Wednesday, December 23, 2009


The holiday season is officially upon us and Christmas is only one short day away. I always find myself feeling very conflicted during the holidays, torn in so many different directions as to what the best or right way to celebrate is.

Being an American in the year 2009 means celebrating the holidays by camping out in front of Target at 4am the day after Thanksgiving, only after having fingered through newspaper ads to find that they've got the best sale prices; by dropping an obscene amount of money in over-packed shopping malls while weaving through crowds of bargain hunting moms toting around screaming children; by spending countless hours hanging Christmas lights from rain gutters and scrutinizing Christmas trees in the Home Depot parking lot. Being raised Christian means erecting an inflatable nativity scene on the front lawn to ensure your neighbors know you're in on the "real" reason for the season, attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve and pretending it hasn't been exactly one year since you stood in a church, and by refusing to abbreviate with "Xmas" because you think it's a crying shame people are taking the Christ out of Christmas.

Last Sunday I decided to surprise my mom by showing up at church. My dad plays in the worship band so during half of the service my mom sits alone, and while I'm sure she doesn't mind, she always seems to appreciate when I'm there. I'm by no means a church goer, not because I'm not spiritual, but because… well that's a whole other blog. The point is, sitting through a Christmas service at a Baptist church was an awkward reminder of why exactly I'm not a church goer. The service started out with some familiar Christmas songs, which I always enjoy. It just feels good to spend a wintry Sunday morning there in the second pew singing "Oh Holy Night" next to my mother. It wasn't until the sermon started that I wished I wasn't in the second pew, because it meant everyone at the 11-o-clock service would know that the Warne's non-church-going daughter slipped out half way through the message and, oh dear, how rude that would be. I understood why the pastor was agitated about his kids being on "Holiday Break" instead of "Christmas Break," why he disliked being greeted with "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas," and why the multimedia of a manger scene touched him so deeply. I knew because I too used to feel that way. The only thing about that sermon that I couldn't just shrug off as "Christian culture" was when the pastor insinuated that the non-religious were trying to steal "their" holiday and take all of the "true" meaning out of it.

Most children would say that Christmas is about being good all year so Santa Clause will squeeze down your chimney and leave goodies under your tree. Most Christians would say that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, the fulfilling of God's promise to send His Son, our Savior, to Earth, and recognizing that God is with us. Most Americans would say Christmas is about shopping, baking, drinking, and enjoying the company of friends and family. So what is the true reason for the season and the purpose for such celebration? Perhaps they're all wrong.

December 25th was first celebrated as Brumalia by the ancient Greeks, a holiday dedicated to multiple solar deities. Brumalia was also observed by the Romans as a month-long celebration of Bacchus, a character in Greek mythology believed to incite ritual madness, drunkenness, and ecstasy. The early Christians, in an attempt to gain converts, allowed the holiday to be celebrated but turned the last day, December 25th, into Christmas, a day to celebrate the fulfilling of the prophecy of Christ. Over time other traditions were adopted and the holiday called Christmas became a globally celebrated season of trees, wreaths, lights, gifts, and of course, Santa Clause. Christmas trees are an adaptation of the pagan Roman practice of bringing evergreens indoors to celebrate winter solstice. Santa Clause originates from the reputation of Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Turkish bishop, who was a generous man with an affinity for children, and was often said to have performed miracles.

So are we to celebrate winter solstice? Most no longer believe in Greek mythology. Are we to celebrate the birth of Christ? It is widely accepted that Jesus was not actually born on December 25th. Not even early Christians recognized the day as his birthday, since at that time the observance of anyone's birth date was considered a frivolous and self-absorbed pagan practice. The only conclusion I can draw from all of this is that Christmas is whatever it means to you. It is the celebration of whatever warms your heart and fills you with festive cheer. I choose to celebrate American and Christian Christmas traditions not because I believe them to be true, but because they are my culture. My Christmas is taking the opportunity to buy gifts that show my loved ones they are a special part of my life, by enjoying delicious meals surrounded by friends and family, and by observing traditions that define the time and place in which I live.