It’s December. The holiday season is very much upon us. For many of us who love the festivities and food and, hell, maybe even those problematic Hallmark movies, the approach of Christmas may be a good thing. But for many adults, the holidays are stressful, and the magic is gone. For some of us, the holidays even reopen old trauma, perhaps related to religious observances.
Religious trauma is a serious issue—one that has thankfully received an increasing amount of attention in recent years. It derives from the adverse experiences some people have in high-control religious groups (like evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, and hardline Catholicism), as well as the difficult process of leaving, which takes a psychological toll and usually costs leavers much—maybe even all—of their social support.
For a not few readers of this site (and a disproportionate number of people who leave high-control religious groups), holiday trauma is compounded by familial rejection because we’re queer. We may not go “home for the holidays,” and for some people, loneliness can be an issue. Or we may go “home” to face serious violations of our dignity and boundaries. If that’s you this December, I hope you’ll remember that it’s not you, it’s them—really!
On June 5, 2018, I tweeted something apropos:
You are not a traitor to your family for:
- abandoning their religion
- not conforming re: gender and sexuality
- making your own political, lifestyle, and ethical choices
If your parents coerced you in the above matters, they betrayed you.
This season can be particularly tough for survivors of abuse (among whom are lots of people who have left high-control religious backgrounds). The general social expectation is for us to return to our families of origin and behave as if everything is fine, even if it isn’t. What that often means in practice is agreeing to suppress important parts of ourselves, and/or to act as if certain abuses for which there has been no justice or resolution—emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual—never happened.
The expectation not to be “divisive” often means allowing our most obnoxiously right-wing relatives to spout racism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ views, and conspiracy theories without voicing our objections. Somehow they’re never the ones who get told to stop being divisive. And not being “divisive” may mean dealing with even worse situations, for example being sent into the kitchen to chop vegetables with a man who molested you—by that man’s wife, your close relative, who is trying hard to pretend the abuse never happened. That illustration is not drawn from my own life, but it has happened to someone I know.
I’m luckier than many queer folks from conservative Christian backgrounds these days in that, after years of painful talks, I generally get along with my parents. We are able to love and mostly accommodate each other. Many of my relatives still regard queerness as a sin. They don’t always get my name or pronouns right, but I can see that they’re mostly trying not to be unkind to me.
Even so, the religious trauma for this trans exvangelical still flares up around Christmas. Letting go of belief in Santa Claus, which I did at a quite young age, didn’t kill the “magic” of Christmas for me. What did that was my long, painful process of deconstructing the toxic evangelical Protestantism I was raised in, a process that left me incapable of really believing in anything metaphysical, let alone the whole Nativity story.
Going into evangelical churches has sometimes triggered anxiety attacks for me in recent years. Thankfully, I’ve been able to get therapy that has helped, but certain hymns, worship choruses, or Christmas carols may still at least cause me to awkwardly tear up. I will probably be asked to go to a Christmas Eve service this year. I haven’t yet decided if I will.
If you’re in a similar or worse position this holiday season, I hope you remember that you are valid and deserving of love. And I hope you’ll be able to take some time to love and appreciate yourself, however you end up spending the holidays. You deserve it. Remember, if your experience of religion—including religious holidays—has brought you exclusion and harm, it’s not your fault, and you are not alone.
If the people who brought you up coerced you in these areas, you’re not a traitor to them for staying away or setting hard boundaries as you need to, let alone for living as your authentic self. If they coerced you into suppressing your whole self, they’re the ones who betrayed you. And you get to spend December however you choose to. Whether you’re spending the holidays without family due to family rejection or boundaries you’ve had to set to protect yourself, or you’re going “home for Christmas” into a situation that can be triggering, you are valid.
Take care of yourself, find joy and comfort where you can, and participate in holiday rituals (or not) in whatever way works for you. Who knows? Maybe someday the magic of this season will come back. Or maybe you’ll find that your inner strength and power are all the magic you need.
About The Author
A full-time writer, speaker, and advocate since 2018, Chrissy Stroop is coeditor (with Lauren O'Neal) of Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church, a collection of personal essays by former conservative Christians that features many queer narratives. Stroop is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches and a columnist for openDemocracy whose work has also appeared in Foreign Policy, Playboy, The Boston Globe, Political Research Associates, and other outlets. Growing up evangelical was traumatizing, and it delayed Stroop's recognition of her own queerness into her 30s. At the same time, it taught her a lot about religion and politics, areas where she focuses most of her work. Now an atheist herself, Stroop prides herself on her record of working with both faith groups and secular organizations toward the common good and carries a message of pluralism into both kinds of spaces. She came out as a transgender woman in 2019 and resides in Portland, Oregon.