Thursday 25 December 2008
So what does Christmas really mean?
Among all the traditions of the holiday season, one that's becoming increasingly familiar is the War on the Supposed War On Christmas. In this tradition -- one that dates back to the sweet olden days of overt anti-Semitism -- the Christian Right foams at the mouth about the fact that not everyone has the same meaning of Christmas that they do, and works themselves into a dither about things like store clerks politely recognizing that not everyone is a Christian by saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Because in the mind of the Christian Right, it somehow disrespects their faith and impinges on their religious freedom to share a country with people who feel and act differently than they do.
Okay. Insert rant here about how the Christian Right isn't actually interested in religious freedom and respect for their faith. They're trying to establish a theocracy. They don't care about religious and cultural plurality. They don't care about the fact that winter holidays mean different things to different people, and that different people celebrate different ones and in different ways. They don't care about the fact that not everyone in the country is Christian, and that lots of people who do call themselves Christian are actually pretty secular in both their everyday life and their celebration of the winter holidays.
No, scratch that. They do care about it. They think it's bad.
But that's not actually what I want to talk about today.
In the face of Bill O'Reilly and company screaming hatefully about the true meaning of Christmas, I want to talk -- in true grade-school essay form -- about what Christmas means to me.
Because I actually like Christmas.
Christmas; Solstice; Hanukkah; Kwanzaa; Festivus; "the holidays"; whatever. I don't have a strong attachment to any particular name or date or occasion. Any mid-winter holiday around the end of December will do. Lately I've been calling it either "the holidays" or "Santamas" (in honor of what Bart Simpson has described as the true meaning of the holiday: the birth of Santa). I was brought up culturally Christian, though, with Christmas trees and Santa and all that, and I do tend to refer to it as Christmas at least some of the time.
And I love it. I always have. I know it's fashionable to hate it, and I get why people get annoyed by it -- but I don't. I love it. It's one of my favorite times of the year.
And here's what it means to me.
I think that holidays tend to rise up naturally out of the rhythms and seasons of a particular geographical area. And in parts of the world where winter is a big nasty deal, I think it's almost inevitable that a winter holiday, at right around the darkest, shortest day of the year, is going to become the biggest holiday in the culture.
It's been noted many times, for instance, that Hanukkah is far from the most important holiday in the Jewish religious calendar. What's less well known is that Christmas isn't the most important holiday in the Christian calendar, either. Christmas is pretty much a pagan midwinter holiday shoehorned into the Christian religious calendar for convenience. From a strictly religious standpoint, Easter is a much bigger ticket. (Getting born? Big whoop. Everybody gets born. Dying on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, and getting resurrected three days later because he's God? Now that's what they're talking about.)
And yet -- in parts of the world where winter is a big nasty deal -- Christmas has almost entirely eclipsed Easter, for all but the most devout. Christmas gets an entire month of frenzied eating and drinking and shopping and traveling and party-going and family drama. Easter gets -- maybe -- a nice dinner or brunch, plus for kids it acts as a sort of secondary candy- frenzy holiday to Halloween. If the holidays were really about Jesus, we'd be having a nice quiet dinner with friends and family in late December, maybe with a hunt for hidden chocolate Santas for the kiddies ... and a massive social and economic whirl in March or April. As it's commonly celebrated -- at least in the U.S. -- the meaning of Christmas is only partly about the Christian religion. And a pretty minimal part at that.
So what is the meaning of Christmas? Solstice? Santamas? The holidays? Etc.?
It's cold. It's dark. The days are short, and the nights are long. Life is harder than usual right now, and we're cooped up in close quarters more than any other time of the year.
So let's celebrate.
Let's sing. Let's decorate. Let's eat and drink. Let's light candles and put up electric lights. Let's have parties. Let's visit our families and our friends. Let's give each other presents. Let's spend time together that's specifically devoted to enjoying each other's company, and take part in activities -- like gift- giving and parties and big group dinners -- that strengthen social bonds.
Let's remind ourselves that life is worth living, and that the cold and dark won't be here forever. Let's remind ourselves that we care about each other, and remind ourselves of why.
That's what this holiday means to me.
Happy holidays, everybody!
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