a holly jolly (quizzical) christmas

It’s the morning of Christmas Eve and I’m having a teeny crisis of conscience. The presents are all wrapped, the family is here and Bing Crosby is cued up on the stereo. But I’m feeling a little bah humbug and confused about these traditions we wander through each December. Somehow an old Greek gift-giving saint and the birth of Jesus Christ have mashed up into a holiday where credit cards are king, we tell elaborate lies to children, and family drama causes us to hit the eggnog a little too hard. How did this happen? Not a clue. But the Christmas we celebrate in 2010 likely bears so little resemblance to the days of Sinterklaas that it doesn’t really matter anymore. So what does matter? What has Christmas come to symbolize today? And how do you interpret the meaning of a religious holiday when you’re not a person of faith?

I grew up in a moderately religious family: Grandma a devout Catholic, aunts and uncles of various (or no) faiths, a Christian mother and a who-knows father. We were drug to church until our teens, forced through confirmation classes (I often skipped mine to visit the curious smoke shops that dotted the surrounding University district—sorry Ma), and then given a choice: join the church, or be free from our Sunday obligations. You can guess what my brother and I chose.

Since I left faith by the wayside, I wish I could say that the meaning of Christmas has changed for me. But I don’t think I ever really learned its significance in the first place. Coming from a Swedish family, we celebrated Christmas the traditional way with a big pow-wow on Christmas Eve. I’m sure some took it devoutly, but growing up I don’t remember religion factoring into Christmas at all. We were given gifts (lots of them), ate a huge dinner and dessert (lots of it), sidestepped family dramas (lots of them), and were generally spoiled by a holiday we didn’t know or care to know the meaning of. It was bliss. Toy-filled, fat and happy bliss.

Not that I believe there’s anything wrong with the way I grew up celebrating the holiday. I have the fondest memories of those two days in December, and I would like my daughter to have the same. So this Christmas, seeing as how she is now old enough to understand, I chose to induct Lucy into the Christmas myth. She posed for a picture with Santa, will leave cookies out for him this evening, and will tear open gifts from him (and us) in the morning. Despite all of my misgivings about celebrating something I can’t quite grasp the meaning of, I still enjoy this time of year immensely. It can be downright magical for children. For adults, it’s a great time to catch up with family and friends. For cooks, it’s a fabulous excuse to whip up your naughtiest treats.

A part of me wants to just stop questioning and enjoy the damn holidays already. But when my daughter (and child #2, soon to come) reaches the age where she wonders why Christmas happens—who exactly Santa Claus is, why we bring a tree inside the house, why Aunt Millie gets so sloshed on mead—I won’t know what to say. I think any excuse to celebrate is a good one. But with a tradition as huge and widespread as Christmas, I can’t help but ask myself: why? How did it morph into what it is today? How do we let our kids indulge and enjoy without getting spoiled? And when your personal meaning of Christmas is not about God or Jesus or an old Greek saint, what is the meaning? When you’re not religious, how do you explain the holiday that just “is”?

I suppose that the meaning of Christmas lies in whatever traditions you practice. For our family, that meaning lies in good company, great food, and thoughtful gifts to each other and to charities. There may not be any deep-seated beliefs or practices underlying our traditions, but for now I have to just be okay with that. I’ll still enjoy decorating every cookie, stuffing every stocking and wrapping every gift. I’ll enjoy Christmas for what it is: a fabulous excuse to eat, drink and be merry. When Lucy asks me why we celebrate Christmas, I have not a clue what I’ll say. I suppose I could reply, “because it’s tradition.” And that would be the truth.

What are your Christmas traditions? And what does the holiday mean to you? Chime in below, and have a very happy holiday, however you celebrate the season.




  1. Jane Hutchins says:

    Christmas adopted several pagan traditions when it moved north; hence the trees and greenery. Midwinter festivals tend to flourish in Northern Europe because wintertime is so grim. The point is to give everyone something to look forward to, have all the preparations to give you something to do in the idle months, and have a great party when the outside is at its darkest. The pagan side of the tradition is all about being with family, having a great, elaborate meal, and giving gifts to each other that you had spent a lot of time on in non-farming season. It’s ok to just relax, cook, and have a good time. That’s the whole point. 🙂

  2. Juliana Caton says:

    At Christmas time we all try to think of others, including getting them gifts, bringing them cookies, and generally being in good cheer. To me that is what Christmas means. I grew up religious and still feel the religious meanings even though I no longer go to church, but the religious stories just get to the heart of celebrating life and those around you. I am not feeling very Christmasy this year because I am at the beginning of pregnancy and I seem to spend much of the time resting on the couch, but I love the togetherness of this time of year.

  3. I’m coming at it from the other side– I never celebrated Christmas as a child, but I’ve married into the holiday. Christmas now means flying out to my wife’s hometown, dinner at Cheesecake Factory on Christmas Eve (Dulce de Leche Caramel Cheesecake FTW!), Christmas brunch with her immediate family, the sharing of presents, and a big party later that night with her very large extended family. And this year we’ve added a photo of the Zombino with a mall Santa, a ritual more gratifying in retrospect than in the moment. At home we have a Christmas tree because it makes the wife happy every time she passes it.

    As a Jewish child I envied my friends who celebrated Christmas and received the ensuing avalanche of presents, awakening on Christmas morning to a mountain of colored boxes heaped beneath boughs of blinking lights and glittering glass orbs. A 9-wick candelabra, potato pancakes, and (if you’re lucky) a present a night for 8 nights just couldn’t compete. Since I don’t subscribe to any religion, I’ve got no skin in the winter holiday game. I’m free to make it whatever I want it to be for my family. So I plan to cherry-pick all the good bits. We’ll do the tree, and stockings, and presents (though how that reconciles with our anti-commercialism, less STUFF overall philosophy is left as an exercise for another day). We’ll do cookies, and the gathering of family and loved ones for warm meals and warmer company. And as the years go by, we’ll make up new traditions and create new memories.

    For years I’ve raged against the Christmas machine. Now, as a husband and a father, I’m willingly plugging myself in.

    • Beautifully put, Peter. I struggle with the “stuff” issue as well and over the years have leaned more toward giving experiences than boxes. But when children are thrown into the mix you inevitably end up with more and more items to manage. I hope you, Chris and Jack are enjoying your first holiday together! Post that Santa pic, please 🙂

  4. I had no idea you were Swedish. Me too, i wrote about Swedish Chrimas here and all our traditions. http://www.delishhh.com Do you still keep yours? I am the same way, to me Christmas has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with family and traditions. And i belive in gnomes 🙂

    • Love your Swedish christmas posts! We’re not that traditional: Christmas Eve and cardamom bread is about as far as we go. But it’s nice all the same 🙂

  5. I appreciate your narrative on this topic. This holiday season I seemed to be more aware of the same glutenous, greedy and frivolous behavior that Christmas has turned into in America. However, the future of this seemingly wonderful holiday lies within each one of us. Tradition will always be if we uphold it.

    I hope you and your family (especially Lucy) enjoyed the Christmas you so thoughtfully planned for her. After all, the magic lies within them so enjoy it while she’s young!

    • Thank you, Vanessa! We all had a wonderful holiday, although she now thinks every day is for presents and candy in socks 🙂 Hope you had a wonderful Christmas as well!

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