“Christmas is love; it’s a celebration of love. And I can’t imagine Christmas without Michael, or Michael without Christmas.”-Elizabeth Taylor
Every year, I enjoy revisiting this cute clip of Michael celebrating his first Christmas-as a 35-year-old adult. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Christmas-that joyous holiday so many of us take for granted-was one of many that Michael was never allowed to celebrate as a child. When we think about how often Michael told us he never had a childhood, we usually interpret it to mean the hard work he was forced to do in show business. And that was a big part of it, for sure. But think about the child who is eventually old enough to realize that every house on his street is lit at a certain time of year-except for his, which remains in the dark. Or the child who is one day old enough to realize that, at a special time of year, all the other kids in the neighborhood get really cool presents to show off, but he never has any.
Jermaine Jackson’s book You Are Not Alone, Michael: Through a Brother’s Eyes contains a poignant passage describing what the Jackson children often felt in their tiny house on Jackson Street every Christmas:
“We observed all this from inside a home with no tree, no lights, no nothing. Our tiny house, on the corner of Jackson Street and 23rd Avenue, was the only one without decoration. We felt it was the only one in Gary, Indiana, but Mother assured us that, no, there were other homes and other Jehovah’s Witnesses who did not celebrate Christmas…But that knowledge did nothing to clear our confusion: we could see something that made us feel good, yet we were told it wasn’t good for us. Christmas wasn’t God’s will: it was commercialism. In the run-up to December 25 we felt as if we were witnessing an event to which we were not invited, and yet we still felt its forbidden spirit.
At our window, we viewed everything from a cold, gray world, looking into a shop where everything was alive, vibrant and sparkling with color; where children played in the street with their new toys, rode new bikes or pulled new sleds in the snow. We could only imagine what it was to know the joy we saw on their faces…I’ve read many times that Michael did not like Christmas, based on our family’s lack of celebration. This was not true. It had not been true since that moment as a four-year-old when he said, staring at the Whites’ house; ‘When I’m older, I’ll have lights. Lots of lights. It will be Christmas every day.'”-pp. 4-5.
Don’t get me wrong, I certainly do not intend this to be a piece bashing Jehovah’s Witnesses, their beliefs or practices. I respect the right of all religions to worship as they see fit, and to practice the creeds and customs of their belief. Most Witnesses will deny vehemently that they are depriving their children of anything, let alone the joy of love or family. Rather than celebrating commercialized holidays like Christmas, Easter, or even birthdays, most Jehovah’s Witness families instead set aside certain, non declared days as a family member’s special day. But, just as with Jewish children and all children of families who practice minority religions that do not celebrate Christmas, there is always the sting of feeling “different.” For children raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, especially, their later adult lives inevitably follow one of two paths-either learning to embrace their difference as the price that must be paid for walking “the true path” or to rebel. There usually isn’t much in the way of in-between, but the fact that Michael Jackson-despite finally breaking away from the faith in 1987-remained conflicted throughout his life has much to do with understanding the adult he became. In fact, I would go as far as to say that, despite all the hundreds of books that have been written purporting to get to the “truth” of who Michael Jackson was, no one can hope to seriously examine that question without taking a serious look at the impact of his upbringing in this religion, even if, as has often been pointed out, Katherine Jackson may not have been the strictest JW parent on the planet. But therein lies the seed of much of young Michael’s confusion-a confusion that I don’t think we can under estimate as a direct cause of much of the eventual perplexing dualities of Michael’s nature.
Imagine, for an instant, being a child raised in this religion in which every lived moment on Earth is merely preparation for Armageddon and in which there is no real concept of “Grace” as it is taught in other Christian denominations. (JW do believe in Jesus as the son of God, but they do not believe in the concept of the Trinity or that one can be “saved” through faith in Jesus alone). Because JW do not believe in the concept of “Grace” but, rather, that one must strive to please Jehovah to be among the “saved” there is often a nagging feeling of guilt and uncertainty. What if my best isn’t “good enough” to please Jehovah? Witnesses who are active in the faith may deny this, of course, insisting that those who are strong in their faith have no such doubts. But the testament of many ex Witnesses (those who have converted to other faiths) tells a very different story. In Michael’s case, we can certainly see him tortured by these conflicted feelings of doubt throughout his youth. As Joe Vogel stated in his book Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, Michael would often “pore over doctrines” and would question church elders about doctrines he found “confusing or unfair.” And though his disassociation in 1987 may have liberated him artistically, it is somewhat more ambiguous as to whether he achieved the complete personal and spiritual liberation he so craved. Certainly the vestiges of having been raised as a JW remained with him for the rest of his life. When something has been a part of your identity and, indeed, your fundamental makeup for almost thirty years, that isn’t something that can be so blithely tossed aside. Imagine being taught that all forms of celebration and holidays are a sin to Jehovah, and yet you are still being expected to record an album of Christmas carols because, well, that’s what the record company wants and Mother says it will be okay just this once-it’s only for money. Imagine you have a mother who teaches you devoutly that sex before marriage is wrong; that even thoughts of lust are wicked and wrong, and then you have a father who, as soon as Mother is out of sight and out of mind, is inviting women into his hotel room and sending groupies to yours and your brothers’ rooms, encouraging you that “this is what real men do.” Now imagine you witness the hypocrisy when your father returns home to your mother, kissing her up with lies: “Oh, baby, I missed you so much.” These are all things that Michael and his siblings have spoken of, first hand. Theirs’ was a childhood of constant conflict, between the devout teachings of Kingdom Hall and a life within the very wordly demands of show business-and between parents who were two very, very different people, walking two very different paths, yet trying to put on a united front for the world.
It is common knowledge that Michael, following in the eventual footsteps of all of his siblings except for Rebbie, broke away from the JW after many years of conflict and the constant struggle of attempting to reconcile his art with his religion. But what is not as well known is just how much spiritual conflict this decision threw him into. It was not a decision that came lightly, or without cost. And it is also, perhaps, difficult for the layperson to fathom the extent of just how much of a personal sacrifice this decision was for Michael. It came literally at cost of everything he had known. The following is excerpted from JWFacts.com:
In 1987, Michael disassociated himself from the Watchtower Society.
“At this same time, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ elders in Woodland Hills, California, began pressuring Michael again. They felt strongly that the recent publicity on the Witnesses was doing them great damage, and that it reflected poorly on the Witnesses, because Michael was so representative of the faith. Michael was becoming disenchanted with the church’s elders by this time, mostly because he didn’t wan to be told what to do. What’s more he couldn’t reconcile his lifestyle and career with the religion’s strict tenets. In truth, it’s almost impossible to be a Jehovah’s Witness and be an entertainer. Therefore, in the spring of 1987, Michael withdrew from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A letter from the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, sent as a press release, stated that the organization ‘no longer considers Michael Jackson to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.’ Gary Botting, author of The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Witness himself, said that leaving the religion is ‘worse than being disfellowshipped, or kicked out.” He observed, ‘if you wilfully reject God’s holy organization on earth, that’s the unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit.’
Michael’s decision to leave the church puzzled his mother, Katherine, and caused her great despair. Katherine wasn’t sure she knew her own son any longer. However, there was no discussing the spiritual matter with him – literally. As it is strictly prohibited for a Witness to discuss matters of faith with ex-members, even if they are family, Katherine says that she has never asked Michael what happened, and she says that she never intends to ask such questions. ‘I was not required to “shun” my son,’ she claimed, referring to rumours of that nature. ‘But we can’t talk about matters of faith any longer, which is a shame.'” Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness p.363
The publicity surrounding Michael’s disassociation promoted the Watchtower headquarters to send the following letter to the Body of elder’s and Circuit Overseers explaining how to reply to questions.
Even after Michael disassociated in 1987 he likely still suffered greatly from guilt, as he retained much of the Watchtower belief system. By disassociating, Michael now became part of the group that the Watchtower classifies as the AntiChrist and as such to be hated by Witnesses.
“Such ones willfully abandoning the Christian congregation thereby become part of the ‘antichrist.'” Watchtower 1985 Jul 15 p.31
“Our attitude toward apostates should be that of David, who declared: “Do I not hate those who are intensely hating you” Watchtower 1992 Jul 15 pp.12-13
Michael, moreso perhaps than any of his other siblings, had been devout in his beliefs and in his desire to please his mother by remaining true to her faith. Also, for someone as deeply spiritual and philanthropic as Michael to be thought of as some sort of “AntiChrist” to be “hated by Witnesses” would have to have been a galling thought indeed. Nor does there appear to be any one, satisfactory conclusion as to how he eventually resolved his spiritual crisis. It is one of those things where everyone who knew him seems to have their own steadfast belief, and if you ask twenty people, you may be apt to get twenty very different responses. If you read enough, you will hear everything from that he converted to Islam to, eventually, a JW again. Yet there is no evidence to bear any of this out. And indeed, it is not such a mystery, as Michael clearly spelled out most of his newfound spiritual beliefs in his 1992 book Dancing The Dream, as well as writing his way through most of his darkness and light in the hundreds of songs he continued to churn out throughout his mature years (yet, amazingly, his own words continue to be often the last resort that journalists turn to when attempting to “psychoanalyze” him). What is known with certainty is that Michael remained deeply spiritual throughout his life, was an avid reader of the Bible with a profound knowledge of it, and while no longer beholden to any particular creed or dogma, maintained a close relationship with God that did not appear to be celebrity lip service, but instead, welled from a deep and personal connection. It was a relationship that had been borne out of coming between those “clashing rocks” and which had withstood his own, personal storm.
Very recently, I was browsing through a copy of “The Watchtower,” the JW magazine that is often distributed and left lying about at various businesses (Michael himself used to peddle the magazine door to door). It was a long afternoon at the laundromat, and the issues were lying about in abundance-and, of course, were free for the taking. I have had an avid interest in studying JW beliefs primarily because I know that understanding their beliefs is crucial to understanding the spiritual foundation that shaped young Michael’s life and the person he became (and of which, yes, even the conflicts play an essential role). Because the Christmas season was approaching, there was an article explaining why Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas and why they believe that Christmas is offensive to God. The article quoted heavily from the Hebrew prophet Amos and a Biblical verse in particular that Witnesses have taken to heart, believing it proves Jehovah’s ardent disapproval of music and celebration:
“Spare me the din of your songs;
And let me not hear the melodies
Of your stringed instruments
Only let justice flow down like waters
And righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5: 23, 24).
I was struck by the irony of those words-“Spare me the din of your songs/And let me not hear the melodies”-knowing that this would have been part of the early indoctrination of Michael Jackson, future King of Pop who, of course, would leave his indelible imprint of musical genius upon the world. But closer inspection of Hebrew scripture reveals that Amos’s words were not so much directed against music as against the idea of pagan ceremonies and all forms of pagan worship (which Witnesses, of course, believe includes the celebration of Christmas with all of its festivities, lights, singing and glittery razzmatazz ). This is further clarified in Amos 5:21:
So, hear the word that springs forth from the Holy Mountain:
‘I hate, I despise your festivals
And I take no pleasure in the aroma
Of your solemn assemblies’
Indeed, from what I know from many Witnesses, worldy music is not necessarily forbidden, though the extent to which one may embrace it (as well as all other forms of popular entertainment) depend on the branch of the organization one belongs to, how strictly the elders enforce the “do’s” and “don’ts” of the religion, and the personal choice of the individual as to what they personally feel is displeasing to Jehovah. In that regard, Witnesses are actually a lot more tolerant than certain Christian denominations such as the Pentecosts (as I well know from the time when my mother, for God knows what reason, went through a phase where she decided to join a Pentecost church). This tolerance would have explained why Michael and his siblings were allowed to pursue musical careers without fear of apostasy, though it was a conflict that would become much more troublesome during the early years of Michael’s adult solo career, as his act became more grown up and, as an inevitable by-product, more overtly sexualized. Michael himself described the conflicted feelings he experienced as his JW beliefs began to clash both with his art and his own newfound awakening-an awakening that included the realization that not everything preached against by the JW are necessarily “bad”:
Schmuley Boteach: Do you think a hatred of pride is still a relic of your religious upbringing?
Michael Jackson: It hurt me a lot and it helped me a lot.
SB: How did it hurt you?
MJ:r… (long silence) When I did certain things in the past that I didn´t realized were against the religion and I was deprimanded for it, it almost destroyed me. Certain things that I did as an artist in my music I didn´t realized I was crossing a line with them and when they chastised me, it really hurt me. It almost destroyed me. My mother saw it.
SB: Their disapproval, their rejection?
MJ: When I did the Moonwalk for the first time, Motown 25, they told me that I doing burlesque dancing and it was dirty and I went for months and they said, “You can never dance like that again.” I said 90,9 percent of dancing is moving the waist. They said, “We don´t want you to do it.” So I went around trying to dance for a long time without moving this part of my body. Then when I made Thriller with all the ghouls an ghosts, they said that it was demonic and part of the occult and that Brother Jackson can´t do it. I called my lawyer and was crying and I said: “Destroy the video, have it destroyed.” And because he went against my wishes, people have “Thriller” today. They made me feel so bad about it that I ordered people to destroy it.
SB: So you have seen two sides of religion, the loving side that teaches you not to like pride and humility, but you have also seen what you would described as mean-spiritedness and judgmentalism.
MJ: Because they can discriminate sometimes in wrong ways. I don´t think God meant it in that way. Like Halloween, I missed of Halloween for years and now I do it. It´s sweet to go from door-to-door and people give you candy. We need more of that in the world. It brings the world together.
It is also a commonly held myth, as I have discovered, that the JW do not allow music or singing of any kind. This misconception stems from the fact that they do frown upon gospel music, as they believe that gospel music preaches a false religion. But that doesn’t mean that the JW are a religion devoid of song; in fact, I am just beginning to discover the rich wealth of music contained in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’s Song Book. Many of their songs can be heard on Youtube. I am including here a couple of my favorite examples (obviously, there are many more if one cares to look!).
Although for my personal taste I do not find the music as soul stirring as gospel, many of the songs, like these two, are nevertheless quite beautiful-not only beautiful, but filled with positive, inspiring messages that can certainly be relevant no matter what one’s personal religious belief may be. However, as opposed to gospel music, which has strong roots in Africa and the black oral tradition, JW music is, by contrast, much more structured and chorale. When it comes to Christian music, it is about as “white” as it gets, which is interesting considering that if Michael did grow up singing any form of music at all in Kingdom Hall, it would have been songs very much like this (as opposed to the amazing gospel skills he would later showcase in songs like “Man in the Mirror” and “Earth Song.”). I do not know for certain if the Kingdom Hall the Jacksons attended in Gary, Indiana used the Song Book, but it seems quite certain that the Kingdom Hall Katherine has attended for many years in Northridge (and of which Michael attended quite faithfully at least up to as late as 1984) includes music, as evidenced by the fact that Paris Jackson was photographed holding a Song Book in hand in 2010 when the children accompanied their grandmother to Kingdom Hall.
Although this phase would be short lived (none of Michael’s three children, to my knowledge, have continued to be active JW; they were probably, at best, curious about the religion their father had been raised in, and of course, were seeking comfort in their immediate bereavement) it is interesting to note that Michael evidently had never “talked down” to them about his religious upbringing or actively discouraged them from taking part in it. I believe if he had, they probably would not have so willingly gone along with their grandmother’s wishes.
But even with the allowance of music (so long as it glorifies Jehovah), a quick glance at the website Truth Rundown reveals no less than 141 things that a JW cannot do. Here are just a few of the most interesting, as they pertain to Michael:
8.Contribute to the Presidential Campaign Fund on their tax return
9.Join the armed forces and defend their country
10.Say the Pledge of Allegiance
11.Salute the flag
13.Run for leadership in their organization. (JW’s are ‘appointed’ and invited to be leaders.)
14.Run for leadership in any organization 15.Take a stand for any political issue inside their organization
16.Take a stand on any political or ‘worldly’ issue outside of their organization
17.Campaign for a political candidate
18.Hold political office
All of the above would explain why Michael remained vehemently apolitical throughout most of his life (and also why he could be as at ease in accepting an award from Ronald Reagan as attending the Clinton inauguration). It goes even deeper, of course. A JW cannot engage in any form of patriotism as we know it. They cannot serve in the military, even in time of war. Veteran’s Day is among the long list of holidays that cannot be celebrated. In the eyes of the JW, all of these acts equate to the idea of putting wordly issues ahead of Jehovah. In recent weeks, I have joked that if Michael were alive, he might be more than a little torn over the current presidential race-after all, he counted both Donald Trump and Bill and Hillary Clinton among his friends. But although I believe his personal leanings were Democratic, he remained-publicly, at least-often frustratingly hard to pin down insofar as political stance.
Conversely, however, it can also help us to even better appreciate the courage it took for him to eventually become such an outspoken advocate for many causes, including human rights, minority rights, AIDS, and environmental activism (in itself something he could never have truly permitted himself to do as a JW). Yet his early upbringing, and the JW influence, would still go far in explaining why he could never be as overtly political as many of his celebrity peers.
And how about this one?
24.Wear military uniforms or clothing associated with war
Just imagine most any familiar photo, concert image, or dance choreography of Michael from the 80’s and 90’s and you can instantly see that Michael not only embraced the military style and look into his image and art, but did so with brazen defiance considering his background as a JW. Could all of the military style dancing and costumes have been intended as a direct affront to the elders? It’s interesting that we see him really beginning to embrace his “military phase” post-1987. However, the military jacket had already become an iconic part of his “look” as early as 1984.
JW also do not believe in carrying guns or weapons, and it has been said that Michael’s “Smooth Criminal” video may, in fact, have been one of the final nails in the coffin leading to his disassociation.
Or how about this clincher?
35.Shop at the Salvation Army
Although I am speaking as a generalization, of course, it is known that JW do not support charitable organizations or the idea of giving to charity, believing that most charitable organizations are corrupt or have the potential to corrupt one spiritually. Judging from Michael’s legendary love of shopping for bargains at the Salvation Army-foisted no doubt by the fact that Katherine was a frequent shopper who clothed most of her large family thanks to Salvation Army hand-me-down’s-is a strong indicator that not all JW rules were strictly followed to the letter in the Jackson home. Again, we have to look at this example and say that if Michael (or any of the Jackson kids) grew up with mixed messages and signals about their religion, it’s certainly not something they can be faulted for.
And then there is this one, which Michael referenced in his conversation with Boteach above:
92.Do suggestive and immodest dancing in a public place
I’ve often said I don’t believe it was any coincidence that the crotch grab became an iconic fixture of Michael’s dance routine right about the same time he stopped being a JW. And, needless to say, it doesn’t get anymore “public” than on the world’s stage!
Lastly, we can only imagine how Michael must have grappled with this one, knowing the mass hysteria and adulation he inspired:
135.Idolize any celebrity or love and admire them to excess
Most of the JW bans on holidays are understandable within the context of their beliefs. Many Christian denominations, for example, frown upon holidays like Halloween which are viewed as pagan rituals. But the JW ban on any form of holiday-including those like Christmas and Easter which are embraced by most Christian religions-is certainly more extremist than most. Even though Michael celebrated every Christmas post 1993, there are still some who insist it was more for the sake of his children, and in the interest of fellowship with his close friends, than for himself. Michael wanted his kids to experience all of the joyous occasions he had been denied as a child. Birthdays, Easter, Halloween, and, most of all, Christmas were celebrated openly and joyously in the Jackson household. But his makeup artist Karen Faye has stated that he would still often hide in the closet to wrap gifts, and that he never got over feeling awkward when wished a “Happy Birthday.”
Nevertheless, it seems evident that Michael eventually made his peace with Christmas, recognizing it as a season of love and giving-those very qualities which most epitomized everything he stood for in his life. Although he never again recorded another Christmas carol album following The Jackson 5 Christmas Album in 1970, he did, perhaps, embody the Christmas spirit in many more lasting and permanent ways. His Christmas messages to the world, a (nearly-if-not-quite-annual) tradition begun in 1992, always emphasized positive messages to regions and people in need of hope. And in the latter videos, we see even more what Christmas was really all about for him.
But, of course, there was at least one other thing. Those lights; those beautiful lights…lots and lots of lights!