Even when I was a believer, God had virtually no place in my Christmas. Each December 25, I suffered through Catholic mass, feeling each second crawl by. I had things to do, presents to open, Christmas movies to rewatch, sisters to fight with, extended family to see, food to eat and eat and eat. I might have considered the Catholic implications of the holiday while in church, but only in the way that you consider the car in front of you that's moving too slowly.
Late in my teens, I stopped attending church. There were all kinds of reasons for this, but even the most politically righteous ones (where to begin: the Catholic church's inherent anti-gay stance, its allowance of child abuse, its institutionalized misogyny) didn't hold a votive candle to the simple fact that I left church because it was fucking boring. Whiling away the hour in church on Christmas was a metaphor for my general relationship to organized religion—I was really just waiting for it all to be over.
I never stopped loving Christmas, though. To me it's a secular holiday, and its importance in my life is unwavering. My Christmas primarily means family. The holiday is a formal meeting time, and fortunately, my relatives are able to make time to show up every year. My mom and dad divorced more than 20 years ago, but we all spend the holidays together every year (the birth of my sister Adrienne's son James, now 7, convinced them to drop the bullshit and treat each other with civility). Sometimes life during the year feels so busy that coordinating over a dozen people being in the same place at the same time is virtually impossible. Christmas makes it happen. What a miracle.
Every Christmas morning, I wake up at my mom's and exchange presents. She goes to church, imploring me to join her, for once. As much as I love her, I never do. I have to explain to her just about every year that if my heart's not in it, surely it won't have bearing on my soul anyway. When she gets back, we go to my sister Adrienne's house, where we have breakfast and open more presents. My mother makes pizza for a late lunch and my dad and I usually go to a movie. After, we return to my sister's to eat the pizza my mom baked. Then she, my youngest sister Mollee, and I return to my mom's house to watch a movie. Before we go to sleep, I think about how it feels like we just did this, and how in a year's time, I'll feel all these feelings, including that one right there, all over again.
My family's Christmas routine is unremarkable. There aren't even real highlights from years past—a fight that seems silly in retrospect here, a questionable pizza topping choice there, a movie that none of us liked occasionally. That's just how I like it.
Christmas, crucially, also means the yuletide pop cultural boomerang returns. All the same stuff I've loved for years and years comes back for consumption. The manger scene in my head looks something like this: Little Kevin McAllister lies in the hay crib flanked by Old Man Marley and the Pigeon Lady. The wisepeople are the creators of some of the best Christmas songs our earth has been blessed with: Mariah Carey, Donny Hathaway, Darlene Love, and Stevie Wonder. Their gifts include a platinum fob chain, tortoise shell combs, a Furby, a Tickle Me Elmo, and armfuls of Cabbage Patch Kids. The scattered barn animals include gremlins, the Grinch's dog Max (with the one antler tied to his head), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in his Rankin/Bass rendering, Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey, and a hippopotamus. Their trough is full of Starbucks' Peppermint Mocha. Scrooge McDuck and Aunt Bethany are shepherds. Anna Nicole Smith's Cousin Shelly is the angel that hovers above the display. The scene is lit with yards and yards of small multi-colored tree lights. The hues are richly concentrated to the point of inducing nausea. It looks like this sounds. It's all taking place in the window of the Macy's flagship on 34th St.
I love when everything shuts down for about two weeks at the end of each year and I can revel in the sameness of my personal Christmas traditions. Much of the world, as I know it, pauses. People are a bit nicer. Eggnog becomes a socially acceptable thing to drink. While enjoying this, I also marvel at how desperate those who participate in this are to inject new and different meaning into our lives. Finding presents for people, holiday socializing, getting home to spend time with our families and others that we haven't seen in a while all become sources of stress. We willfully drop everything to focus our attention on a weird materialistic ritual that represents some of the most generous and most despicable aspects of our culture.
I realize that not everyone can afford to focus on Christmas in the way that I described above. I barely can. In the monetary realm, I just don't spend outside of my means and I seem to do OK by my friends and loved ones. In the work realm, I can't quite divorce myself from society and shut out what's going on in the world, but I come close. I'm thankful for the minor life intermission that Christmas affords. It's a privilege to be able to enjoy it as a luxury and not a hinderance.
Not only is Christmas perfectly acceptable and enjoyable as a secular holiday, I would go so far as to say that Christmas and religion are at functional odds. At its most practical, religion is a way of making sense of and coping with the world. We can only guess what it means for our futures, post-life, but we can certainly see what it does to the world we live in. Christmas, on the other hand, is pure escape. And then, when it's over, it's back to real life. Go ahead and see if attending church or praying makes January any less miserable. Best of luck, and God bless.
We have a lot of freedom of interpretation in America, so if my nonreligious Christmas joy differs from yours, that is understandable. Maybe you say you don't even celebrate Christmas (though by virtue of Christmas being a federal holiday, many people are forced into observing it, like it or not). That's fine, too. December 25 is your day to do what you will with it.
But those who prescribe that we are doing Christmas wrong now are fools who don't understand (or don't want to understand or are strategically pretending that they don't understand) how culture sifts through institutions, picks out what's useful and/or enjoyable, and discards the rest. If you have a problem with people saying, "Happy holidays," as Sarah Palin does, you are an asshole. Screw your semantics, it's the thought that counts. You should thank your lucky stars or Jesus's eye boogers or whatever the fuck you are compelled to believe is beyond us in the sky above that people are actually exchanging kind, well-intentioned words instead of shooting each other. That's the power of Christmas.
Even worse are the rationalizations that want to shoehorn religious meaning into the secularism that has taken hold of the holiday. You know who you end up sounding like when you do this? Kirk fucking Cameron, that's who. In the overlong lesson in self-delusion that is Cameron's latest cinematic excursion, Saving Christmas, he twists hallmarks of secular Christmas into points of worship. His rationale reminds me of logical loop-de-loops of Strangers with Candy's
burned-out recovering hooker protagonist Jerri Blank:
So when you see empty Christmas trees, see an empty cross. And when you see the empty cross, see the empty cloths lying in an empty tomb. And when you see an empty tomb, do what the disciples did: turn and run to tell the story that Jesus is alive.
Believe what you want to believe, but unless you want to sound like a brainwashed cult member, avoid doing this.
Or don't and preach nonsense, what the fuck do I care? Use Christmas to escape not just your life but any semblance of common sense that you ever incorporated into it. Dole out what you consider to be wisdom to all who will listen and chuckle to yourself about having finally found a gift to give to others that they cannot return. Give yourself the gift of smugness this year.
But also understand that there are many of us who enjoy fun too much (and frankly are too smart) to believe in a monolithic Christmas experience. Tradition is only going to bend and warp from here, so get used to it or get ready to always have your Christmas ruined by something. The best we can do is understand that even if we aren't enjoying Christmas in the same way, those of us who are enjoying it are enjoying it together.
And a word to those on the other side who get pissy when someone wishes them "Merry Christmas" when that's not what you believe in: lighten up. Yeah, yeah, you shouldn't have to participate in an ostensibly religious celebration that you don't believe in, and Christian supremacy is a motherfucker, but "Merry Christmas" is just another way of saying haaaay for a certain period of time every year. It doesn't need to have anything to do with the God you do or don't believe in, I swear.
Illustration by Jim Cooke