A tale of two holidays
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
As Christmas approaches, sometimes my family and I feel as though we’re the only ones around who don’t worry that this holiday is in danger of being suffocated by the forces of American greed and commercialism.
Don’t think for a minute, though, that we don’t participate in as much seasonal hoopla as the next family—the gift giving, the decorating, the baking and parties. We do, indeed, and with great gusto. We just don’t believe that these activities are part of our celebration of Christmas.
When we refer to “Christmas,” we mean the religious holiday that marks the birth of Christ. This holy day, and the four weeks of Advent that lead up to it, we observe at church and at home, with Bible readings, prayers, candles and singing. Our celebration of Christmas is quiet and personal.
But December at our house is far from quiet, because we also revel in all the gaiety and excess of another holiday that happens at the same time—the winter solstice.
None of the hubbub that people like to blame for drowning out the religious observance of Christmas is actually connected to the celebration of the birth of Christ. Gift giving, for example, has a tenuous connection to the holy day, at best. And feasting, decorating and excessive merrymaking are part of another tradition entirely.
As you may remember from school, in pre-Christian times the winter solstice was traditionally observed around Dec. 21—the day with the shortest period of daylight all year—as a much-needed antidote to the coldness, darkness and hardship of the long months still to come before the return of spring. And although the birth of Jesus actually took place in the summer, according to most authorities on Christianity, the passage of centuries has conflated the celebration of this event with that of the winter solstice and fixed them both on one day: Dec. 25.
As a result, many people celebrate a holiday that is neither completely religious nor completely secular. Most people enjoy the feasting and gifts, but some of them feel guilty that sensual pleasures subsume the sparser joys of observing the birth of Christ.
We feel no such guilt. We celebrate both Christmas and the solstice. As the winter begins to close in on us yet again, we enthusiastically embrace the sparkling excitement of making and buying, giving and receiving, baking and eating, singing and dancing. We thumb our noses at winter, and stay warm in the process, as we run around madly getting everything ready. We wrack our brains trying to come up with the absolutely perfect gift for each of our loved ones. We stay up too late making fudge for the neighbors and the children’s teachers. We stand in line forever at the post office, waiting to mail clumsy packages of home-baked goodies and crooked candles to our relatives.
We buy new—and unneeded—clothes for our children to wear in holiday programs at school. We spend too much; we eat too much; we get over-excited. We can’t wait for Santa Claus. The children dutifully mail their wish lists to the North Pole—even our high school freshman, who, if he knows a thing or two about the source of the presents under the tree, is not above pretending ignorance.
We drive too far away to a tree farm and chop down an evergreen tree—the pagan symbol of life that endures the “death” winter brings. We give each other silly ornaments for our tree, now standing crookedly in our living room. None of those ornaments is religious. None of this glorious fol-de-rol is about the birth of Christ. It’s about defying Father Winter, drawing closer to each other to stay warm, glorying in an excess of sensual pleasures inside while the cold wind blows outside.
Maybe the source of so many Christians’ December discomfort lies in the fact that the name “Christmas” is applied to both traditions: the winter solstice celebration and the holy day. It certainly would be less confusing if the Romans had left the observance of Christ’s birthday in the summer, where it belongs. Then we could all party to our heart’s content in good conscience on Dec. 25.
But at our house, we have it all. We participate in the brouhaha of solstice traditions as fervently as we honor the religious holiday.
So Merry Solstice! And have a blessed Christmas.
Kristin Gehring is a mom, stage director and writer who works for Wednesday Journal, the company that owns Chicago Parent, when she’s not buying, wrapping, baking or dancing.