I’d like to talk a little about Christmas. It’s a wonderful time of the year for many. All holidays are special times for those who celebrate them, but Christmas holds a unique place in my heart due to my family’s customs. Every other year, we gather together at my grandparents; the holiday blends the Christmas season with a family reunion and helps build and reinforce long standing and long lasting connections through our extended family. Spending a week together tends to do that.
Holidays have a social function – I think this is difficult to contest, and I tend to treat the proposition as axiomatic. What’s really interesting to me about Christmas in particular is that the trappings of Christmas generally have more import and impact (for me, and for others) than the purported intention behind the holiday.
Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special is an edifying example. To review, the hour-long cartoon places emphasis on the celebration of Christianity within the holiday season. Despondent as a result of the consumerism of Christmas, Charlie Brown wails at the heavens his frustration with the lack of meaning – to be relieved once Linus retells the tale of Jesus’ birth. In this cartoon, the trappings and decorations of Christmas are considered an excess fluff, unneeded, unwanted. Worse, their effect upon the people engaging in Christmas festivities is detrimental. According to the Charlie Brown parable, a consumer’s Christmas is empty of spirit and genuine value.
“Keep the Christ in Christmas” is a common rallying cry during December, and has been for decades (as Charlie Brown illustrates). However, the consumer’s Christmas can still have important value above and beyond being the ultimate economic stimulus. I believe personal experience of my own family’s traditions illuminates this. (Naturally, I anticipate that others who celebrate Christmas also will find their experiences to be similar upon reflection).
Which of the celebratory trappings of Christmas are indeed affiliated with a celebration of Jesus’ birth? Nativity scenes and church services at unusual hours; but trees, shiny objects, presents and family reunions? Many “Christmas” carols are not that – rather, they are celebrating the secular season than the religious holiday. While the religious holiday is important for those who observe it in worship, I believe all these secular side affairs also hold useful and important social value.
The centerpiece of the secular holiday is gift-giving, and it is often the most heavily slandered element of the Christmas season due to its tendency toward materialism. I suggest that this may well be true among children – I do remember the urgent, eager desire to wake upon Christmas morning and see what Santa Claus brought to our house – but my experiences of winter gifting (both giving and receiving) as an adult are different. It requires careful consideration of the other person when done with due contemplation, and increases the social bonds with friends and family. There’s no denying that this custom can lead to merely being crass materialism, but this hasn’t primarily been my personal experience (as an adult).
Perhaps this is in part due to my immediate family’s custom when opening presents. Each Christmas, we gather together and take turns opening gifts one after another. The focus remains on whomever is opening at the present moment. To me, it’s a really special, private moment which the four of us share. It centers us on our affection and relationships to one another. This isn’t a function of the religious holiday; the gift-giving of secular Christmas is what sets up this unique annual situation. It’s a tradition which I heartily recommend to others!
As I stated above, holidays or festivals have important functions in human societies. They bring people together, and help to create a unified sense of public identity. I suggest that the trappings of Christmas – trees, lights, and yes, Santa Claus – fulfill this function better and with more unity than the strictly Christian holiday. At least, a secular Christmas (perhaps Santa Day?) potentially has more power to culturally bond than a holiday which holds meaning strictly for those who follow a particular religion.
In an increasingly plural society, national holidays and festivals have come to be, and will come to be ever more important. Events which include our entire society are rare, and are usually devoted to patriotic celebrations of our nation’s past – or remembrances of national tragedies. I think that a secular Christmas could have the potential to fulfill a similar societal role (while simultaneously allowing the religious Christmas to remain intact as a meaningful holiday) should its trappings and leftovers be shifted into a celebration which all can share.