The True Meaning of Christmas
So Christmas is upon us once more, the time of cheer and merriment. Alas, cheer and merriment seem in short supply these days. The Pope himself has gone so far as to say that Christmas itself is a bit of an charade at a time when millions have been killed or driven from their homes through war and famine and disaster. I must say it is hard not to see his point upon reflection. The house of horrors that is the Middle East shows no signs of abating the tide of blood that has swept across it these last few decades. African remains locked in a trap of poverty, disease and corruption. Europe, old and enfeebled, seems committed to tearing itself asunder over the scraps of past glory that remain, as an emboldened Russia stands greedily upon its borders and Islamists infiltrate their ranks. Peace on earth and goodwill to men seems to be perilously lacking these days.
Yet even without these more obvious examples of darkness that stalk the earth today, I cannot help but feel that Christmas has become a bit of a charade. I do not mean it in the sense of the often propagated “War on Christmas” so often hyped up by various politicians of a more rightward persuasion. Though I agree that chastising people for expressing goodwill and kindness through the uttering of “Merry Christmas” out of a desire to appease some knee-jerk dislike these words bring among the more militant of atheists is a rather silly act, as often is the case these days this particular chapter of the culture wars is mere boxing at shadows; fighting a rather pointless battle over appearances because no one really has the heart to address the substance of the matter.
That substance is that the real meaning of Christmas seems to have been lost a long time ago, whatever we might use by way of conventional greeting today. I do not even mean that statement in a religious sense that we have forgotten how Christmas is meant to symbolize the birth of Christ for Christmas ceased to be purely a religious holiday a long time ago, and anyway if we speak theologically it is Easter that is the holiday of true significance to the Christmas faith (remember that one? Yeah the one with the chocolate eggs). It is meant more in the sense that Christmas increasingly seems to have become less what it once was, a celebration of family and love and the sheer joy of being together with one another, and more a crass commercial holiday dedicated to consumerism and shallowness. We still cling to the appearances: the gaudy decorations, the Christmas pop songs on the radio, the cards sent out en masse to near strangers we hardly know; the essence of it however becomes ever more elusive with each passing year.
Last Man Standing, a show a cannot recommend enough, made a recent observation in one of Tim Allen’s signature monologues that when he was a boy the common gift one would find in a stocking on Christmas Day was some kind of sweet fruit (the name escapes me) and if that if such a gift was handed out today most kids’ reactions would be abject disappointment. After all, it’s just a piece of fruit. However, it goes to show that while gift giving has long been a part of Christmas it is only recently that it has been about the gifts themselves instead of the act of giving; sharing someone with someone you love in a small act of kindness to encompass the spirit of love and generosity that is the true meaning of this time of year.
If I’m starting to sound a tad self-righteous let me admit now that when I was a kid I certainly liked the gifts themselves. Heck, I’ll be honest and say that as a child the toys and presents were really all that I cared about. However, as I’ve grown older and less obsessed with the endless pursuit of more “stuff” I’ve realized that I don’t really remember the gifts themselves that much when I remember past Christmases. Instead, what I remember is digging through the stockings at the fireplace (which always contained the most tatty toys) with my sister at 6 AM as our parents sat in a near comatose state on the couch behind us desperately sipping coffee to try and attain some measure of wakefulness despite the ungodly hour. I remember sitting around the dinner table by candlelight and trying my first taste of wine (which in truth I thought was beyond sour at the time leaving me wondering why on earth adults seemed so enthralled with the stuff). My mother tearing up when she unwrapped a necklace from my father. My father’s touched look when he read the description on a Christmas card. These are the memories that stick in my mind, along with the lingering feelings that accompanied them of love and being with those who I loved.
And it is that sentiment I fear is becoming increasingly rare these days. It seems to have become all but extinct in day to day life for far too many of us, and now it seems to be slipping away on even the occasions . Instead we devote ourselves with ever more fervor to the trappings as we obsess over wrapping paper and newsletters and throwing the perfect party; anything to help us ignore the sinking sensation that all is not right and has not been so for a very long time.
So this Christmas I propose something quite radical. Don’t buy any gifts or hang up any lights. Forget the cards and decorations. Instead, just spend the day with those in your life you cherish and acknowledge just for a few hours how very important they, your family, are to you. Love, in this modern age we live in, is truly the most reactionary act there is, so take this day to celebrate it. The true magic of Christmas is the love of family. Appreciate it for what it is. Merry Christmas!