Christmas Day 1989. I stood on a chair so my tiny six-year old hands could reach the kitchen counter. Into a big marigold yellow bowl plopped a cup of fine white flour. The fragrant dust rose up and tickled my nose.
"Are you ready to crack the eggs?" My mother asked.
Cracking eggs was my favorite part. I focused all my attention on not getting any shell pieces in the bowl. Crunchy chocolate chip cookies were something I didn't want to repeat.
"Mom," I began. "Why can't we celebrate Christmas too? Like everyone else." She took a deep breath of patience. This was the merry-go-round conversation my mother and I had every year since I can remember.
"Well, no one actually knows when Jesus was born," she tried to explain for the umpteenth time to my seemingly deaf ears. "And we're taught the Bible says to celebrate Jesus' death and not birth. But you're still having fun right now, aren't you?"
I was. I couldn't deny it. My mother and I had our own rituals. Baking cookies and having little parties to simply celebrate life were the norm.
But growing up a strict Jehovah's Witness, I wanted what everyone else had--a Christmas tree, Easter eggs, a jack-o-lantern, and the flipping tooth fairy for goodness' sake. And why it was wrong to have all these things boggled my mind. Being a curious child, this reel of inquisitiveness played constantly.
At 16, when I left the Jehovah's Witness religion, I made a scrapbook full of things I wanted to celebrate and do when I was an adult and had my own life. Cut and pasted magazine clippings for holiday parties and pink frosted birthday cakes were plastered on every page.
And now fast forward to present day. At 32, I take out my scrapbook from its hiding place in my closet and gently finger its pages--not because I question my decision of amicably parting ways with organized religion, but because I still struggle to find my own belief system. To believe or not to believe? To celebrate or not to celebrate? What to celebrate and how? Someone should inform Hamlet that these are the real questions.
An intuitive friend once told me that worshipping God is like touching an elephant. Although we all believe differently and therefore are touching different parts of the elephant, at the end of the day, it's still the same majestic elephant.
But after being taught a religion where there's black or white and never any grey, I questioned if this is enough when it comes to believing. But now I'm also starting to wonder. Does it really matter?
If chocolate chip cookies from my mother comfort me, the thought of a Christmas tree excites me, carving a pumpkin makes me giggle, celebrating the Summer and Winter Solstices connects me to nature, and believing in something higher--no matter what or who it is--makes me feel grateful...then why not believe in it all?
In an effort to satisfy an Eat, Pray, Love moment, I traveled to Northern Ireland this past September to meet with a wise Spiritual Healer and Celtic Guide named Maura to ask her all my questions.
We walked among ancient stone circles and burial sites while she explained to me the deep-rooted traditions that make up Irish beliefs. And while nothing is universal, especially when it comes to something as complex as religion and spirituality, I noticed that in many instances pre-Christian and Christian dogma fluidly marry together to form the sacred belief system of thousands of people throughout Ireland--and quite possibly the world.
Many of the commonly recognized holidays are connected to pre-Christian celebrations of natural phenomena like seasons and planetary cycles.
For example, the Celtic belief in Samhain became part of the Christian culture of All Souls Day and today's Halloween.
The Winter Solstice also coincides around Christmas and the celebration of Jesus' birth. Taking it a step further outside of Christianity, Jewish Hanukkah falls on the 25th of Kislev--which is the month in the Jewish calendar that often occurs simultaneously with December.
The pre-Christian Irish Feast of Imbolc, held on February 1st, was transformed into St. Brigid's Day--who became Ireland's second patron saint.
Easter, commemorating Jesus' resurrection, is observed after the Spring Equinox with Easter Sunday celebrations scheduled according to the position of the paschal full moon.
As I stared up at a regal Celtic High Cross, I realized that I was brought to Northern Ireland, not only to question my own beliefs, but quite possibly to receive the gift of seeing how similar, rather than different, we are when it comes to embracing spirituality.
But my question still remained. "How does one choose?"
"Alicia," Maura replied gently. "Believe in it all. You don't have to choose. God is within you."
After a full day of soul exploration and patiently answering all my questions, Maura sent me on my way filled with prayers, love, and a lot to think about.
But now back in The States, with the traditional holiday season approaching, I feel I'm ready to make a decision.
For the first time, I'm making a very untraditional Thanksgiving dinner that will include my Cuban Nani's authentic Sopa de Frijoles (Black Bean Soup), my other Sicilian Nonna's Arancini di Riso (Stuffed Rice Balls), American cranberry sauce (because it's my favorite), and Irish Wheaten Bread. All family, friends, and neighbors who want to attend are more than welcome in my home.
I'm hanging a Yule wreath on my front door and decorating a Christmas tree with pinecones, acorn caps, strings of dried berries and flowers--all while singing "Silent Night" at the top of my lungs.
I'm celebrating the Winter Solstice by making my favorite dark chocolate cake, lighting it with a ring of candles to represent the glorious sun, and blowing them out to send wishes of happiness and health to the world over.
And this year on December 25th, I won't be questioning what I believe or focusing on the stark differences between religions. But instead, I'll be celebrating my own religion by relishing in the similarities that join us all and by expressing my gratitude for the many bits and pieces of food, culture, tradition, and religion that have made me the woman I am.