Tuesday, December 28, 2021

On How Christmas is uncomfortable and what I'm going to do about it.

     I used to love Christmas. I loved it because lights are beautiful and because there is something magical about snow before you get bored with it, and about presents magically appearing, and about the house being cozy and full of good smells. I loved the music and the ambiance and the everyone being warm toward each other.

    And then somehow I ended up being in charge of putting up the lights, and the snow became more of an impediment than a beauty, and suddenly I was the person who had to make presents magically appear (usually with no budget except what others generously donated), and if the house was going to be cozy and full of good smells, that was on me. I had to make that happen.

I realized that Christmas had been magical because of my mother. SHE was magical, not Christmas. (She still is, actually.) And now I am the mother, and I have no idea how she did that. The entire season, until after the presents appear, is one long stressful imposition on my time and health. And because Tim is making Christmas magical for everyone else's families (using his voice), I'm usually making the magic at home all by myself for the great majority of it. And I'm not very good at it. I'm terrible at decorating. I can't bake cookies and shop for presents at the same time and I don't have energy to do them sequentially. I don't do Christmas cards. I can't find our stockings....And at the best of times I can barely keep on top of the most important of the household work for keeping ten people alive without a holiday interfering.

On top of the practical difficulties of making Christmas worthwhile, I have also grown increasingly uncomfortable with the jarring mismatch between how we celebrate Jesus's birth and who He is and what He taught. Despite overly energetic and unconvincing attempts to justify these things and connect them to the Savior, there is nothing about Jesus in Christmas trees, Christmas lights, candy canes, gingerbread houses, stockings, Santa, elves, glass ball ornaments, tinsel, holly, ivy, mistletoe, wassail, turkey or ham dinners, candles, presents, colorful wrapping paper, decorating literally everything, snowmen, jingle bells, sleighs, snow, fireplaces, hot cocoa, snowflakes, penguins, the Grinch, Scrooge, pajamas, reindeer, glowing noses, magical hats, cookies.....shall I go on? You get the picture.

In fact, the most-quoted texts of the season are "A Christmas Carol" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which are both texts about repentance without Jesus. The most common pictures I saw this year celebrating "Jesus's birth" on social media were new jammies, with a handful of new assault weapons thrown in to "own the libs" and deliberately offend "our enemies" and increase division. Commercialism and stuff-worship are rampant. And the more I listened to Christmas music radio, the more strange it was that we sing "O Holy Night" as a screaming rock song (is -that- what Holy means?) and put "Silent Night" in a playlist with "All I Want for Christmas is You." It was literally mixing the sacred with the profane and then celebrating it and claiming it meant Jesus. "Last Christmas I gave you my heart but the very next day you gave it away" is an awful way to honor the birth of our Savior. Not sure how Jesus feels about us singing about cheating lovers or holding up assault weapons to celebrate His birthday. 

Plus mixing a bunch of fake magical stuff in with scripture makes me worry: If we teach children that Santa is real--just kidding no he's not, and we pair Jesus with the same holiday, are we teaching the same message?

I tried to address this years ago by inventing a new holiday that we use to celebrate Jesus's birthday: White Cake Day. April 6 every year we have a simple birthday party for Jesus that parallels the birthday parties we have for our children. It's lovely. One of my favorite days of the year.

But it didn't solve the problem. Christmas is still entangled with Jesus for me, and not in a healthy, appropriate way. So we do celebrate Jesus's birth in an appropriate way, but what about the mess in December?  I can't just cancel it and say we don't do that without harming my children. And I loved Christmas once upon a time.

Pondering this problem, I realized that we, as a culture, have seasonal festivals for every season. Often we paint these with religious or patriotic themes, but really our actions show we're primarily celebrating the season, not the excuse for having the celebration. Easter is our Spring festival (which I have successfully separated into a dual festival: Saturday is celebrating spring, Sunday is celebrating Jesus's resurrection), Fourth of July is a Summer fest (we say it's about patriotism, but we are celebrating all things summery), Halloween is a Fall Festival (and most of us don't even pretend it's religious anymore--we just use the religious name), and Christmas is a month-long Winter Festival. 

Halloween is an interesting case study, actually. It's very parallel to Christmas: the name has religious origins, there is a strong imaginary magical beings component, and we engage in it as a culture for the joy of it without pretending it's religious at all.

I also realized that we, culturally, embrace celebrating ideas, often with non-religious festivals connected to religious origins. We celebrate romance with a holiday named after St. Valentine, but it's not about him at all. We celebrate Irish lore (and drinking) with a holiday named after St. Patrick, even though it's not about him at all. We celebrate Fall and scary things with Halloween, even though it's no longer about celebrating Saints. We also celebrate being thankful for Thanksgiving. They've all become pretty arbitrary and culturally defined, but void of actual religious meaning--and that has not made them less valuable. They are still things that help define us as a people, that bring us together as communities, that give us chances to do fun things and make good memories with our families. Not all valuable, useful, important things need to be overtly religious in nature.

And I realized that most of the things we use to celebrate Christmas are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. Having the whole family gather and wear matching pajamas is fun. Christmas trees are beautiful, and the ornaments in  many families prompt discussions of family history. Giving gifts is a wonderful, joyous thing. Making cookies together and sharing them with neighbors is fantastic. Grinch and Scrooge teach good lessons. Snowmen are fun. Most of those things on my list above are wonderful ways to make good memories and bond with your family. They are largely harmless or even good. I don't want to remove those from my children's lives.

And if we're okay laughing and talking about vampires and enjoying that lore for Halloween, what's wrong with enjoying the lore about Santa and elves for Christmas? They're the same amount of real. And it's the same amount of fun to talk about pretend things. I'm not opposed to playing pretend--so long as it's clear that we're playing pretend and that Jesus is not pretend.

I don't want to take the fun away. And I don't want my children to be isolated from their own cultural traditions. These are part of who we are. And they're not wrong or bad things. It's okay to embrace them. (Although I think the commercialism and money money money and things things things and me me me parts of Christmas are absolutely wrong and damaging.)

But I don't want to just completely abandon the Jesus parts of Christmas, just like I didn't want to abandon the Jesus parts of Easter. Those are the most important parts, and I don't want to leave those behind in favor of the less important but more prominent things. I don't want to give up on the nativity to embrace the winter festival. Seems like throwing out the precious things because they got mixed with the silly things--and that seems counterproductive.

I actually do love the Nativity story. I do love the creche exhibits. I love looking at a nativity scene and pondering the reality of it. I love the clumsy live re-enactments of Jesus's birth story (and I think Jesus probably loves them, too, with all their poor costumes and mishaps). I love reading Luke 2. I love watching the Church videos about the nativity. I love the Christmas messages about the Savior. I love the family time. I love the sacred Christmas hymns and carols. I love the awkward Christmas sacrament meetings where people present to Jesus and to us their talents, doing their best to offer whatever they have. The deeper meaning in that is so profound to me, even (especially) when the violin is slightly out of tune or the narration is read haltingly and with hesitation. This, to me, is what Jesus would love for his birthday. The service and the generosity and the giving are about Jesus. The families being together making happy memories are what Jesus would want.

There are sacred things scattered among the profane, and I don't want to lose those things. And I don't want my children to lose those things. But I can't bear to have them mixed with all the other things anymore. It doesn't work. It stresses me out, makes me feel dirty, prevents me from embracing the fun because it's inappropriate to pair and associate those things, harmless as they may be, with Jesus. We host dances, but we don't host dances on the temple grounds, you know?

So my new attempt to make Christmas okay...my new plan:

We're going to separate them. We are going to sift the whole lot of things into two different celebrations that happen close to each other: Celebrating the Birth of Jesus, and Having a Winter Festival.

We'll have a Nativity holiday that's all about the birth of Jesus where we do all the sacred things. My plan is to do this from the Sunday after Thanksgiving for a few days. We will decorate the house with nativities and other reminders of Jesus's birth during this time. We won't put up a tree or holly or mistletoe or any of the trappings of the winter festival until AFTER the nativity celebrations are done.

Then we'll have Christmas, which I'm going to think of as our culture's Winter Festival despite the religious origins of the name (just like Halloween isn't about saints and Valentine's day isn't about St Valentine). It's going to include all the "things"--presents, jammies, candycanes, grinches and scrooges, santa and elves, reindeer, silly Christmas movies, Christmas trees and trimmings and decorations, lights, decorating the house, etc. We're just going to embrace that we're celebrating winter the way our culture celebrates winter.

And if you take the superficial "oh we're celebrating Jesus" out of the picture, you start to see that we're doing other good things with Christmas and our winter festival. While we are not really celebrating Jesus (let's be honest--we're not and it's become gross to me to pretend that we are), we are celebrating hope in the darkness of winter, and family, and making beauty in the midst of desolation, and bringing light and warmth into a time of darkness and cold. We are celebrating choosing kindness, choosing family, choosing generosity. We're celebrating that light will come and that we can choose to not let our circumstances overpower and freeze our souls. We're taking time to notice people who are in need in the darkest, coldest days of the year and working to relieve suffering. We're adding beautiful things to our world when it's mostly dead and covered in snow. And we're having fun with magical beings and fun treats, same as we do for Halloween. We're making the effort to reconnect with family despite difficulty, and to be together with other people on purpose and with the goal of deliberately building, maintaining, and improving relationships and connections. We are bringing what nature is still green into our lives.

Christmas is a time to celebrate being good and adding good to the world. It's a time to remind ourselves that in the winters of our lives, there are things we can do to bring joy and hope. And those lessons really do apply to the hard times (to the winters of our lives)--when things are hard, we can choose to deliberately notice or surround ourselves with beauty, we can serve others, we can get closer in touch with nature, we can turn on the lights, we can add music, we can turn to family and other valuable relationships, we can rely on good traditions, we can make fun, we can eat treats--and all of these things help carry us through the difficulties. (And yes, I know that Jesus carries us through the difficulties even better. But the little things we do can have a major impact as well, and remembering what we do for Christmas, which is pretty well ingrained in our beings, can help us remember the list of things that help us through the winters of our lives.)

Oh, and, while we'll decorate at the beginning of the month, we're going to really celebrate our Christmas--our Winter Festival--from winter solstice (because that is a tangible, easily predicted date) to about January 5 because then the presents stuff will be over with at the beginning of the "season", so that I can enjoy it, too, and the performing season will have settled down, so that Tim can enjoy the holidays with us. It takes the pressure (and guilt) off me for not doing more before Christmas day. 

The kids heard me explaining all these ideas to Tim, and I got zero pushback. In fact, the kids were delighted with the idea of having a Winter Festival. They were even more delighted with the idea that both Anda and Tim both separately proposed that if we're embracing this as a Winter Festival, we are not bound by our own religious tradition. We can explore and embrace the good Winter traditions from many cultures (respectfully!) and time periods. We can enjoy cookies from Tim's ancestral homelands, and mythologies from mine, and traditional meals from his mission, and songs from medieval winter celebrations.

We can explore winter festivities and ideas and music and really just party and have fun because we don't need to try to keep it holy (and fail). The holy part is clearly defined and distinct, and that makes it okay for the rest of it to just be fun. 

And that is a huge relief to me.

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