Christmas is coming, but it won’t be a Normal Rockwell Christmas this year. Let’s be honest, Christmas has never been a Norman Rockwell Christmas, as that day is only a construct in an American illustrator’s mind.
It seems like we fall into two Christmas camps. Those who recall stories of disappointed children and drunken uncles, and those who try to create Christmas magic- sometimes by overbuying, overdecorating, and overeating. Before you think that I’m a cynical scrooge, I am here to proclaim that I’m not. But you will need to read further to understand where I’m coming from.
December 25 is a day that has been co-opted over the millennium to serve the needs of a variety of distinct groups. Christians would tell you that it is the day that the Christ was born. However, any informed Bible scholar will admit that Jesus came into the world in the spring. Early Christians appropriated December 25 as it coincided with the pagan festival day that celebrated the sun’s birth (not Son).
The Christmas tree was borrowed from pagan traditions as well and dates back to Egyptian and Roman times. Evergreens reminded the ancients that spring would come.
The concept of Santa Claus references the real Nicholas de Myra (St. Nicholas). A monk who lived around 280 AD. His kind acts to others catapulted him to become the patron saint of children. His birthday is in March, but he is celebrated on December 6 (St. Nicholas Day) by many European cultures. Through literature, movies, and advertising, he was bound to Christmas Day and renamed Santa Claus. His new significance lies in his ability to sell products (gifts) more than anything else.
Advertisers are always looking for ways to increase sales. One way to do this is to introduce a new character or tradition on top of an existing holiday or event. These efforts continue to this very day. Carol Aebersold’s household spy, “The Elf on the Shelf” is a successful product born out of a childhood memory. Kentucky Fried Chicken has had phenomenal success in promoting KFC chicken on Christmas Day in Japan. Their efforts are more remarkable as Japan is not a Christian country.
Other “traditions” abound, including lavish lights and outside decorations. Every corporation gets on the Christmas bandwagon with their products. A walk through my neighborhood revealed not only dazzling light displays but also Christmasfied objects from companies ranging from Volkswagen to Disney. Nothing says Christmas like an AT-AT wearing a Santa hat.
If you are Jewish, there is also a place for you at the Christmas table. You can erect a Hanukah bush instead of a Christmas tree and adorn your house with blue lights in place of the traditional white ones.
Christmas has always been a day to sell. In its earliest incarnation, it was designed to sell Christianity to pagans (by tying Christ’s birth with one of their holidays); more recently, it is used to push consumers to buy things that they don’t need or can’t afford. They are manipulated to feel shame when they can’t give their kids the products that they see on TV, or when they can’t create a day as magical as what they witnessed in a Hallmark movie.
Advertisers sell by creating a problem and then offering a solution. The bigger the problem, the more expensive the solution. In the past, a new pair of boots could be an excellent Christmas gift; now, it is a new car or a fabulous holiday vacation.
By now, you are likely thinking that I’m not Scrooge; instead, I’m Satan. An evil entity who wants to take Christ out of Christmas by being so cynical of one of the most important Christian holidays. Stand down; that is not the case at all. My point is that December 25 is just a marker, a moment in time that can be used as we see fit. It can be a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus, or a day to gather as a family, or a day to sell fruitcakes and game consoles-or all of the above. Since this day is a synthetic fabrication, we don’t have to attach preconceived ideas of how we have to experience it. We have the right to use it as we see fit.
Our family considers it a Christian holiday, and we use December 25 as a way to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is a day to reflect on the meaning of Christianity. For me, Jesus’s message has never been one of damnation or exclusion. Instead, it has always been one of redemption, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love. He may have come to us in March, but I’m OK telling him Happy Birthday in December.
Our family usually celebrates many traditions during this time. We play holiday music, we bake cookies, we sing carols. Mostly, we try to let those close to us know that we love them. We typically socialize more and go to a variety of Christmas get-togethers. Those won’t be happening this year for obvious COVID reasons. This saddens me, but it upsets my wife more. We have traveled to Minnesota to see her family every year since 1992, and it has been a time for her to reconnect. A ZOOM call is a poor substitute for game playing, conversations, and her mother’s Christmas cookies.
I talk to my sisters daily. They are very close to their children, but they won’t see them this Christmas. Both of my sisters won’t put a tree up this year, “What’s the point?” they tell me.
I’m here to tell them that there is a point. No, I’m not telling them that they need to put up a tree- remember that it is just a construct. However, I am telling them that there is a point.
I told you what Christmas means to me; no one or no virus can take that away. In some ways, COVID can give me a better Christmas. This year we set up our tree as a family. It is an old artificial one that is missing a few branches. We conceal its shortcomings in the traditional way, by hiding them against the wall. By doing so, we emphasize the tree’s positives, and we negate its negatives. (a point made here).
Julie put on some of her Christmas CDs (yes, we still have CDs) and we all fluffed and assembled the tree. We then went around the house, putting up our other decorations. Most have been used for decades. However, there are always one or two new items coming in and a similar number going out. This year, I printed a smiling photo of Mercury the cat to be used as the insert on her Christmas stocking holder. I also did one of my kids for a photo holding ornament that we found in our ornament box.
Our tree is decorated with memories, and we all relish the thoughts that each object brings. There are many ornaments made by the kids through the years, some with a little photo. There are ornament gifts from past “tree trimming parties” that we held for so many years. We have other ornaments gifted by friends, and some that are so ridiculous that we had to buy them; a bronzed “Q” from Star Trek and a light-up Mustang convertible comes to mind. Some of my favorites are those given to me by patients-a mouse dressed up as a doctor or a handmade Christmas stocking ornament with real pills glued on the red felt sock. We laugh, gasp, and remember. Our tree will never win a decorator’s prize- but it is highly prized by us.
We emphasize kindness during this time. Yesterday I heard a little knock on my bedroom door, it was my daughter, Grace. In her hand was a napkin, and on the napkin were some warm cookies. My sister Carol had reminded me about CPS (Chicago Public Schools) butter cookies, and I had mentioned that memory to my kids. The cookies are simple, made from only four ingredients, but they are delicious.
I attended kindergarten and 1st grade at a CPS school and have fond memories of snack time when a few pennies could buy a little glass bottle of chocolate milk and a cookie. Grace wanted to surprise me and made me some. A pure act of kindness.
This Christmas Day, we will do some of our usual activities. We will read the Christmas story from Luke, or do we do Matthew’s version? -As always, I will need to rely on Julie’s better Bible knowledge to sort that out. We will eat special foods, and open the gifts that we bought each other. It will be a low-key day, but hopefully, one filled with love. Love and kindness are free, but I believe they are much more valuable than any bought thing. It surprises me that many people are afraid to express either emotion as if they indicate weakness rather than strength.
I suspect that the day will end without a lightning bolt from heaven or a divine revelation. However, that is not to say that it won’t be a memorable and significant day. It will be those things because we will make it so.
Dear reader, I hope you can find some peace, a bit of happiness, and perhaps a dollop of joy in this holiday season. Please focus on what you have, and turn your Christmas into what you need it to be. Try to find the positives in your situation instead of wasting energy on what you don’t have or reliving sad thoughts from the past. December 25 is just a day that we have designated to be unique. We have done this for different reasons, some a bit suspect. However, we can take the good from that day and wrap it around ourselves. We control our feelings, not an advertising agency, past memory, or unrealistic expectation.