I am not so old and cynical I can’t remember the joy that Christmas – a traditional American Christmas – can bring to a child. Nor am I so naïve I can’t recognize that my disdain for its materialistic aspects comes from a position of privilege. I remember being six or eight or ten years old and enjoying putting up the tree, shaking presents, shopping for gifts for the rest of the family… Those were wonderful times and I would not deny them to anyone of any age.
The problem is one of proportion and of desensitization. I remember my grandmother (who was born in 1907) telling me about getting an orange for Christmas and being happy with it. She was not an old grouch who enjoyed misery, nor was she some kind of transcendent saint – she was telling the truth. Her family were poor farmers and that was all they could afford. A hundred years ago, bringing oranges from Florida to Tennessee by train and then to market by horse-drawn wagon was costly – oranges were luxuries.
When I was a child fifty years or so later, oranges were no longer luxuries. They were commonplace even in our semi-rural working class home, and orange juice was always in our refrigerator. The bar had been raised.
Holidays are meaningful because they are special. There are special decorations, music, food, clothing, gatherings, and activities – things you don’t see and do and eat every day. They are a time outside of time, when normal rules (which are necessary for day to day order) don’t apply. Giving gifts is part of what has always made Christmas special – we don’t do it every day.
Today, all but the poorest Americans live in what would have been luxury a hundred years ago. When you have every thing you need and virtually every thing you want, how can another thing be special? The attempt to keep it special leads to present-counts among children (“I got nine and you got eight – I win!”) and an arms race of extravagant one-upsmanship among adults.
Certainly we appreciate the thoughts behind the gifts… though we know from first-hand experience that the thought behind many gifts was “just grab something at Wal-Mart so I can check him off my list.” Can anyone truly understand The Gift of the Magi anymore?
The Winter Solstice is perhaps humanity’s oldest and most universal holiday. It represents the rebirth of the Light and the promise of Spring and it is the birthday of countless Gods and heroes. It is a special time and we should observe it in ways that are special to us.
Several years ago, Cathy and I stopped buying Christmas presents for each other. Instead, we take a trip around the holidays – this year we went to New Orleans. Though it is not rare, travel is still special for us. We buy presents for our mothers and a few others who wouldn’t understand if we didn’t. If we stress over anything, it’s over the many religious gatherings we attend: Winter SolstiCelebration, Yule, her choir’s Christmas music program, Christmas Eve services at my church or hers or her mother’s. It makes for a busy season, but it works for us.
What would make Christmas / Hanukkah / Yule work better for you?
And what about the children? I have no children and I’m hesitant to advise others as to how to raise theirs. But I still remember being a child. Surely there is a way to make the holidays special for them without feeding the materialistic beast that Christmas in America has become. Perhaps that starts by setting a good example???
The annual Halloween to New Year’s orgy of excess will not be defeated by pious exhortations to remember “the reason for the season” – or that “the season is the reason.” Our children – and the children who still live in each of us – will never permit it. Rather, it will be defeated as one by one we decline to play by the old rules and instead find what makes the holiday – the holy day – special for us.
I hope each of you has had a happy and special Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule or whichever of the many incarnations of the Winter Solstice you celebrate.