If I had to choose one thing about which to be unabashedly romantic, that thing might be Christmas Eve services. When I think of them, I fondly remember the crowded sanctuaries packed with families and family of families and eager students who’ve brought along a friend; the tall, tastefully decorated plastic evergreens; the platters of colorful, meticulously shaped, dietary restriction-labelled cookies in the lobby. But the true romance happens in the tender display of an Advent wreath, in the dim atmosphere brought to life by the congregation passing flame one to the next until all of our tiny white candles are flickering in anticipation. We bask in this new light and sing. Our hymns of joy and expectation for “the newborn King” swell in the smoky air. The voices and lights swirl together toward Heaven as the sweet aroma of celebration. Jesus is here.
I love Christmas Eve. And now it breaks my heart.
Ever since I’ve come out, attending church has felt uncomfortable. Even in congregations that claim to be affirming, the pressure consumes my chest as soon as I walk through the door: who here would reject me if they knew? In my home church, which I attend a few times a year, my anxiety triples. These aren’t strangers’ faces that might disapprove; these are the people around whom I experienced my most formative years. These are former teachers, group members, collaborators, friends. What do they know? What do they think when they see me?
All my anxiety about church attendance compounds on Christmas Eve. When two services were offered, I would volunteer in the nursery for one; when we were out of town, I enjoyed discovering new traditions at other churches with my family. And for a while, in what seems now to be a different life, I would go from the Christmas Eve service to the house of my closest friends, and we would stay together until midnight, being the first to wish each other Merry Christmas. Whatever discomfort I’ve felt in churches is unfortunate, but the loss of Christmas Eve feels unbearable.
I shake. I stall before leaving, hoping to arrive just as the service begins to avoid small pleasantries; I rush when it’s over, praying my family abides my mental plea to leave quickly and quietly. When we light candles, if we do, I glare down the flame, willing the contrast of light and darkness to conceal me. I bring my hair to the sides of my face like blinders to block my periphery. I pretend to itch my eyes as I wipe away the first pooling tears, then relent when they spill over my cheeks, hidden by the dim light. I choke while I sing “O Holy Night” and mouth the words with clenched fists.
Christmas Eve is a time for family. I remind myself that no one is watching me, probably. Nobody is passing judgement on Christmas Eve.
The first Christmas Eve after I came out, I noticed a couple in the aisle seats of the back row—the closest seats to the door. Though we hadn’t met, I recognized the two women. They were visiting family in town. I desperately wanted to talk to them, to recognize them. To feel safe for even a moment with two people who would understand why safety was elusive. I turned to find them when the service ended, but before I could even extract myself from the pew, they were gone. We were of the same mind. We all wanted to escape.
When the Christ candle is lit, we see the Incarnation bringing light to darkness. I know that Christ’s love and justice encompasses me just as much as it does every other congregant; that the hope, faith, joy, and peace of Advent is for me and embraces me not in spite of my sexuality, but in celebration of my whole self. In that moment I am able to remember that our God is bigger than these petty quarrels, and indeed that the light of Christ transcends the suffocating darkness of homophobia. But only in that moment.
My most romantic vision for Christmas Eve, once built from twinkling lights and hot cocoa and the perfect selection of hymns, now entails only one request. I want to be able to enjoy Christmas Eve again. I want to feel safe, unwatched, free from suspicion. I want to be liberated from this consuming fear. I want the celebration of Jesus’ birth to be joyful, entirely joyful.
I’ll have to wait.
Gwyneth Findlay is a writer and editor working in publishing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a degree in writing and minors in French and gender studies. She also writes for the new Calvin alumni fiction blog, Presticogitation.