I love Christmas.
That may sound strange coming from someone who left the church, but seriously, I love Christmas. It is my second favorite holiday of the year (with the first being Halloween, naturally). The weekend after Thanksgiving all the autumn decor goes away and the tree comes out. My husband rolls his eyes and gets out of my way. The kids help decorate the main tree according to whatever theme I’ve picked for the year (yes, I have enough ornaments to choose different themes), and then we have a second, smaller tree that goes in the family room that they get to decorate with whatever’s leftover. We don’t really have a lot of outdoor decor, but that’s in part because our house is in the back corner of a weird little cul de sac and surrounded by bushes and trees. You can’t see our house from the street, so we keep it light. Though I do have the most adorable tinsel narwhal. He lives on our porch.
Recently, The Southern Jew put out a reflection on the perpetuation of Christian culture by former Christians and non-Christians through the celebration of Christmas. I found the write up to be interesting enough to start following them on Facebook, although they did make the point that the only reason they created the FB page was to share the write up, because so many people had asked to share it and they didn’t want their personal information out in the world. They have since deleted the page, and I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that it’s because they received angry pushback from the internet, because we have an overabundance of trolls these days. So, sadly, I cannot direct you to or quote what they discussed, but we’re going to talk a little about the gist of it.
They spoke about the monster that is commercial Christmas, and touched on how originally Hanukkah was not that big of a holiday in the Jewish community, but has been inflated over the years to compete with Christmas. The author asked for a little accountability from non-believers who continued to participate in Christmas, and therefore continued to perpetuate this beast of a holiday that (in the US at least) is admittedly a corporate monster and a little out of control. The clinging to Christmas also perpetuates the image that the US is a Christian nation, for all that many people celebrate Christmas secularly. So I wanted to talk about why I, as an apostate, continue to celebrate Christmas.
Tradition plays a big role in it. I was raised a Methodist, with a lot of Catholic and European influences in my childhood. Christmas Eve dinner is a big deal, and was often the one of the few times of year we broke out traditional Polish foods that my grandparents loved. There’s actually a funny story about how, after my grandmother passed, my mother finally confessed she didn’t like śledź w śmietanie (pickled herring in sour cream) and I was just beside myself for, like, an hour. It was always about food and family, however. We attended candlelight services on Christmas Eve when I was younger, but they tended to be short things that were just a nice time to see my friends from Sunday school (or the preacher’s son who had a crush on me – it was not reciprocated, but he was a nice enough friend). And then we got to go home and open a gift – just one, and not a big one – with the rest waiting for Christmas morning. By high school we were barely still attending church (and would stop before my junior year), but dinner and family time were still very important parts of the holiday.
Also, let’s not overlook the vast importance of the lights and decorations. Christmas is beautiful – sparkling lights, trees full of glass baubles and shimmering tinsel, glittering displays in a rainbow of colors. It is gloriously amazing. And for someone who continues to struggle with seasonal depression, Christmas is an intense uplift during a dark and gray time of year. I really need something this bright and happy in February to get me through the rest of the rainy season (don’t say Valentine’s Day, it’s forever tainted by bad movies and societal expectations). And the food! So much amazing food is paraded before us during this time of year, and it’s fun to look up recipes and try new things. I bought a Cranberry White Chocolate tart from Trophy Cupcakes this year. It’s the most gorgeous thing that has ever graced my holiday table, and it was delicious. I also made a twist on the Eton Mess, using chocolate meringues and cherries in a sauce to give it a Black Forest gateau feel and flavor. Not as beautiful, but super tasty.
These parts of the holiday that have so much significance to me, that are so important to me, were never about religion. They’re about family, about festiveness, about finding something beautiful and bright during a dark time. When I started my own family, I originally tried to shift the celebration to the solstice. After all, I spent a while dabbling with Wicca, and while it didn’t stick for many of the same reasons I left the church, I do still retain a number of pagan sympathies and beliefs. But here’s the thing – I was a single mother, with no money, and most of my children’s presents and certainly the big festive dinners all happened at relatives’ houses. On Christmas Eve or Christmas. What little I had the bandwidth to scramble together on 12/20 couldn’t hold a candle to what my family could do on 12/24, and I was already so exhausted it didn’t feel worth it to keep trying.
Things changed, I remarried, the financial situation dramatically improved, but by that point my children’s formative years had been spent celebrating Christmas. Their Christmas is entirely about family and togetherness, and Santa, with no religious overtones. Which, considering all Christmas decor comes from pagan traditions, and it’s only celebrated in December because early Christianity needed a holiday to compete with Saturnalia, kind of works out. Then again, our family donates to food banks and buys presents for kids whose families are struggling, and arguably those are the most Christ-like things you can do during the holiday. Definitely more Christ-like than screaming about Starbucks cups.
So, do we perpetuate Christian culture with our secular celebrations? Yeah, a bit. And right now I don’t have an alternative. Christian traditions are very accessible. I’d give Hanukkah a go if I didn’t think my Jewish friends would find it super rude of me (it would really just be an excuse for gelt, latkes, and sufganiyot). Now that my children are almost grown and we’re no longer dependent on my extended family for all holiday cheer, maybe we can start to shift back towards solstice again. It won’t get rid of the tree or the lights, though, so I feel like it doesn’t really matter. I will still be perceived as celebrating Christmas whether I am or not.
Perhaps the answer is just to continue to push the narrative that Christmas has evolved into a secular holiday, and make that more widely pronounced and understood. It will always have religious meaning and connotations for Christians, as it should, but quite frankly they stole the holiday and all its trappings from other religions to begin with, so maybe I’m just taking it back.