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.