22 December 2008

The Meanings of Christmas

So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young - John Lennon, "So This is Christmas"

When I was a child, Christmas began shortly after Thanksgiving. My sister, father, and I would all go out to the storage shed behind our home and clamber around looking for the Christmas decorations. The shed was the epitome of chaos, and it always took a while. We'd bring the boxes in, where they would be opened in full and used to decorate the home. The plastic tree would rise and the ornaments would be plucked out of their boxes. I would root anxiously through them looking for my personal ornament: a hand-sewn Santa Claus that my 2nd grade teacher gave me. He had holes in him, and we stuck candy canes through him: the hooks served as arms and the staves as legs. The tree would become an interesting environment for my toys as the month wore on and my mom made her traditional holiday treats. On Christmas eve, we would pile into our family vehicle and go looking at Christmas lights while the radiator blew warm air in our faces and we listened to Christmas music. We always had our favorite yearly spots. When we returned home, my sister and I would each open one Christmas present, and then go to bed.

In the morning, I would wake up early and make my way to the living room, shivering in anticipation. As I rounded the corner the couch would come into sight, loaded with the toys that "Santa" brought. My mom would wake up when she heard me, and then she and I would wait for my teenage sister and dad to wake up. After going through the gifts, cleaning up the mess the wrapping paper made, and eating breakfast, we would spend the day at my grandparents, returning home late that night. Such was our Christmas custom. As we all grew older, customs changed. Action figures gave way to CDs as I entered my teenage years, while at the same time my sister grew up, got married, and had a couple of children. As the years wore on, Christmas became less about my sister and myself and more about my niece and nephew. Our traditions changed accordingly. We now go to my sister’s house on Christmas Eve, and we watch the kids tear through their own toys with great delight. My Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles playsets have been replaced by my nephew’s toy motorcycle collections: the pictures my mother takes no longer reflect the beaming faces of my sister and me, but rather of my niece and nephew -- whose smiles and faces look ever so much like ours, and our parents.

The meaning of Christmas has changed for me. It has become much more of a reflective period where lighthearted frivolity has given way to somber joy. That is not the contradiction-in-terms that it may sound, for it means to me a deep satisfaction with life and an inner happiness that may not translate well. While I normally scoff at tradition, the Christmas season changes that. I look forward to going to my parents' home and watching Christmas movies, to going to my sister's on Christmas eve and listening to my niece and nephew's prolonged chorus of "Awesome!" and "Cool!". I look forward to perpetuating my own private traditions -- to watching A Christmas Carol, to reading a few books, and to watching the Star Wars trilogies straight through. (The last is admittedly an odd tradition, but my tradition nonetheless.) I look forward to seeing a lit-up tree and to going to my grandparents' home and smelling the chicken dumplings and seeing the countryside around their home the way it has been all of my life. Our traditions, Christmas and otherwise, good or otherwise, connect us to the past. They give our present meaning.

So much of what we consider "Christmasey" is tradition. The very timing of it, for instance -- near the winter Solstice (December 22). The winter solstice represents the beginning and deepest part of winter. It is the shortest and darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, a fact recognized by every culture in said hemisphere that I know of. During the long, cold, and dark winters, our ancestors once brought into their homes pieces of evergreens to give them color, even as they were surrounded by the bleakness of winter. We continue that tradition unthinkingly as we put up our Christmas trees, real or otherwise.

Christmas has become a time of reflection for me. As I think on the the past and the traditions thereof, I realized how they have changed. I realize how my life has changed, and I realized that future Christmases will bring future changes. My niece and nephew will eventually grow up and establish families of their own, and my family's traditions will change. I may be forced to move in pursuit of a career, separated from "home" by a distance only airplanes can shorten. When in my reflection I realize this, I realize too that this also gives my present meaning. When I think on this, I realize the necessity of appreciating the moment, of enjoying today. I think that when I am older, I will look on these years with the same fondness that I now look on my childhood years with.

Beyond tradition, I think too of my good standing in life. I cannot use words like "fortunate" or "blessed" because I believe in neither luck nor fairy god-mothers. I can say that I am safe, warm, happy, and -- grateful. I am grateful to my parents for working so hard to give my sister and I the childhood we had -- and I am grateful to my sister and her husband for working as hard as they do to provide another childhood like that to their children. I know that Christmas brings with it much aggravation, but still I cannot escape the deep satisfaction that it brings.

So that is what Christmas means to me: family, tradition, and reflection. I value the season. I know that the same values are not shared by everyone. Other people have other traditions: they may have none at all. They may not see the time as a period of reflection. My niece and nephew certainly won't, and I would find it odd if they did. Many people lose focus and became consumed by commercialism -- forgetting that the tokens of appreciation that we exchange are tokens only, bereft of meaning outside of the intent in which they were given. Other people use the solstice period to honor the religious traditions for which the holiday is currently named: the Christian tradition that YHWH sent his son to Earth to reconcile him with humanity. For them, ideally, the period is a time of forgiveness and brotherly love, the kind epitomized in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Other people maintain these beliefs and pay lip-service to the ideals while crowing that the Christian meaning is the ONLY meaning. I say that's nonsense. While many people do pay service to their religious traditions, those traditions are about people -- about people's fears and hopes and desires. Family traditions and personal meanings far overshadow the religious contributions to the season -- beyond the name, some music, and nativity scenery. When people think of Christmas, do they really think of theology -- or do they think instead of the smell of hot chocolate and family feasts?

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore...
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years,
We all will be together --
If the fates allow.
Hang a shining star
Upon the highest bough..
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

I do not believe those who say theirs is the only meaning of Christmas. They are wrong, but if they wish to drive their blood pressure up while ranting about the evil secularists, they are welcome to the emotional distress they bring upon themselves. Ironically, these are very often the same people who are more devout to another religion of the season -- the religion of money and commercialism. As for me, I will continue to keep Christmas in my own way, in reflection and somber joy -- all the while thinking about the values of shared ideals like forgiveness and tradition.

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, " returned the nephew [of Scrooge]: "Christmas, among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round [...] as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open up their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good and will do me good, and I say God bless it!" - Fred Scrooge to his uncle Ebenezer, A Christmas Carol


Neurovore said...

Keep in mind that not all Christians were even unified in the means of celebrating Christmas. During the Cromwell rebellion, Oliver Cromwell banned the indulgence of Christmas decadence when he established the Protectorate. He felt that such things as Yule logs, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, and decorations were borrowed from pagan traditions (Which they were.)

The Puritan means of celebrating Christmas was one of penitence and fasting. This was true of both the Puritans in Great Britain as well as the New England colonists. Cheerful lot, were they not?

smellincoffee said...

Just yesterday I listened to a lecture by a Jewish rabbi who talked about various so-called "pagan" influences of religion. He thinks caroling came from people singing naked in the streets. It was amusing and somewhat informative, but I question the veracity of some of what he said.