Despite my beliefs and my lifestyle changing dramatically over the years, I’ve never had a Christmas-free year. It is always there, tapping me on the shoulder saying, “Resistance is futile!”
I’ve never spent December 25 in a culture that didn’t celebrate Christmas, but I would like to have the experience of waking up and seeing an ordinary day unfold. That would really challenge my notions about what it means and what I should do.
The biggest factors in anyone celebrating Christmas are personal memories and traditions, religious commitments, family expectations, social pressure and….cultural onslaught!
Here’s how those have played out for me.
My parents are devout Catholics, and my family celebrated Christmas and Easter big. Because we observed both Advent and Lent, there was a sense of austerity and reflection leading up to each holiday. It didn’t feel so much like a one-day blow-out when you’d been preparing for Christmas for 4 weeks and you celebrated it for 12 days. As kids, we probably liked Jesus and Santa equally, but there was no confusion about who was real or important. Our Christmas had the usual traditions of midnight Mass, gift opening, and a turkey dinner, but also a local Acadian tradition of eating rabbit pie (yes, rabbit) on Christmas Eve with the extended family. This was later expanded to include lasagna for those who didn’t want to eat bunnies. We kids were expected to ask for one toy for Christmas – and we knew without asking that it had to be affordable for our parents. Around the age of 11, we were expected to “man up” and ask for something we needed for Christmas, like a new winter coat, and to be delighted when we received it. We also received additional gifts we didn’t choose ourselves, as well as a stocking, and numerous gifts from relatives (much of which was clothing).
All in all, my Christmas memories are rock solid – meaningful Christmases without a lot of excess.
I moved 2700 miles away for my first professional job, and didn’t move back to my hometown until 15 years later. I kept my parents’ religious traditions for the first 10. I enjoyed sending and receiving gifts through the mail. People even sent handwritten letters in those days! I put up a Christmas tree, and enjoyed work parties, concerts and plays.
Probably my worst Christmas was when I had recently broken up with an ex, but we decided to visit each other and exchange gifts on Christmas day, basically out of pity. What a mistake! I had never wanted so much to be alone. At least I avoided post-break-up sex 🙂 That was my first experience of not needing to “do Christmas up big.” After that I never worried again about whether I was invited out to dinner or had someone else’s celebration to glom onto.
When I got married, I was still far from home, but my in-laws had lovely Christmas traditions. As modern Mennonites, they aligned closely with the voluntary simplicity movement. There was a religious focus, with moderate decorating and gift-giving, and an emphasis on family and food. Just my style! The cousins we were closest to had three young kids and had a birthday party for Jesus each year, but did not participate in the Santa Claus story. We decided to follow suit when our child was born. For the next few years, our new family Christmas included Christian traditions like putting out a Nativity set, and reading the Bible story.
So why would I want to turn my back on all that?
I was meeting and working with more and more people from different faith traditions, or no faith traditions, whose beliefs were actively belittled, especially in December. I started feeling that cultural imperialism was in play: why should you mind being taken over by Christmas? Just join in, be part of it, and enjoy! I was hearing reports of towns that would erect a Nativity scene but refuse to put up a Menorah on public land. At my child’s school and daycare, one Chanukah song would be added to the Christmas concert and it would be called a holiday show. Practicing Muslims and Hindus were gracious about Christmas, but Christians would actively shun learning about their traditions, or would refer to Eid al-Fitr or Diwali as “their Christmas.”
In the meanwhile, organized religion was falling down. Folks in a town near me were convinced that preschool children were being subjected to ritual satanic abuse. My church sent out a newsletter with an article saying that the murder of abortion doctors was justified. The Boys of St. Vincent opened up discussion on sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The legacy of Indian residential schools was in the news. Rational and devout people were defending their beliefs and their churches, often “explaining away” atrocities. I started to distance myself from religious extremism.
I moved again, away from any relatives, which gave me the opportunity to start over with my religious affiliation. I was drawn to a Unitarian church, where I learned about world religions and was able to keep an open mind about beliefs until when and if I developed some! Unitarians usually celebrate a secular Christmas, but also educate themselves about the holy days of other religions, without “appropriating” them. When Link and I were on our own, we continued with a Christmas tree, a Christmas dinner (adjusted to scale), baking, visiting friends and neighbours, and gift giving, but no Santa – making us a minority of one family in our community! We added to our collection of construction toys every year, and made things with Lego, K’Nex and Pixelblocks. We added a simple Solstice celebration in December. I had decorated the house with dozens of candles (so 90s!) and we would light them all that one night a year – something that Link looked forward to for weeks!
We later moved back to my hometown and were able to piggyback on my parents’ celebrations again. There was less “doing” and more ability to just show up! We have continued doing “our” things from the list above, but we also join my parents and extended family for Christmas Eve (not the church part) and Christmas dinner. The youngest family member is 11 now, so it has become a much more leisurely holiday. Apart from 24 hours of extended-family togetherness, Rom and I like to take time off work to stay home, watch movies, read comics and eat Quality Streets!
This year all bets are off because Link may not be able to travel home. I’m confident we can work out something for the family, whether it falls on the 25th or not. As an adult, Link enjoys Hallowe’en and New Year’s with friends just as much! So once again, we’ll overhaul what Christmas means, and what we can do instead of or in addition to.
Stay tuned for Part 3: Alternatives to Christmas