. It was—it is—a poignant reminder of what this holiday is supposed to be, and we’re pleased to reprint it this year.
Merry Christmas from everyone at The Free Press. — BW
Holidays are infamous for bringing up all kinds of complicated feelings in people, and I count myself among them: my family hates Christmas. It was never a matter of bickering over politics at Christmas dinner, or the frustration of gifts poorly chosen and received ungraciously. No, no—in my family, Christmas was a matter of eternal significance: “I hate, I despise your feast days,” God chides in one Bible passage. God hated Christmas, and so everyone else had to as well.
Or so we believed.
As a child growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church—you may have known us as the “God Hates Fags” protestors—I never much minded my family’s ideological separatism. The church was my world: my grandfather founded it, my mother was its spokesperson, and everyone I loved was deeply committed to its vision. In practice this meant that from the age of five, my holiday season consisted primarily of a series of protests on cold winter evenings. My extended family and I would hold signs condemning Christmas idolatry, planting ourselves on sidewalks outside of Christmas concerts, church services, and performances of The Nutcracker.
I always searched out pockets of light so that my sign could be seen even on the darkest nights: in the glow of the concert hall’s marquee, or near the lighted displays of snowflakes and wreaths, or under the domes of the downtown lamp posts. From my perch I would join my family’s spirited chorus, belting out vulgar parodies of popular Christmas tunes to the young families scurrying past in their peacoats and fancy shoes. Our version of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town was inspired by the Catholics: Don’t leave your kids / With that red fright! / Just like the priests / He’ll rape ‘em at night! / Santa Claus will take you to hell!
Instead of adorning our house with colorful lights and reading A Christmas Carol, my ten siblings and I would gather in our living room while my mother read to us of the holiday’s history: Christmas was rooted in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, repurposed by early Christians hoping to rehabilitate the festivals of heathens who were surely burning in a fiery Hell. With origins like these, my family demanded, what good was there to be salvaged from this pagan farce of a holiday?
My doubts about our beliefs—even the ability to feel affection for outsiders—didn’t come until my twenties. So it was no burden for me to sacrifice the gifts, the carols, the camaraderie I saw among my classmates as they fashioned reindeer out of construction paper and popsicle sticks. How privileged I felt to have parents who kept me from such abominations.
It wasn’t just Christmas. It was Thanksgiving (“This is a thankless, gluttonous nation!”). It was the Fourth of July (“America Is Doomed!”). It was Mother’s Day and Father’s Day (“These people hate their children!”). It was Halloween and Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day and May Day (God hates sorcery, whoredom, Catholics, and false goddesses, respectively). “Mourn For Your Sins,” our signs commanded. For us, public celebrations were first and foremost an opportunity to set ourselves apart from others. We used them to point out the worst of human depravity, and to loudly declare: We are not like you.
Now raising a family of my own far outside of Westboro’s fences, I was scrolling Instagram awhile back when an image caught my eye: a solid orange square whose caption included the hashtag #DayOfMourning. It was Canada Day, a few days before Independence Day in the U.S., and this was the first of many posts to cross my feed with a similar theme: neither America nor Canada were countries worth celebrating. The sins of our forefathers—slavery, genocide—had stained our flags with blood, and there could be no redemption. What decent person could fail to disavow such evil?
“Today we won’t celebrate Canada, we will mourn,” that first caption said. Others quoted a famous speech given by Frederick Douglass. “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!” he said in 1852. “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Perhaps you saw similar posts decrying Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. (“Celebrating on a day of mass genocide is disrespectful no matter how you spin it,” one image read. “STOP. CELEBRATING. THANKSGIVING.”)
History, both personal and collective, has a way of holding us in its grasp until we find a way to deal with it. History is why I read words like the ones above and hear them in my mother’s voice. It’s why others ponder genocide when they think about Thanksgiving dinner. It’s why my mother sees a Catholic Church and cringes in disgust at a global pedophilia scandal so depraved it sounds like a conspiracy theory. The associations run deep, even when the connections are tenuous:
Anti-pedophilia lyrics bellowed into the night outside a nativity play at the local cathedral.
A quote disavowing the Fourth of July, taken from an Antebellum speech and wielded in a world after the abolishment of slavery, after the Civil Rights Act, after public sentiment shifted so drastically that 94% of Americans now support interracial marriage.
The residual condemnation of a Bible verse, called to mind at the sight of that #DayOfMourning hashtag: “Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the Lord; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.”
As though we would forever be prisoners of the past.
Ten years have passed since I rejected my family’s beliefs and lost everyone who kept them—which is to say, almost everyone I’d ever loved. In the vacuum of meaning and purpose and community that followed, there were copious opportunities to think about associations like these. I had 26 years’ worth of them: deep-seated suspicions and mistrust of gay people, Jews, atheists, everyone and everything outside the tiny orbit of my family. I despaired of being held prisoner by those associations for the rest of my life.
And so I set about to have them challenged.
I read books and considered ideas that my family had always dismissed out of hand. Was there anything to them? I sought out people my family had targeted and condemned. Were they evil, as I had been taught? And as I befriended outsiders—as I watched them live their lives up close—I began to see beauty in their traditions, and to adopt some of them myself.
Christmas was the hardest by far.
I was halting and awkward in the early years, overcome by a sense of fraudulence and revulsion each time I heard myself return a proffered “Merry Christmas!” Walking into a Christmas Eve church service felt like crossing enemy lines, sending my heart rate and blood pressure soaring. The lyrics playing in my head—Five golden showers!—were a mismatch from the cheery music playing over the speakers at holiday gatherings. I heard my mother’s voice again, railing against the paganism of Christmas trees as she read from a passage in the book of Jeremiah.
But new associations began to take hold, too. I watched new friends and loved ones delight in the season, their coming together with joy and generosity with family faraway. It became a time of reflection—not to remember and mourn for sin, as my family demanded, but with a powerful gratitude that has redeemed even the Covid years. I came to see these periodic celebrations not as a denial of all that’s wrong in the world or in our lives, but as a reminder of the beauty we hope to preserve in them—a choice to build on good things, which is both more difficult and more worthwhile than the choice to tear down and root out.
During my first season celebrating Christmas, the distance between my old life and the new one I was building was so pronounced as to be disorienting. There was no through line, it seemed, no continuity, no connection. I felt myself reaching for history, for some old association that I could keep alive—and suddenly, there was an opening.
“Let’s take a drive around town to look at all the Christmas lights,” said the man who would become my husband, snow and ice crunching under our feet as we hurried through the dark toward his Jeep.
All at once I was a child, climbing into the back of a big blue van with my dad at the wheel. He wanted to take my siblings and me around the neighborhood to look at the holiday displays, and I was confused. Wasn’t it wrong to enjoy what was forbidden? “They’re just lights,” my dad said gently. “I’ve always liked them.”
His words were simple and matter of fact, and they revealed what had been true all along: that we get to choose the meaning we assign to our experiences—that they need not be tethered forever to the evils of an unchanging past. My father’s words functioned almost like an incantation, and as we wandered through the streets admiring the elaborate patterns and colors, the twinkling bulbs lining the rooftops were transformed in my little eyes. No longer heathen. No longer abominable. They were brightness and light and cheer in the long darkness of those cold winter nights.
Exactly as they’d been intended.