By Michael Carroll

My religious group, former Catholics, is apparently the third largest in the country, coming in just behind practicing Catholics and Baptists. So says a respected Jesuit, and when Jesuits talk, I tend to listen - not adopt necessarily, but at least listen.

I was interested, maybe even a little gratified, to learn that I no longer lack a religious identity, especially in the Christmas season. This is the time when I find myself ruminating about what, if anything, I should celebrate.

Christmas can no longer mean toys for me, although I do secretly crave fancy flashlights and other gadgets. I see those little toy helicopters that really fly and wonder if I would look all that silly playing with one. Too bad my kids are in their twenties: They once could have provided useful cover. Years ago, my father bought a Lionel train set - for me, of course, not for him.

Toys aside, it is strange to be a six-decade-old former altar boy and choirboy - a double threat - engaged in middle-of-the-night musing on the subject. (I may do my best musing on cold, clear December nights.) Maybe it is not really new insight I am seeking so much as revived old. Perhaps I still wonder whether there is any interest in one more memoir of a first midnight Mass - that pageant for very young and old, with its flash of vestments and twinkling blue lights buried in the boughs of recently sacrificed evergreens, cut from life but still offering up sight and scent. It's the one night when the warnings about the deadly wages of sin and the cautions that the world is a vale of tears are displaced by blasts of organ music and voices raised in joy.

Maybe I seek Christmas memories of childhood innocence, the fading of it in adolescence, the complete flight in adulthood, and the seeping, light touch of its return in old age.

If Christmas is no longer a time of innocence, it can still be a time of one more chance - the chance to make that failing relationship work, to stop wounding self and loved ones. Christmas can be a season of joy, not all of it forced or phony.

It can also be a time of depression, made worse by the perception or myth that the entire rest of the world is enjoying everything, every minute. It can be a time of magnified loss if it is the first without a parent, child, friend, partner, or spouse. But sad seasons do pass.

Finally, Christmas can give permission and space for a little less work, a little more reflection, and a little more time spent with the people you want to spend it with but haven't.

To all the Catholics in good standing and those who once might have been, to the Jesuits, the Baptists, and anyone else who cares to pause for a moment: Good Christmas wishes.