We're having a quiet Christmas this year, even quieter than usual. For the first time since the birth of our elder child over 30 years ago, we won't be celebrating the season with either of our children. Our daughter is a physician in Florida, on call for the week of Christmas, then going with her boyfriend to his parents' home over New Year's. Our son has run out of vacation days and is unable to take time off until after the new year. We were all together over Thanksgiving and had a wonderful time enjoying each others' company, so it's not as much of a hole as it might have been. In fact, once I got the gifts bought, wrapped, and in the mail, having a quiet Christmas has allowed me to slow down a bit and philosophize. What in the world is going on with the Christmas holidays these days?
There's so much angst over Christmas right now. Expectations are sky high. Time is tight and precious; there never seems to be enough time to get everything done. Money seems to become scarcer every year. Commercialism is through the roof and starts before the leaves turn in the fall. Manipulative calls about a "War on Christmas" turn even a simple greeting of goodwill into a perceived assault against religion.
How can we get some sanity back into the season and into our celebrations of it? Or has the entire holiday just become an excuse for excess that needs to be excised?
I'm thinking that the answer to that pair of questions is different for different people, depending on their understanding of Christmas...and I've come to recognize that there are many different perceptions and expectations for this major holiday in western culture.
I'm going to ignore some basic (and pretty important) expectations for Christmas, like the perceived need by store owners to make a lot of money during this time of year. I want to think about and look at the understandings and expectations of the average person at this time of year...in as much as I consider myself to be an "average person," I guess, because mostly I've been thinking about MY personal understandings and expectations for Christmas.
Nowadays, I see 3 different faces of Christmas every year. The first "face" of Christmas is the religious event that is being marked in Christianity, the birth of Christ. Without looking it up, I'm assuming that the word, "Christmas", is a shortening of Christ Mass - a mass in celebration of Christ. "Christ is the reason for the season." "Let's put Christ back in Christmas." And so on and so forth. If a person is a Christian, then I'm all for them celebrating Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Christ. To me, personally, though, there are further depths and meaning to this holiday.
In thinking about my frustration with the rallying cries about the "War on Christmas", I've realized that I see an important second face to Christmas. To me, the Christmas holiday has meaning as a time to celebrate our love for our friends and family, to demonstrate to those who are important to us just how much we care about them, to spend our precious time with them. Valentine's Day is our day to celebrate our pair bond, if we're lucky enough to be part of a pair, but Christmas is broader - a way to celebrate, as families and friends, the important bonds between and among our family members and within our community-of-choice.
Gifts, then, become a physical manifestation of our bonds of affection - a message that we understand and care about what our loved ones need and want, that we want our loved ones to be happy. Unfortunately, as our time has become ever more taken up with working away from our homes, gifts have become charged with larger and heavier emotional burdens: "I'm unable to spend as much time with you as I'd like to, because I have to pay the bills, but this wonderful present will show you how well I know you and how much I love you." Of course, physical presents will never take the place of time spent together, no matter how much money we spend, but still we try.
One thing we don't have to try to do any more is petition the sun to start shining again. This is the third face of Christmas that I've become aware of, and it's the oldest face by far. Christmas comes shortly after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. The ancients didn't know what caused the sun to start shining less and less each fall, so they were concerned that some day the sun might just disappear, leaving them in permanent darkness. Each year, as the days got shorter and darker, the ancients would pray to the sun and the earth spirits to bring back the light and the warmth. Of course, each year after Winter Solstice, the sun would start to shine a little bit more and, in a few months, the warmth would return as well, bringing the bounty of spring and summer with it. Each year, the petitions were successful!
These days, with our understanding of the tilt of the Earth's axis and its rotation around the sun, even the least scientific among us knows that the sun stays steadfast, that the Earth revolves around the sun. We know that the sun "will return to us" without fail, no matter what we do or don't do. We no longer need to petition for the return of the sun's light and the warmth that comes with it. I think, though, that there are echoes of the old fear of the winter darkness tiptoeing around inside our psyches, despite our modern understanding of how things really work.
So these are the three primary faces of the Christmas season that I see operating these days: the religious celebration of Christ's birth, the communal celebration of love between family and friends, and the ancient celebration of the return of sunlight. Celebrating the return of the light is a primal celebration, usually buried deep within us and mostly unconscious. Bright sparkling lights on our houses, evergreen trees with bright lights and ornaments decorating their boughs, and roaring fires are manifestations of this ancient winter celebration of "Christmas". The religious celebration of the birth of Jesus is of critical importance for Christians, and its rituals have become an important part of our winter celebrations as well: the creche, carols about angels, shepherds, wise men and a baby in a manger, services and masses celebrating the birth of the Christ child.
To me personally, though, the deepest and most important reason to celebrate Christmas is the chance to recognize and celebrate the loving bonds that bring and keep us all together. As winter's cold descends upon us and we find ourselves together in close proximity for days and weeks on end, isn't it the perfect time to let each other know how much we care? Isn't it the perfect time to say, "I'm choosing to spend my days with you, because you are important to me!"?
Just after Winter Solstice, it becomes obvious that the physical light of the sun is returning to the Northern Hemisphere, day by day. What a perfect time to celebrate the deep spiritual and social light of our love and caring for each other!