Christmas is a confusing time of year for me. It is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. The dichotomous nature of Christmas has caused many to wonder, what is the real meaning of Christmas, including me. One of the most endearing answers was narrated by Linus in the classic Charlie Brown Christmas, which first aired on television in 1965.
Linus personifies the child of great faith, a perfect foil to the ever- questioning Charlie Brown. For Linus, it is simple; Christmas is about the birth of the Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is about showing glory to God, peace on Earth, and Goodwill toward men. I wish I could accept his explanation as readily as Charlie, but it would appear I am more jaded and cynical.
While Linus so eloquently paraphrased Jesus, who said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… Love your neighbour as yourself,” I still find myself struggling to make the connection to Christmas. Deciding that Linus lacked credentials, I googled the history of Christmas and discovered some interesting facts on History.com.
Long before Christmas there were holidays during the same time- period. In Scandinavia, Yule was celebrated from December 21st through January in recognition of the return of the sun. In Rome, Saturnalia was a hedonistic winter celebration beginning on the solstice where social order was turned upside down and businesses and schools all closed for a month of excess.
In the early years of Christianity, Jesus’ birth was not celebrated. In fact, it wasn’t until the fourth century that church officials decided to institute a celebration, known as the Feast of the Nativity. Uncertain as to the actual date of Christ’s birth, Pope Julius I chose December 25 in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan holiday, and make it a holy day. The celebration spread to Egypt in 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. In the eight century Christmas spread to Scandinavia.
In early Puritan North America Christmas was outlawed in Boston from 1659 – 1681. It became an official holiday in the USA in 1870.
Christmas traditions took hold after the publishing of A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1822, and somehow Santa Claus got mixed in with the worshipping of God. Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, focusing on the virtue of thinking of others at Christmas. Dr. Seuss wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1957, furthering the ideals of generosity and kind-heartedness. At some point, Christmas became a secular holiday with vaguely religious overtones. And while the excessive commercialism of Christmas has been lamented since the 1850’s, the present-day focus on gifts and material preparations has many of us disenchanted.
An examination of the history of Christmas was interesting, but didn’t seem to help me with my own dichotomous love/hate relationship. I confess, I have struggled with the pressure to make everything perfect. I have felt overwhelmed with the expectations. It seems like each year the Christmas advertising and placement of goods in stores starts earlier and earlier. The Halloween candy is barely removed from shelves before the Christmas extravaganza begins.
Gift giving has escalated from a few special gifts to a mile- high pile under the tree. Santa’s gifts don’t fit in a stocking anymore. Christmas trees have morphed from a fresh tree decorated on Christmas Eve with home-made decorations made by children to a work of art coordinated by the mother of the household. Said mother is expected to be a Martha Stewart clone, who not only decorates trees like an interior designer, but has the rest of the house tastefully laid out with appropriate tablecloths, table settings, hearths and wreaths.
In Christmas’s past, I have allowed myself to be drawn in by these fantasy-laden expectations. I’ve tried to make my lists and check them twice, outside of working all day and my regular chores, and in so-doing I used to develop Christmas anxiety as soon as the fall leaves started to change colour. Planning baking days and lavish Christmas feasts, parties and celebrations. Shopping for gifts, wrapping gifts and sending gifts in the mail. The Christmas letter with attached photos, everyone smiling gleefully in Christmas sweaters and fancy dress wear. Shopping for fancy dresses for Christmas parties, with matching shoes and hair and make-up. I’ve wanted to yell out in Charlie Brown fashion, “What is the meaning of it all?”
But then…. Parceled along with all of the materialism and mayhem is the magic of Christmas. The nostalgia of a time when I was young and believed in Santa Claus. The memories of going to church and hearing the Christmas story and believing in the miracle of a Saviour. The excitement of seeing cousins and Grandma’s and Grandpa’s, of riding in cars and trains over snow-clad prairies.
I remember with fondness simpler times, when all that I found in my stocking on Christmas morning was the Grover puppet I’d been pining for, a candy cane and a mandarin orange. And I was thrilled. I remember when my children were little and how fun it was to watch them excitedly anticipate the arrival of Santa Claus as they laid out cookies they’d baked and carrots for the reindeer.
At some point, when I started living my life for me, things changed. I jumped off the Christmas commercialism carousel and allowed myself to experience Christmas in whatever way felt good for me. I’ll never forget the amazing Christmas we shared with my brother and his family in Maui. My first Christmas with Mister was relaxing and stress-free; we went to see the movie, Les Miserable in the theatres and ate Pad Thai and papaya salad for Christmas dinner.
Now that I’m in Saudi Arabia, it’s even easier for me to make the choice to celebrate Christmas how I want to. It’s also easy to let go of something old to make room for something new. Looking back, I am so grateful for all the traditional family Christmas’s I enjoyed, hectic or not. They were a gift. At the same time, I am excited for a romantic Christmas in Bahrain, just me and my husband. No tree and no presents and no big turkey dinners. Just love, which, to me, is what Christmas is really about.
That’s what I’m choosing this year, but who knows what next year will bring? It would be wonderful if we all felt free to choose what we believe and how we celebrate, at Christmas and all through-out the year. It would be wonderful if we carried the spirit of Christmas with us all the time, not waiting for this one time of the year.
I have a vision of a world like that. Where peace reigns and people accept one another’s different ideas, beliefs, religions and politics and rejoice in the beauty of humankind every day.
Until then, I’m feeling mixed emotions about Christmas.