Meaning of Christmas
All my life I've heard variations on the expression, "the true meaning of Christmas." It's often couched in some sense of loss—that other people, never the speaker of course, have abandoned, or never possessed the right set of values with respect to our mid-winter holiday. The characteristics of that "right set of values" vary, but they usually have to do with either the birth of the personage that English-speakers call Jesus, or with the vague, pretty notion of peace and good will.
I got a real surprise a couple of days ago.
Like most surprises that come to someone of my age, this one came not from outside, but from within. It was a sudden awareness. I'm still fleshing it out, but it goes something like this: Somewhere deep within me, I too have a definition for that phrase, "the meaning of Christmas." And here it gets a bit vague and confused. I'm sure—yes, I'm absolutely sure, with no doubt—that it has nothing to do with the Christian messiah. I'm also aware that it's been within me most of my life. Some of it is Santa Claus and family. Some of it is the primitive inner celebration of the rebirth of light—the ancient Saturnalia and Yule that likely were sources of our Christmas festival. But there's more to it than those well examined ideas. Perhaps I'll know when I get to the end of this piece—perhaps not.
Let me go over the old ground. The Jesus thing first: At the age of about fourteen years, I began to become not-a-Christian. At sixteen, I read Thomas Huxley, and found the word agnosticism as a label for my philosophy. My too-brief summation of that philosophy is that some truths are unknown and unknowable, and that the only honest stance regarding them is to remain in question.
I'm definitely not a Christian; there's far too much in Christianity that requires a profession to know what is unknowable. But I've maintained a profound curiosity about how the obscure events described in the New Testament gospels, some of them perhaps apocryphal, became pervasive as culture and belief in Western society. I'm still curious about that because I've never found any convincing answers. In that context, even if the advent narratives of Matthew and Luke were believable, they really don't suggest that their messiah-baby was born in December. And those gospels along with some non-canonical gospels and traditional stories are the sum of all we know about that birth.
And in spite of a decade spent in a Christian church prior to my agnostic conversion, I have little if any emotional nexus with the story of the Christian nativity. Even when I called myself a Christian, much of that tale seemed unbelievable, so I think I never formed much attachment to it.
Then, that part about family and Santa: here is a lot of emotional connection. A family ritual in my childhood home was an annual trek to a temporary, commercial urban forest to get the seven-foot evergreen for our foyer, to deck it with glistening and glowing kitsch, and to stay in awe of it as it first collected, then surrendered a massive mound of decorated packages, before finally withering. Even the tree's disposal was a ritual, attended by lovingly repacking the kitsch for the next year, and sacramentally returning our foyer and living room to the relative bareness they seemed to require for the other eleven-twelfths of our lives. I have vivid memories of bubbling lights, of staring into the impossibly shiny ornaments to see in each one the reflected image of all the lights on the tree, of the foil star that in some years actually touched the ceiling. A lot of love was expressed each year around that tree and its ritual. I know that love is the font of some of my personal "meaning of Christmas." But that model doesn't fully explain the surprising awareness I experienced.
The reborn light angle is certainly within me. For several years, in my thirties, I had an annual winter solstice party. It was a celebration and a statement. It announced that I could indulge in society's month-long feast, but without the religious trappings. It took a poke at the fanciful myth that Christmas had begun as a celebration of some actual birth date, and acknowledged the ancient Roman, Celtic, Nordic and Druid foundations of our rituals. And the solstice is a genuine celebration for me. I don't deal well with the dark days of December, and I eagerly await the higher sun of Spring and Summer.
But even the combination of society, Santa and solstice don't explain the awareness that came to me this week. There's still more. Something underlays all of that cognitive stuff.
I exhibit annual disdain at the pre-Thanksgiving debut of Christmas decor, but I wouldn't choose to be entirely without it. I display my own holiday lights, and I love to see the glow and sparkle of my bedecked city. I can hear enough Christmas carols in a couple of hours to last me a year, and I gag at the most religious of the music as well as the worst of the let's-write-one-more-song-to-fill-up-our-Christmas-album novelty tunes—but I still want to hear my favorite carols every year, and some of those even have religious themes. I abhor much of the commercialism, but I love to give gifts. I have a great one for my life-partner this year. She's gonna love it, and I think it is going to be an absolute, stunning surprise. I'm about to bust.
Much of Christmas is extremely difficult for me. I feel assaulted by all of the religion and religiosity. I'm offended by the intolerance many Christians exhibit toward other beliefs, and by the unquestioning assumptions of the veracity of their own. But I love something about this season.
I'm still talking in circles around the question, though. I've been describing the trappings of this enhanced awareness—describing it, but not discovering it. Apparently, I'm going to have to settle for that. It is in me. Perhaps its exact nature is unknowable.
I'll drink some eggnog. I'll do some cooking. I'll hug some people I love—and probably some I barely know. I'll laugh. I'll probably cry. I won't always know why. And I'll do it all again next year.