Why do I celebrate Christmas?
I have a feeling most people don’t think about this. I celebrate Christmas because I celebrate Christmas. What’s to wonder about? But I think about it a lot because I took a roundabout route away from and back to Christmas.
For my first few years on Earth, my immediate family did the whole Christmas thing. I looked forward to trimming the tree and putting up the decorations like any kid did. My favorite part was pulling down a heavy pile of Christmas records to throw on my clunky portable turntable. (The Sesame Street Christmas album was my favorite, although I don’t think it had the cover seen here.)
Then, around age 7 or 8, my mom became a Jehovah’s Witness and we all followed suit (as I’ve alluded to on the site a few times). As you probably know, Witnesses don’t do holidays, because most holidays have weird pagan origins, which Witnesses perceive as being Satanic (no, really). So all of a sudden, no presents, no tree, no “I Hate Christmas”. Nothing.
However, my extended family (which remained varying degrees of Catholic) always had Christmas at my grandparents’ house, which was literally next door to me. So my mom and brothers and I all got dressed up nice and went to their house and drank egg nog and ate too much…in other words did all the things people do at Christmas. Except for the whole exchanging gifts thing.
I should note that this is not standard operating procedure for Witnesses. Most Witnesses wouldn’t come within a ten foot pole of any holiday, unless if was to preach about how it was secretly demonic. But my extended family is very big and very tight, and my mom couldn’t bear the thought of us not seeing each other when we were so close. Even if it meant endangering our survival of the impending Apocalypse.*
* Witnesses don’t really believe in Heaven and Hell, in the sense that they’re places you go when you die, but they do believe the end of the world is coming very soon, and if you don’t get on the right side post-haste you’re gonna be shit outta luck when God’s whip comes down.
I was chatting with some folks online earlier this week, and when I revealed this biographical tidbit, all reactions were in the ballpark of “yeesh”, “yikes”, and “so sad”. But I didn’t see it that way at the time, and I really don’t see it that way now. In retrospect, yes, it was very weird. But I don’t feel traumatized by the experience. If anything, I feel it enhanced my love of the holiday.
Maybe it’s because we didn’t have much money (or any money) when I was growing up, and I didn’t expect presents anyway. Maybe it’s because I was lucky enough to have a large family that likes getting together and doesn’t explode into arguments every five minutes. Whatever the reason, because an odd set of personal circumstances, I got to experience the good things about Christmas (family, togetherness, good times) without the bad stuff (disappointment).
I was never disappointed I didn’t get a certain toy because I knew I’d get nothing. I didn’t expect anything out of Christmas except playing with my cousins and staying up way too late and laughing at old family photos. And I got to have that every year.
It’s very difficult for me to not worry and not think about Everything. Even when I was a kid, I found it hard to be happy (as I wrote about here). But at Christmas with my family, I was happy.
By the time I went to college, my mom had abandoned Witnessery, and so had I. Christmas was a-ok again. None of us reverted back to Catholicism. We just entered that vague, irreligious sphere where most people live. But I had to ask myself, if I’m not a devout Christian, then why do I celebrate Christmas? Why am I honoring the birth of someone I don’t really believe in?
My best answer is, Christmas is an alibi. It allows us to get together and think of one another and, hopefully, be happy for a little while. Absent any expectation of gift-getting (or the pressure of gift-giving), that’s what it was for me as a kid. Absent any real religious belief, that’s what it is for most people.
Christmas has always been an alibi. December 25 used to be a pagan holiday honoring The Inconquerable Sun (or Sol Invictus, depicted to your left) a holiday that always involved plenty of merriment–possibly because even before it was a day to honor the sun, it was a day to honor Bacchus, the god of wine.
Then the pagans became Christians, but they didn’t want to lose their bitchin’ holiday. So the priests said, Fine, we’ll call it Jesus’ birthday. Just go to church in the morning and everything’s cool.
I hesitate to call it a lie. How about a seasonally appropriate word: a humbug. In the P.T. Barnum sense, a humbug is a flashy hoax that captivates everyone, even people who know it’s not real. It doesn’t matter that it’s not real, because it gives you pleasure.
Or call it the Jebediah Springfield Principal: If a story inspires us to do good, does it matter if it’s not true?
That may make me sound hypocritical, since I recently denounced Santa as a lie. The difference to me is, Santa is a lie that, one day, I’ll have to tell my daughter is a lie. As for Christmas itself, I can keep on pretending for as long as I want. And the pretending hurts no one. I can let myself be caught up in the wonder and spectacle and the love of it all, and not think about the fact that I don’t believe in The Reason for The Season.
If you’re one of those people who can’t stand their family, I hope Christmas is an excuse to get together with friends and other loved ones. And if you don’t do Christmas at all, I hope you have an excuse that’s just as wonderful.
If you’re a Christian and you celebrate Christmas religiously, presumably you do so either not knowing or not caring about the holiday’s weird pagan origins, or the fact that Jesus was probably not born on December 25. Even if it’s really not Jesus’ real birthday, for you it’s an excuse to celebrate the fact that he was born.
If Christmas is nothing more than an alibi for us all to be Christmas-y, that’s enough for me.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.