12/17/2013 03:48 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2014

Finding God at Christmas

When I was nine years old, our pastor, Brother Starch, dunked me into the baptismal waters, in a giant vat like an extra-deep jacuzzi, normally hidden behind a curtain at the back of the altar. My extended family was there to watch. We were "independent, fundamental, Bible-believing Baptists," and my aunts and cousins didn't believe like we did, but they came to support me. It was a good excuse to get them to our church to hear our preacher. How could they say no? Some of them had been baptized as Catholics, but that didn't count. You had to get baptized in your own faith, not your Mom's, and not sprinkled but immersed, all the way under. My chain-smoking Nanny, Mom's mom, raised an Irish Catholic in Manhattan, always said she didn't need a church to worship God. The church hadn't been much help during her marital strife or the sudden, inexplicable death of my 20-year-old uncle in his sleep. But I didn't see any other way to know God, besides church.

"I baptize you in the name of the Father ..." Brother Starch said, standing in his chest-high fishing waders and lowering me backwards into the chilly water.

"And of the Son ..." he said, submerging me a second time.

"And of the Holy Spirit," he added, dunking me for the third and final time.

Nanny and her cousin helped Mom hold towels around me, a makeshift changing room in the back of the church, after the pastor had dipped me and I'd had to walk back through the sanctuary, dripping wet. Your family could be nice to you, but that didn't mean they were saved. I needed forgiveness for lying to Mom about eating a banana, when really, I'd thrown it away. God must have had something on them. Rejecting Jesus alone was enough to send them to hell.

And, so, that's where most of my family was going. Nanny, who bought me Luke Skywalker's X-Wing Fighter for Christmas, and even let me peek inside the wrapping a couple of weeks early just to make sure she'd gotten the right one; whose refrigerator always held Kraft singles, which Mom never bought, and slow-cook chocolate pudding with the skin on top and Cool Whip; who melted margarine on my spaghetti because I was an Italian kid who didn't like tomato sauce. Mom's sisters, who always remembered my birthday and bought me G.I. Joe men and their expensive helicopters or tanks, even though they had kids of their own. Certainly Grumpy, Dad's dad, who had passed on his drug problem to my uncle Eddie. I would pray for God to save them, but as far as I knew, they were still going to hell, forever, burning for all eternity. Dad's friend, who died of a heart attack while out on a jog in his early 30s? Bam. Hell. My uncle Steven, Mom's brother, who died suddenly in his sleep at age 20, and had never known any faith but the Catholic one? Bam. "He's gonna split hell wide open!" Brother Starch used to say.

I didn't want to believe that, but if I didn't believe it, I might go there too.

So I even had to believe that Dad was going to hell, if he didn't change his ways. Even Dad, who would play me Kenny Loggins' "House at Pooh Corner" on his guitar or take me on the Boston subway and share an Italian sausage sub outside Fenway Park before a Red Sox game. Dad, who would come downstairs early on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and play with my Star Wars action-figures in the mountainous terrain of my favorite blanket piled up around me on the living room floor, breaking my rules by making characters fly who couldn't fly in the movies. Dad, who coached my baseball team and threw pass after pass as I practiced my zig-zag or hook-and-go routes in the backyard.

Dad wasn't perfect. He played rock'n'roll and gambled and drank and smoked whatever it was he and my uncle were rolling in the basement. God hated those things, and so I understood if God wasn't too happy with Dad. But wasn't he at least trying to love Mom and us kids? And didn't that count for something? It was easier not to think about that, to try and think happier thoughts about God.

I didn't have the word for it then, but beauty is where I felt closest to God, especially singing Christmas carols. I was a big brother (Marco was born when I was three and a half and Katie when I was nine), and I knew babies were something special. But all the power of the universe wrapped up in those swaddling clothes! A star shining just for Him, beckoning those Wise Men from a faraway land! The angel choir! Mary's love, Joseph's devotion. The gentleness of "Silent Night" or "Little Town of Bethlehem." The high, sustained notes of the human voice on "O Holy Night." The exuberance of "Joy to the World" or "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." God appeared at Christmas like no other time of year. I guess that's why we call it the Incarnation. Mom's faith and Dad's music came together in Christmas carols like nowhere else.

The only thing that compared to Christmas was skiing. Dad had gotten into real estate by the mid-'80s. When business was good, he'd take us to the slopes a few times a year. He'd always tell us how he'd first gone skiing when he was 17, and his friends pushed him down a black diamond trail at Loon Mountain before he knew what he was doing. It took him hours to creep his way down, slow turn by slow turn. Dad let us learn on the green-dot trails, but it wasn't long before I conquered that same black diamond.

When I raced down Loon or Cannon or Bretton Woods, wary of the trees and chairlift towers and other skiers who could kill or maim me with any wrong turn, there was fear and power, anxiety and excitement, frostbite, adrenaline and sweat, all wrapped into a singular experience of the present. It was uncomplicated: You were riding on the back of something much bigger than yourself, just trying to hang on.

My favorite part, though, wasn't the speed, or even the movement. It was sliding to the top of a trail, after the slow, boring climb up the lift, where you saw the mountain up close and only a little bit of it at a time, only to turn and face downhill, across a valley to the opposite wall, miles away yet so close you could reach out and touch it, a vast forest cascading far below the end of your own sight line at the near ridge and looming high above, touching the sky, a mass of earth taken in one big gulp, like God was a kid in the sandbox saying, "Look what I made!" When the weather was cold enough and the snow fresh enough, it clung to the balsam firs, a diamond crust coating the verdant needles, still green with life even in the middle of a five-month winter. God spoke most audibly when new powder silenced the swish of my own skis, like I was riding wind through the clouds.

I had to be sure not to worship nature itself; that was New Agey. But if that beauty reminded me of God the Creator, then I was still saved.

Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham, N.C. He is author of the spiritual memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World, Cascade Books, 2013. He is releasing a series of excerpts like this one, paired with music videos of songs that help to shape his story.