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A Secular Season's Greetings

While reading through some of the incredulous hate mail from yesterday, I came across one that asks: You keep talking about Christmas. Aren't you an atheist? You're missing the entire point of the reason for the season if you take this holiday as yours. Well, I addressed this very issue in 2002 and far be it from me to waste the opportunity to drag out an old blog post in lieu of original content. So, here you go. ---- Let's talk about Christmas and co-opted holidays and why some people have their panties in a bunch about this time of year and why I don't. We all know by now that Jesus was not born on December 25. That doesn't really matter to me because Christmas was never about Jesus's birthday to me. It's about so many other things. Sure, I'm not celebrating the "true meaning" of the holiday but then again, no other holiday really gets its true meaning celebrated. Easter has become about bunnies and colored eggs. Halloween is about scary witches and ghosts and candy. Even holidays meant to celebrate births of great figures in American history are nothing more than days off from work and school. Americans love a holiday, that's for sure. So why does this atheist celebrate a holiday that is supposed to be about religion? It's not the gifts, it's not the gaudy decorations. It's the spirit.
When I was a child, Christmas time meant so many things. Parties in school, snow on the ground, snooping around my parent's bedroom for hidden presents. The air was filled with a sense of anticipation and joy that was not present most of the year. The calendar was marked down with X's on the dates of December, and every new X meant that special day was coming. Of course, I loved the presents. But I loved the atmosphere, too. My parents are very social people. During the holiday season, there would be friends and relatives dropping over to say hello, have a drink, maybe a bite to eat. The Christmas tree glowed and sparkled and the windows were covered with those plastic, colorful decorations depicting Santa and snowmen and angels. Christmas is about traditions. For as long as I can remember, we would gather at my aunt's house on Christmas Eve - we still do - enjoying an Italian feast of fish and pasta, at least 40 of us crowded into the fully decorated basement. We exchanged presents and Santa came and the grownups were all happy and carefree and festive. We would go home late, get tucked into bed and then lay there for what seemed like hours, too excited to sleep. It was a great night to be a kid. My father would always take us shopping on Christmas Eve day, usually to Sears. We would buy presents for our mother - always Jean Nate perfume and powder - and presents for each other (I still have the music box my sister bought for me one year that played "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head") and we would get home and have hot chocolate covered in whipped cream and wrap our presents. We made cards for our parents and sometimes we would make presents, too; sloppy hand-made ornaments that still hang on my mother's tree. Even decorating the tree became a tradition of hot chocolate and Christmas songs and sibling fights over who got to put the star on top. We still do that to this day, gathering at my parent's house, now with kids and spouses in tow, and continuing the tradition of decorating and fighting. In fact, we are doing that tonight. As I got older and discovered - through a spiteful cousin - that Santa no longer existed, none of the excitement and wonder of the holiday season wore off. I became more deft at making hints at what I wanted for Christmas, and still secretly wrote letters to Santa in hopes that my cousin was playing just kidding. Eventually I became ok with my parents being the real Santa. I figured they were more likely to get me a Black Sabbath album than the jolly bearded guy would be. On Christmas morning, my sisters and I would wake earlier than any human should rise, and we would sit by the fireplace in the half-dark, opening whatever was in the bulging stockings that hung from the mantle, waiting for our parents to wake. Finally, we couldn't take it anymore and we would run into their bedroom, jumping on the bed until they finally got up, bleary eyed and exhausted from wrapping and arranging presents the night before. After the presents were unwrapped and the fire was roaring, fed by discarded wrapping paper and empty boxes, dad would make a huge breakfast and we would gush over our presents, comparing each other's stack of gifts. Then, while mom cooked, dad would take us out visiting relatives and each aunt or uncle would give us Christmas candy or cookies as we went from house to house. All these traditions are still intact. Some have changed a bit; there were years when the Christmas Eve party at my aunt's house turned into 3am drunken poker games and most of the cousins hanging out back with the keg and the nickel bags of pot. Then we got older, had kids of our own, and put the magic back in our tradition. We still open our presents very early, all of us arriving at our parent's house at an ungodly hour, heading straight for the stockings while we wait for our parents to wake up. They greet us with the same bleary eyed look they always did and the presents are still stacked sky high under the tree like they always were. We have a big breakfast and compare presents and then it's time to visit relatives, except now we visit them at Holy Rood cemetery, putting wreaths and blankets on their graves and thanking them for the all the cookies and warmth they gave us in the past. Of course, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our Christmas and Christmas eve follow all the same patterns, but now we have our own children to work magic for. There is nothing like the gleam in their eyes as they see the gifts under the tree and even though they no longer believe in Santa, they still delight at the note that "Santa" leaves for them, thanking them for the cookies and milk. Even better is the smile on their faces as they present us with the presents they picked out, wrapped using six yards of scotch tape and a lot of love. They are truly grateful for everything they get and our home is filled with a warmth and comfort that gets pushed aside most of the year by homework and housework and the hurried pace of our lives. This is why I love Christmas. I love way the neighborhood is lit up in color and light at night. I love the excitement in the air, the way people give so freely of themselves in the spirit of the season, the way the kids bounce when they walk through the mall, thrilled at the thought of picking out presents for those they love. Yes, Christmas has become commericialized and may appear to be nothing more than a celebration of cosumerism. If that's what you see, then that's all you want to see. Me, I see pretty lights and smiling kids and relatives all gathered in one place for a change instead of scurrying to appointments and ball games and work. If I co-opted your holiday, I'm sorry. I think we could all use a time of year set aside to eat, drink and be merry. If you don't celebrate it or for some reason or are angry at the way this time of year has ventured into a capitalist's dream, that's your choice. Just don't piss on my Christmas tree and try to take that joy from me because you don't want to see it. ----- For some reason, this reminds me of the politically correct Christmas songs post from two years ago. I might drag that old horse out later. Man, I caught Christmas Fever early this year.


Michelle--as a Christian and long-time (amateur) student of the life of Jesus, I am confident that your Scrooge-like correspondent is dead wrong. Jesus was the guy who loved parties and celebrations. He delighted in seeing people treating each other with love, and his stories and parables emphasize the fact that EVERYONE is valued and loved. His "Kingdom of Heaven" stories all end with throwing a party and inviting the neighbors in to celebrate restoration and reunion. And he describes Heaven as one big long party where EVERYONE is welcomed and wanted. Your Christmas memories are wonderful, and I'm glad you shared them with us. Welcome to the party! Have a very Merry Christmas!

Michele - I love the way you write. I can see, feel, and hear all the things you are describing. Excellent post.

Merry Christmas! I hope this year's is as good as the ones you describe.

Good response, TwoCents.

I have to say, some holidays do seem a bit... fluffier than necessary. But Christmas is Christmas and all those angsty anti-cap pessimists can keep their damn hands off.

Christmas is a time for my religion, which requires love for, and understanding of, my fellow man, so I shall vigorously smite thee for intruding upon my holiday...oh. Never mind.

What TwoCents says ...

I have less problem with the "commercialization" of Christmas than I do with the Bowlderization of the holiday by those that want to remove ANY spiritual/historical/religious element to it. I rant on my blog about a New Jersey School system that won't even allow INSTRUMENTAL Christmas music played by the band.

Darleen - I read about that! UGH! You know, it's like you're allowed to think whatever you want - and teach it in school - unless it's religion or even vaguely religious! I get so tired of the whole "separation of church and state" argument. It doesn't mean what they're interpreting it to mean. The whole point was that the government could not set up an official-and-only church (like England was pretty much doing)...that's it! It doesn't mean they didn't want you to mention Jesus in a school! (pant pant)
Okay, rant over. Michelle, I for one was touched by your post - which sounds as though it could have been written anew. I, too, am more about the traditions and goodwill than the "true meaning" - and strangely enough, with the exceptions of the Italian food fare and siblings, you could have been describing my Christmas memories, too.

I think it gave me the Christmas bug, too.

Is Christmas "fluffier" than necessary?

Sure. Sure it is. But after this fall's political season, after months of war-news-Peterson-trial-scandal-scandal-scandal-Martha-in-jail, I'm ready for fluff.

I never saw it as overly commercialized, but then maybe that's because I've never gone out in search of a present for someone I didn't love dearly and closely and want to make as happy as some silly material posession can make...I can see how having to buy the trophy present for some relative you don't really care for, just to impress them, could suck the fun out of it, but when I buy presents, it's for the people I love and only for the people I love, so it's fun.

And I also like what TwoCents said. Robert Farrar Capon (an Episcopal priest and food writer) once made a comment along the lines of God not being anti-stuff, because after all, He made "stuff." (on whatever level you believe that, if you believe in God).

I don't know. I do know I need holidays - I need a time when I'm not thinking about my job or my responsibilities or what's going on in the world, and instead I get to think about decorated trees and shiny things and cookies and those funky old Rankin-Bass specials on the tv, and paper and ribbons and old familiar songs and snow and all of that good stuff - and it makes me sane again.

This is why I love Thanksgiving. And aside from the horrible green bean concoction many families serve, it's a holiday still true to form. It's about the harvest and breaking bread and being thankful.

It's really the best American holiday.


I don't have to spend days on end hearing the opinions of folks who pretend to know the mind of God.

What do you mean, Easter has BECOME about bunnies and colored eggs? It was originally about bunnies and eggs: fertility symbols, ya know. The name Easter comes from Ishtar. She's a Babylonian goddess of fu-- err, fertility.

This reminds me of the Christmas Card that I've sent to a few friends.

Great post. Took me back to a time when, though our extended family was never a part of our life like yours was, it was a time of giddy anticipation. I still remember fondly my younger sister waking me up at 2am Christmas morning only to go back to bed because she couldn't stay awake. I sat watching the flippin' Yule Log on Channel 11 (does anyone from the NYC metro area remember that annual broadcast?) for the next 4, long, hours.

I won't pretend to know the mind of God, because I do know the mind of God.

Go to your local Family Services office and they will gift wrap your purchases and give them to children who weren't expecting anything for Christmas. Then use your imagination to picture a child who lives every day in doubt and then on Christmas day they wake up to gifts from an unknown mysterious place. Take 20 minutes and $50 and go out and buy a child hope and buy yourself a glimpse into the mind of God.

Thanks for the attempted lesson in humility, Al, but we do things like that every year, without someone preaching us into doing it and without it being a religious experience.

EXACTLY, michele.

Al makes the Baby Jesus cry.

Woah! Nice gang up. Don't make it sound like you clear brush but you just don't take pictures. I apologize if it looked like I was trying to teach humility. Did it come off that way because of the context of other comments? I gave the obvious lame example of an easy and cheap way to feel good at Christmas, no religion, no obligation. And everyone knows that the baby Jesus cries because the crib hadn't been invented yet.

Hey, if non-Christians want to celebrate Christmas, I don't mind. It doesn't diminish the meaning I get out of Christmas. And because non-Christians go all out, I get a very pretty Manhattan to look at in December. I love December in NYC - it's the best. I should go to the Met this year to look at the Christmas tree. It's been so long since I've done that.

So enjoy. You don't have to get a present for baby Jesus. He's already got enough.

I'm agnostic, and I love christmas! I even love the songs -- they're gorgeous, and the tale they tell is captivating. Even if I have no idea if it's true, I can still be moved by it, just like I'm moved by a good story or a good movie. Or a good joke.

I just hope I can find the time and energy to make it fun and not crazy! I have a son now, and I have to make christmas magical for him. :) In a strictly non-supernatural way. ;)

Lurker here,
Great post, I'm a big fan of Christmas for most of the same reasons. There is something about this time of year that just sparkles. "A Christmas Carol" (Alistar(sp) Sims version) probably isn't as inspiring in July, but watch it in December it it brings tears to the eye still. Even if I'm starting to hate Cratchet. I mean really! You have been working for this guy for over 7 years now! Your kid is dying from the dreaded, fatal "not enough money" disease (that is what was killing Tim right? he appeared to get better after Bob got a raise) and you still work for the guy. Love when his wife slams Scrooge.
Err.. sorry went a bit off there.
One last point. It amazes me that you can see and feel all the magic that you describe in this post and NOT believe in Santa Clause, or Father Christmas as I like to call him.

Happy Christmahankwanzaka!

I'll no doubt offend someone, but the modern Christmas ritual seems to have been born out of past pagan rituals, see The History of Christmas for further details.

Considering that the Christians co-opted many of the Christmas traditions from their pagan predecessors, it seems a bit strange to worry about secular co-option of Christmas. It's a time of joy to be celebrated by any and all, whatever the root source of your joy. One of the many reasons I'm happy my son is in private school - they can celebrate any tradition they want. They had an end-of-Ramadan party this month, and they're going caroling at the nusing home with actual carols about God and stuff.

Holidays are remarkably versatile (and important) things, I think. As a few others have said, it's pretty hypocritical for Christians to complain that secular/capitalist forces have taken over Christmas when they just placed their savior-birth-holiday in December to compete with pagan celebrations (and co-opted their stuff, like trees and reindeer).

To me, it doesn't matter whether you celebrate Solstice, Christian Christmas, Secular Christmas, X-Mas (the day to celebrate the X-Men) or whatever as long as you celebrate. The days are long and the nights are short and people need some sort of festivity to stay sane. Otherwise they just become bitter, self-righteous liberals.