Ok, ok, I’m listening. And reading. And paying attention. When enough of you ask the question, or make the comment, I get it. That’s one of the best parts about having a blog; the opportunity to clarify, explain, and answer!
Christmas without religion. I don’t know if it’s really that hard to comprehend, or if it’s simply too disturbing and uncomfortable to even contemplate. Several people have asked, with differing levels of hostility, why I have an interest in celebrating Christmas. My first inclination is to ask them what specifically are their Christmas traditions, and how do those traditions relate directly to the celebration of Jesus’ birth? Let’s take a look…
Is December the 25th the actual anniversary of Jesus’ birth? What information do we have about this? Just a little research will reveal that even religious leaders acknowledge that it is highly unlikely that the date Christians celebrate as the birth of Christ is the date we know now as December 25. However, let’s just assume for argument’s sake that we’ve simply agreed to celebrate it on this day. But why did it get “implanted” here? Why late December? The pagan Roman emperor Aurelian had proclaimed December 25th as the birth of the invincible sun-god Saturn. Christianity cleverly and strategically had begun supplanting pagan celebrations (see Easter) in an effort to “facilitate conversion”, and viola! Merry Christmas! In fact, there are some Christian faiths who choose to de-emphasize the celebration of Christmas altogether, basing that on admonition from the scripture not to participate in pagan festivals.
Christmas trees and greenery? That’s an old Nordic tradition celebrating those evergreen and holly trees, with their lovely red berries, which keep their beautiful color even in the depths of winter. I’m old-school, and will only be happy with a live tree; my mother and brother both have perfectly gorgeous fake trees, so the debate continues year to year.
Santa Claus? That’s about as secular as one can get! The patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas, whose day was designated as December 6, traditionally gave children gifts. The poem by Clement Moore added to the image of the jolly old elf. Again, many believers choose to downplay this beloved tradition in an attempt to be less confusing and more honest with their children about things that are make-believe and things that are real.
Stockings by the fireplace? Another old European tradition about the Norse god Odin’s flying horse. During the Yule festival, children would put carrots, sugar, and straw in their boots, and leave them by the fireplace for the great Odin’s horse. In exchange for this kindness, Odin would leave the kids candy and treats. In our house, the kids could retrieve their stockings before daylight, but had to wait til dawn to come wake us up for presents. Most years, this was after our having stayed up til 3 or 4 am assembling some toy or another. Another Christmas tradition in our house was Christmas day naps.
Family gatherings, food, singing songs? As an end-of-the-year celebration, many people have time off and choose the recognized holidays to renew family ties. Sometimes that includes attending church services, and sometimes not. Schools are traditionally closed, allowing college students the chance to go home and see their parents and siblings. Special and celebratory foods go hand in hand with this, as does game-playing, song-singing, laughing, talking…well, that’s how it is in my house! Our favorite holiday foods – dark chocolate walnut fudge, boiled custard made with fresh eggs, sausage and cheese balls and gooey yeast cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning.
Gift-giving? I believe that’s as old as mankind itself. The tradition of expressing gratitude, or love, or affection through the exchange of gifts is carried on even now; the wrapping and decorating are an expansion of that. We all know that we’ve taken this too far in our society, and have overcommercialized that aspect of the holiday, but it’s still integral to the season. My go-to is always books, books, books, but I always get a little something sparkly for my precious mother. And get this, my dad’s birthday is December 25, and I really do go to the trouble every year of getting him 2 gifts, and wrapping one in non-Christmas paper!
As for me and my family, our Christmas traditions now are almost identical to the traditions we observed when we were believers, leaving out only attending the Christmas services at the church. We do a lot of eating/cooking/baking/drinking, a lot of game-playing (this year’s favorite is Apples to Apples), a lot of talking and laughing and gift-wrapping and arguing and debating, some movie watching, hiking on the farm, gathering old friends, and this year, a lot of relaxing post-finals, as my kids and I are all in school, save our one graduate intern.
Our unique traditions include:
A psycho collections of nutcrackers that is WAY out of control. It started when the kids were little, and has grown to over 100. Son Sam gets devious pleasure out of “reorganizing” my display by having them all turned to face the wall, or all turned to face each other, or hiding in my cabinets looking at me when I open the door.
Also, this truly bizarre assembly: we have recently added this very unconventional (surprise) and darkly interesting event. The kids and I share with one another our annual memorial plan update. Yes, that memorial plan. How we wish to be memorialized when we die. We add some ghoulish delight by making it a drinking game (you’d have to understand my brilliantly quirky kids). We end the affair by expressing yet again our love for one another, and our humble and profound appreciation for every single breath we draw in this, our one and only life.
So, that’s what Christmas means to me. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most believers participate in the same traditions as I’ve just described here. If you want to put religious significance into this celebration, enjoy!
I’ll end with my favorite Christmas song….ever.
Best of the season to you and yours!
Thanks for reading!