Addie (not her real name) is my neighbor. She lives down the hall of our apartment building.
Our first real conversation happened last year.
As I recall, it was Boxing Day (Dec 26). Between church and family gatherings, my husband and I had amassed more yuletide sweets than we could eat in a lifetime. I thought of Addie—all I knew about her was that she was older and seemed a bit lonely.
She graciously accepted the festive plate of cookies I’d put together for her.
“Come in!” She beckoned me into her flat. We chatted pleasantly for a while before I left.
“Addie loved the cookies!” I announced to my husband upon returning home.
He smiled in a way that was not un-mischievous. I followed him around the apartment until he told me what secret joke he was harboring.
“Well,” he began. “After you left the apartment, I remembered Addie is a Jehovah’s Witness. She told me once in the elevator, I guess I forgot to tell you.”
His tone was hardly repentant, if anything he was getting a kick out of this. “Anyway,” he continued. “You know what that means, right?”
Of course I knew what it meant. I recalled a JW boy I knew in first grade, Brent, who had gone home whenever we had parties in class. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate the birth of Christ, or any holidays—not even birthdays.
I wasn’t sure what to think. Not that sugar cookies embody the meaning of Christmas, but still. I felt uncomfortable—on Addie’s behalf, on my behalf, on Christmas’ behalf.
Nine months later, it is the end of summer, and I am in Addie’s apartment again—we’ve been meaning to have tea together for ages.
We talk about life and culture and how hard it is to maintain any sense of calm in a bustling metropolis. She tells me about her old life in Ghana, we trade stories of moving to Canada, she talks about her sons.
I ask Addie why she became Jehovah’s Witness. She’d lived “in the world” too long, she said. In her older age, she’d started reading the Bible more. Jehovah’s Witnesses, she explained, take the Bible more seriously than anyone else.
“We don’t add to it,” she said. “We take it at its word: the Word of God.”
Don’t we all, I mused.
She wanted to know my honest impressions of Jehovah’s Witness. Honestly?
Aside from Brent, the first memory I had of Jehovah’s Witnesses was when they showed up on our doorstep one day. I was young, and remember how they told my parents blood transfusions were an abomination.
Addie kind of nodded when I described this. “In the Old Testament, God tells us not to consume blood,” she explained.
But it really upset my parents, I went on. I was born with a genetic blood disorder—so were all my siblings. We wouldn’t have made it through childhood without blood transfusions. By the time those Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our door that day, we’d probably had something like thirty transfusions between the three of us.
“Well, that’s not for me to judge your parents’ decision to allow that,” she said calmly, a placid smile spreading across her face as though we were maybe discussing a difference in dessert preferences. I asked her, if it were her child, if she would have allowed the transfusion. Shaking her head no, she added a cherry-flavored pastry to my plate.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that blood is sacred to God, that the blood Christ shed on the cross is the only kind of blood—literally and figuratively—we need to save us. They believe that the Old Testament prohibitions against consuming blood in animal flesh still applied.
But didn’t Christ’s coming in the flesh sanctify blood in a way? Redeem it from the law?
“So what do you do about communion?” I was curious. “The part where Christ says ‘this is my blood’? He shared His blood with His disciples before it was shed.”
“Well, we only commemorate the last supper once a year, and we don’t actually partake. We just pass the cup around. And the bread.”
“But, what about the part where Christ commands us to ‘Take, eat…’? It says that in the Bible, I thought you take the Bible seriously.” I was confused.
“He was only saying it to his apostles, and they’re not alive today, so we can’t actually partake.”
And with that, Addie stood to make a new pot of tea.
“Do you have any other impressions of Jehovah’s Witnesses?” Addie asked me, after pouring hot water into my cup.
Well, there was the whole Christmas thing, I definitely wanted to know about that.
“The reason we don’t celebrate Christmas is simple,” Addie told me. “This may be hard to hear, and you probably don’t know this, but the truth is: Christ wasn’t born on December 25th.” She inhaled deeply, as though more concerned about my response on this topic than that time she implied my parents should have left me to die with low blood-oxygen levels.
“Well of course he wasn’t!” I laughed. “We don’t know when he was born.”
“Exactly. We don’t worship a date,” she told me. “There is no December 25th in the Bible.”
“But the birth of Christ is in the Bible. So is the Incarnation,” I said. “Why can’t we celebrate that?”
“Because Christ never says to celebrate His birthday—or anyone else’s.”
We went around in circles like this for a while. By the end of it, I’d learned several things that inform the way Jehovah’s Witnesses think about time and holidays:
- Bad things happened whenever birthdays were celebrated in the Bible. Remember the beheading of (St.) John the Baptist? That was a wish Herod granted Herodias’ daughter in honor of his birthday.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t worship flags or dates. Therefore, Christmas and Canada Day—and pretty much every other holiday—are out of bounds. Including birthdays.
- Easter is permissible, because we can tell from the New Testament approximately when it happened (Passover is in the Jewish month of Nissan). But Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t “celebrate” it, they only “commemorate” it—it is strictly a historical remembrance.
Addie’s notions of Christ and faith painted life in very austere tones.
It was a way of living that seemed more concerned about what one can and can’t do—what will and won’t make God angry—than having an actual relationship with God.
I tried to imagine going to someone’s house and only passing the food around but never eating it–in Greek culture, at least, that would be akin to spitting on someone.
“Last Christmas you gave me some cookies,” she reminded me.
“In my defense, that was before I knew you’d be morally opposed to such things,” I joked.
“No, no! Not at all!” She laughed. “You know what I did with those? You might think I threw them away, but no. I took them to the kingdom hall, across the street, and shared them with my friends. We loved them! And that’s what I mean: it’s all about love. We don’t judge, we just love. It’s all about the love.”
Despite the levity, her comment rang a bit hollow.
Loving people, I realized, is about more than smiling or eating their cookies.
What is love if it is not filled with something—someOne ? God is Love—not just in a theoretical way, but in an actual, physical, bodily, tangible way. He filled the world of flesh with His son. Jesus saw sickness, He saw death, He shed actual blood. He healed and touched and lived and died and rose again. Every other way we have to show love—cookies, tea, hospitality—is a shadow of that incarnational love. We can say that life is all about love, but love can be pretty empty when it’s not filled with Christ.
Christmas keeps our love from growing vague and void and hollow. It reminds us that we have been loved by God in all our humanness, all our feebleness. And it will take us our whole life and beyond to fully appreciate this.
Maybe there are saintly souls out there who can keep all of this in mind every day of the year. But for the rest of us, there is Christmas. A time we step out of normal time and into the incarnation.
Christmas keeps us stretching, longing, reaching for the reality of God’s condescension we can scarcely fathom. It’s not about December 25, it’s not even about a birthday—it’s about eternity being embodied.
As perhaps a kind of penance, Addie sent me home with an enormous array of pastries and cookies—once again putting me in a position of having more sweets than two people should have in one apartment.
I placed them on my counter and wondered what to do with them. I remember how Addie had brought my Christmas cookies to the kingdom hall with her, and shared them with her friends. I decided I’d follow suite and package up the sweets for a Church study group my husband was leading that week.
And now, December has come around once again.
I’ve been debating, but in the end, I hope I give Addie Christmas cookies this year just like I did last year. It’s a small gesture, and in no way matches the kind of love God showed us in sending His son into this world, but it’s a start.
(Author’s update: Recently, “Addie” moved away. Our parting was friendly, but alas, she left no forwarding address. Perhaps I will bring cookies to the new tenants and strike up a conversation…)