I have always insisted on Christmas with all the trappings. It begins with a homemade Advent calendar, with little doors you can open, and of course an Advent wreath. Then Fresh Aire Christmas to listen to, Christmas cookies, pageants if possible, a tree with my family's heirloom ornaments (from things we made as kids to hand-crocheted ornaments made by a friend of my mother's). Presents are good too, but it's not really about those ... it's about making it feel like Christmas.
And definitely the spiritual side, in past years, has been the centerpiece. The feeling that we're not just engaging in meaningless traditions, but that we're commemorating something real and important. Like the carol says,
People, look East, the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People look East, and sing today
Love, the Guest, is on the way.
What would be the point of all that hearth-trimming and table-setting if no one were actually going to show? I've been known to suggest that atheists celebrating Christmas are a little ridiculous, because after all, the whole idea of a winter holiday comes from Christianity. I've never been an in-your-face Merry-Christmas-er, but I did think that no one else's Christmas remotely approached the specialness of a Catholic one.
And now ... well, what in the world am I supposed to do? I feel like the Grinch stole Christmas, but this time he got smart and took the song instead of the presents. Or, to use that awful boyfriend metaphor, I feel like the whole world is celebrating my ex's birthday, completely insensitive to our bad breakup. I love Christmas, and the trappings make me irrationally happy in a sort of Pavlovian way, but the next minute I remember the heart got sucked out of it this year and I feel sad.
I've certainly changed my mind about winter holidays being a Christian thing, having read up on Yule and Saturnalia and so forth. Pretty much every northern-hemisphere culture I know of has a holiday about now, and for good reason. It's cold and dark and there isn't a lot to do. When the days get longer, you start to feel hopeful, like things could be getting better someday. And getting together inside a warm, cozy house to eat a big meal is just something that you naturally want to do. No wonder the early Church decided to celebrate the Nativity now -- because you have to have something in the middle of winter.
But gosh, I don't know anything to celebrate about that makes me as happy as the Nativity did. The idea of a baby being born holding the promise that things would get better ... that, just as at the Solstice, the sun gets light even though the earth isn't warm yet, at the first Christmas, hope was in sight even though evil has continued on its merry way for two thousand more years. Every year when I would celebrate Christmas, I would remember that everything is better now, even if it doesn't look like it. And I felt loved, that God would come to us in that way. The thought that all of it might be false ruins everything.
I want to make a merry Christmas for my kids -- they're at just the age when happy memories and traditions get laid down, and I don't want to miss it. We have a tree and presents ready; we've gone to Christmas concerts and baked cookies and learned carols. We'll go to church, too, but Marko is in an anti-church phase and doesn't want to hear about it.
I don't like secular Christmas songs, for the most part. I mean, what does "Silver Bells" have on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"? They don't even compare. But singing the religious carols makes me sad. I do it anyway, but then Marko complains that they "remind him of church." And to be honest, deep down I kind of feel the same!
I used to feel sorry for non-Christians with their stupid secular Christmas, "Baby It's Cold Outside" and mall Santas. How they filled the season with ridiculous Christmas movies based on banal themes like "Elf." But now I'm thinking, what else is anyone supposed to do? If you're longing for a Christmas like when you were a kid, but you don't believe like when you were a kid, you have to create some kind of substitute.
Heck, apparently pagans who converted to Christianity felt the same way about the Yules of their childhoods. That's why they needed holly and ivy, Christmas trees with lights, and mistletoe. That's why Santa Claus isn't just St. Nick, but flavored with bits of Odin and Father Time. Inculturation and appropriation are Christmas traditions.
So, I'm against the fuss about "Jesus is the reason for the season" and all that. I understand the idea behind it -- "You love the Christmas traditions of your childhood? Then you have to come back to our religion!" Traditions and holidays are one of the ways religions bind people together, and the last thing devotees want is for people to run away with the holidays without signing up for the doctrine. But, well, it's a free country and lots of people find ways to get the nostalgia without the doctrine and you can't exactly stop them.
But in my case, they don't need to worry about keeping Christ in Christmas. It's practically impossible to take him out. Try, and he leaves a gaping hole.