Religion

Christmas Through New Eyes

I live by some very strict rules during the Christmas season, which I define officially as the day after Thanksgiving to December 31st (that’s one of the rules). I get rid of the fall soaps and candles and replace them with Christmas scents. I eliminate pumpkin from my kitchen and bring in peppermint. I listen only to Christmas music, and slightly more extremely, only to Christian Christmas music. I mean, I don’t leave the mall if they’re playing “Rudolph” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but those songs aren’t on my Christmas playlist or my Pandora Christmas station. I own an array of Christmas decorations, but none of them include Santa Claus or reindeer.

I don’t impose my rules on anyone else. I’ll drink my Starbucks peppermint mocha out of any color cup, I’m happy to be wished “happy holidays” or even just “have a nice day” at Macy’s, and I will honor whatever type of celebration or non-celebration December involves for you. My rules are mine, and I know they’re odd. I don’t have anything against Santa or secular Christmas music. Christians far more devout than I incorporate both into their Christmas festivities. And yes, I know my own practices include many symbols that have no tie to Jesus’ birth, and some that even run directly counter to Christian beliefs. My rules aren’t coherent or, really, even reasonable.

So why follow them? I’m protecting Christmas in my own mind and heart. My most cherished childhood memories are Christmas-related. The brewing anticipation as my father stood on the ladder in the garage pulling down Christmas boxes, the tree lit in the quiet dark of our living room, “Mary’s Boy Child” in the background on the record player as we ate dinner, my grandmother bustling around in our kitchen making her almond brittle and lacy oatmeal cookies, the words of Luke 2 increasingly cemented in my brain with each year’s children’s choir Christmas pageant, my mother’s high-pitched voice squeaking “eight tiiiiiiiny reindeer” in her dramatic reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the lighting of the purple center candle on the advent wreath at the Christmas Eve service, my mother tucking me into bed asking, “Did you have a good Christmas?” Yes. Always yes. There were bad moments and bad days, but yes. Christmas was always good.

It was through Christmas that I came to understand Jesus and my Christian faith. Before I understood anything else, I understood the deep love and immense power emanating from the manger that night. It was through Christmas that I came to revere God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and at the same time as the embodiment of perfect grace, mercy, and love. I believed that baby was God made flesh, His gift of salvation, my redemption. These days, I have to consciously choose to believe that almost daily, struggling against doubt and all the other competing forces that make faith so much harder than it used to be. Christmas reminds me of the core of my faith and allows me, just for a month or so, to let everything else fall away as the manger takes its place front and center.

So Christmas feels like it needs protection, more than ever before. Not from a society of heathens, but from my own conflicted feelings and beliefs. I recognize the ugliness of contemporary white American Christianity in the “war on Christmas” rhetoric, and it makes me want to back away altogether. I want no part of that. I want no part of the excess spending (although I’ve played my own part in that) or in the “holiday stress” that the white middle-class now bears with a kind of showy pride. I want no part of the refusal to acknowledge that celebrating Christmas is not an essential part of being “American” or that Christmas can be and has been adapted as a holiday that celebrates giving generally rather than Christ’s birth specifically, just as Thanksgiving can celebrate gratitude without specifically linking to our nation’s history of genocide and colonialism. I don’t want to be party to the ways Christmas has been used to force white American Christian culture on a nation of diverse cultures and religious beliefs and practices.

But at the same time, Christmas is an important part of my own cultural and religious heritage, my faith’s anchor, and I treasure it for what it has meant to me. I want it preserved and visible. I want to concentrate and soak up Christmas as fully as possible during this season. But the more aware I become of white American evangelical Christianity as one brand of Christianity among many rather than as Christianity in its only true and pure form, the more I become aware of that brand of Christianity as much as a culture as it is a faith. It’s surprisingly difficult to disentangle the two, and in my version of Christmas, they are impossibly entangled. I am realizing, slowly, that in order to strike balance between celebrating with pride a holiday that I love and honoring the diversity around me, I need to separate the celebration of the birth of Christ from the cultural traditions and symbols that white American Christians have claimed as our own but were never exclusively ours to begin with. We can celebrate our unique holidays but share winter. Christians don’t have to own snowmen and candy canes and lights and ornaments. We don’t have to own gift-giving. If we don’t claim it all as ours, might we be less threatened and offended by lights that aren’t the right color and wrapping paper with the wrong images on it? If Christians whittle Christmas down to its core, it becomes impossible to “take Christ out of Christmas” because that’s all it really is. Everything else is shared, adaptable to different cultural and religious traditions. Nothing is being taken from us because it was never ours. All that’s ours is the manger, and that was always meant to be shared too. But I suspect people will find even that more appealing if we disentangle it from all the excess stuff.

I’m still going to put Fresh Balsam antibacterial soap in my bathroom and make some gingerbread cookies tonight because those things make me feel immersed in the Christmas season. But this year I’m also going to work to separate culture from faith, to see the trappings as the trappings, and to celebrate the birth of Christ as God’s great gift of love, peace, hope, and forgiveness. That’s all I really need. The manger. Front and center. Take the peppermint and snowflake decorations and use them as you will.

Happy holidays. May there be peace on earth.

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