This article is not intended to tell you how to celebrate Christmas — or whether to celebrate it at all. That’s no business of mine.
Instead, the purpose of this article is self-focused, or more aptly family-focused. How and why will I participate in the Christmas holiday, and what family rituals and traditions do we want to adopt or develop in order to make Christmas meaningful and valuable to us?
Ultimately, answering that question will be a collaborative, ongoing conversation that will continue to take place within my family. This article is simply a starting point.
The development of Christmas
I recognize the value and importance of traditions and rituals. I also recognize that traditions and rituals are constantly changing and evolving in order to stay relevant to whatever society or group happens to participate in them. Christmas is no different…
Today, if you take an airplane ride to some of the Alpine countries of Europe, St. Nick will show up on December 5th alongside his sidekick Krampus, a terrifying horned beast who frightens and punishes naughty children. (Because not getting any presents isn’t enough of a punishment for their transgressions!)
Take a time machine back to early America and you’d find that Christmas wasn’t celebrated in many places and was sometimes even outlawed due to the belief that the custom was a heretical extravagance. Christmas was also outlawed in England for a short time for the same reasons.
In short, the Christmas holiday as we commonly celebrate it today in the United States isn’t a timeless set of universally sacred rituals. Rather it’s a commercialized amalgamation largely developed in the 20th century.
It’s also worth noting that nobody knows the exact year, month, or date that Jesus was actually born. 4 BCE or 6? Spring or winter?
So why was late December chosen for the holiday? The timing of the celebration of the birth of Jesus was selected by the early church in order to better compete with or usurp the various winter solstice holidays of other religions.
However, none of this information means that I (or you) shouldn’t fully participate in the current iteration of the modern holiday as it’s presently constructed if we want and choose to do so. Rather, I’m simply pointing out that our ancestors have always served as both curators and creators of the Christmas tradition/rituals which might otherwise seem timeless and unchanging under the influence of our cultural or historical amnesia.
The pros and cons of modern Christmas traditions in the United States
I had the benefit of attending public elementary schools in South Carolina, which meant I had friends from all walks of life. After returning from Christmas break one year, I’ll never forget how one of my friends from an economically poor home communicated his Christmas experience to me.
I’d simply assumed that Santa brought all children the same bounty that I’d received. After telling my friend all about the favorite toys Santa gifted me (I’d been good after all!) my poor friend said he didn’t get any presents. “I guess I’m bad,” he said, dejectedly.
How many other impoverished children internalize their lack of Christmas gifts this way? After all, if you’re a “good” child and a true believer, the all-seeing, all-knowing benevolent proto-deity that is modern Santa Claus will reward you.
Likewise, how many cash-strapped parents spend far beyond their means and put themselves into debt and financial distress in order to try to meet their children’s hopes and expectations for the season?
Suffering from joy
About 80% of the world’s Christmas toys are made in China. Arguably, that makes Yiwu in East China’s Zhejiang Province the functional equivalent of Santa’s North Pole, albeit with less joyful elves. Is this good for the factory workers and overall economic development of China? On balance, probably so.
Christmas is also an important economic driver for the US economy, creating jobs and making up a sizable chunk of our GDP. That’s well and good, but we should also acknowledge (perhaps even attempt to mitigate?) the externalized downsides of that economic boon.
Statistics vary from year to year based on the state of the overall economy, but a recent analysis revealed:
- Over half of all Americans dread the Christmas holidays due to the financial toll it takes on their household.
- 75% of parents are stressed by the possibility of disappointing their children by not buying them enough/adequate presents.
- 1 out of every 3 people loses sleep due to not knowing how they’ll pay for their Christmas purchases.
- A sizable percentage of people are still paying off high interest debt from prior Christmases while incurring additional debt to buy new presents.
And how much extra wrapping paper, plastic trinkets, glitter, and other waste ends up in the trash? At the end of the day, do people even like or use the presents they get? That’s a lengthier discussion that I won’t bother to dive into here.
What seems clear is that many people are being socially compelled to do things they don’t want to do — things that may even be harmful to them and their families. But nobody wants to be labeled a Grinch or Scrooge, two helpful reinforcement memes that serve as a form of shame-based social compulsion.
What to do?
Creating a homemade, made-from-scratch Christmas
Currently, about 72% of American adults are overweight or obese. This is a highly concerning number on many levels and its implications for the future are dire.
In addition to luck and genetics, a key reason my wife and I are not overweight is because we don’t eat what most people eat. Instead, in our desire to maintain optimal health, we eat primarily homemade, made-from-scratch meals. These meals often involve home-grown or foraged foods which require exercise, knowledge, and outdoor time to produce. (We recognize how fortunate we are to be in a position to eat and live this way.)
Similarly, can we also create a homemade, made-from scratch Christmas? One that’s our own creation mixed in with the beneficial features of the various Christmas tradition(s), but without the aspects we consider harmful or misguided?
That task would be much easier to accomplish if I was flying this ship solo, but I also have a wife, a toddler, and family to consider. Simply doing what I want to do or think is best ignores the covenant I’m in with the people I love and cherish — and whose desires and needs may conflict with my own.
In setting my sights on the mark, the first question I ask myself is what are the core elements of the Christmas holiday that I think are most important? My answers:
1. The light of life.
Light is quite literally coming back into the world (at least for the northern hemisphere) as our little blue planet tilts back up again. Surviving the winter isn’t very difficult today thanks to technological advances and sacrifices made by our ancestors and peers.
However, any student of history should experience an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude when imagining what the returning sunlight felt like to our ancestors. After all, the sun is the giver of life.
Darkness, cold, and scarcity are soon to end. Light, warmth, and abundance are soon to return. And the moment the impending return of light becomes evident (the winter solstice) should be marked and celebrated, as it likely has been since humans first gained the capacity to recognize these celestial patterns and encode the richness of their meaning into ritual.
2. The spirit.
The spirit of love, hospitality, joy, and generosity can be consciously embodied by any of us, whether child or adult. That spirit can be brought to life/animated in the form and symbolism of Santa Claus.
This means our young son can also practice donning the red and white hat in order to embody that essential spirit, practicing until he gains enough understanding for it to become a part of him.
Some languages and cultures do it better than others, and the Danish word hygge (pronounced “yhoo-guh”) is deserving of all the hype it’s received in recent years.
In case you’ve never heard of it, “hygge” is a word that means something like comfort, coziness, and conviviality, all wrapped up in one warm blanket. Think of it like this: hygge is the feeling you get when you’re sitting in front of a fire on a soft sofa with family while drinking hot chocolate, singing songs together, and reliving wonderful shared experiences from years past.
I want and need more hygge in my life, and I also want my son to long-remember his Christmases (and life) as hygge-filled.
If you lost a finger in an accident, you could either choose to focus your gratitude on your remaining fingers or to spend the rest of your days lamenting the loss of the one. Both are defensible positions, but psychologists who study gratitude would rightly tell you that the more grateful approach would lead you to have a much better life moving forward.
Thankfully, gratitude is something anybody can cultivate through focus and practice — and anyone can find at least one thing to be thankful for. Frankly, I’m overwhelmed when I reflect upon all I have to be grateful for, a list far too lengthy to expound upon here.
My wife (speaking of someone I’m grateful for) comes from a secular Jewish family. I come from a secular non-theistic background. Neither of us subscribes to a “religious” worldview in the supernatural sense of the word. Our son will eventually come to his own understandings and beliefs about the world and who he is, independent of our influences. (We hope to teach him how to think, not what to think.)
However, since the Christmas holiday is founded upon celebrating the birth of Jesus, I think it’s also an important time to reflect upon some of the historical, world-changing benefits that the Judeo-Christian tradition has given rise to (or at least contributed to) as the human narrative continues to unfold, often painfully and fitfully.
i. Linear/historical time instead of cyclical time.
Linear/historical time… This way of being in time, which we take for granted today, caused a perspective shift which fundamentally changed how people related to the future and their ability to shape it. In short, linear/historical time enables human agency.
The past is a lesson, the present is a choice, and your future is a hope whose course you can help chart and bring into being.
I’m thankful not to live within a deterministic worldview where time repeats like the seasons and all human endeavors are ultimately meaningless.
ii. The belief that God creates all humans and creates them as equals.
This radical notion has provided fuel for the demolition of caste systems, slavery, racism, sexism, etc, while giving rise to concepts like equality under the law and equality of opportunity.
I’m thankful to be able to rise to the level of my abilities and ambitions, and to have a right to a fair trial in front of an impartial jury of my peers should I find myself in legal peril. I’m also thankful that my wife, who is my co-equal partner in life, enjoys the same rights as I do.
iii. Love thy neighbor as you love yourself.
Yes, variations of the Golden Rule are embedded in other religions as well. This commandment asks that you be care-filled in your treatment of self as well as others. Granted, humans are innately tribalistic and this commandment seems counter to human nature, especially where out-group interactions occur.
I’m thankful to live in a time and place where this view of self- and other-care is at least called for/commanded, even if it’s nigh impossible to fully practice.
iv. The abolition of ritualized human (and animal) sacrifice.
Human sacrifice used to be par for the course in civilizations and religions around the world, including early Judaism. This practice was primarily intended to set things back in their natural order when something went wrong (examples: failed crop or natural disaster), to appease god(s) in order to attain a better outcome, and/or to solidify the order of social hierarchies. Although the ancient Romans and a few other cultures shunned human sacrifice, Christianity has arguably done more to end the practice than any other tradition since Christians viewed it as obsolete in light of Jesus’s sacrifice.
I’m thankful I don’t live in a world where our god-king or high priest requests the sacrifice of our first-born in order to secure a good harvest or restore societal order.
v. “Render unto Caesar…”
There’s a lot of meaning packed into this teaching and a lot of resulting disagreements about the various interpretations. However, one branch of interpretation of Jesus’s “render unto Caesar” teaching helped give rise to the notion of separation of church and state in western civilization.
I’m thankful that nobody (and no government/state) can force me or my family to subscribe to a specific religious belief system. Instead, I’m free to choose my own, or none, as I see fit.
Translation from abstract ideas into actual Christmas practices/customs
With these four core elements in mind (the light of life, the spirit, hygge, and gratitude), it becomes a bit easier to begin crafting the nuts-and-bolts of a bespoke Christmas tradition. The specifics will have to be co-created with my family and will likely change with time, but a few initial ideas include:
1. More experiences, less gifts.
I received countless Christmas gifts growing up, but I only remember a few of them. However, I do remember the experiences, e.g. the memories made (and reinforced through future retellings) from family trips and gatherings.
I’d much rather spend money on an unforgettable trip than on numerous forgettable Christmas presents.
2. Meaningful gifts.
If someone asks me what I want for a gift, I don’t have an answer. That’s because I don’t want or need anything. I’m fully content with my current level of material possessions… although I would enjoy more land to grow more food!
I’d prefer NOT to get any Christmas gifts because it’s a waste of others’ time and resources. Conversely, the few gifts I might give on Christmas will (hopefully) be meaningful and useful, not useless trinkets that simply allow me to check someone off of a gift-giving checklist.
As for our toddler, my wife and I struggle with Christmas gift giving… Our son is old enough to love presents and he finds the gift-giving Santa Claus character to be very compelling. We’ll likely settle into a tradition where a few big, useful gifts are the norm while trying to avoid overindulgence or ostentatiousness.
3. Grateful reflections on our time and place.
Christmas Eve seems like as good a time as any to tell my family how grateful I am for each of them and to discuss how good we have it today relative to generations past — which is not by happenstance. This moment would also be a good place to discuss some of the benefits brought into focus in the world through the Judeo-Christian tradition, as mentioned above.
4. Being Santa.
I can’t fathom a scenario under which I’d knowingly, explicitly lie to my son. There would have to be a really, really good reason to do so and telling him that Santa Claus is real doesn’t seem to meet the criteria.
However, I will happily tell my son a truth: the spirit of Santa Claus is real in the sense that each of us can bring it into being through acts of kindness and generosity. Perhaps our family will put on our Santa hats each year while volunteering for local charities or giving gifts to needy kids.
5. High-impact anonymous charity giving.
The world is full of solvable problems, some big, some small. I’m interested in seeing those problems solved even though I don’t have the time, knowledge, resources, or ability to solve most any of them.
Thankfully, there are well-run charity organizations full of people doing high-impact work around the globe to solve many of the most dire problems. Each Christmas, I’d like to donate as much as our family budget allows to at least one such charity.
I’d MUCH rather see money that would go to buying me presents go instead to such charities, and perhaps some of my family members will feel the same. For reference, the New York Time’s Nicholas Kristof has a good list of such charitable organizations for consideration.
6. Care-filled ritual feast, made from scratch to nourish our health.
Ritualistic feasts are probably as old as anthropologically modern humans and they’re a highly valuable tool for forming and reinforcing social bonds/cohesion. I’d like our Christmas feast to be made from scratch together as a family AND to be something that broadly promotes our well-being.
A festival meal full of healthy, home-grown and foraged foods and/or foods from regenerative farms seems in order. After the meal, exercise such as a hike in the woods would be ideal, weather and time permitting.
Hopefully, some of the dishes at the feast can feature the flavors of an actual Christmas tree since Christmas trees can also make delicious food. (See our complete guide to eating your Christmas tree.) And hopefully I’ll be able to convince my wife to let me grow a blue spruce (my favorite edible conifer) in a pot that we can bring indoors in December each year to use as our family’s Christmas tree rather than cutting one down or importing an artificial one from China.
Upon reviewing the first draft of this article, my wife Susan (aka The Tyrant) provided valuable feedback: the article is good on the informational/intellectual side of things, but doesn’t yet convey the emotional warmth that she wants our home to provide for our son during the Christmas holidays — a warmth that she missed in her own home growing up and envied when she’d visit her friends’ homes during Christmas. As always, her constructive criticisms hit the mark. I realize that presently, I don’t — and can’t — have all the answers for how I’d like to celebrate Christmas because: a) I don’t yet know, and b) my family has as much right to decide as I do, and we’ll develop our holiday customs collaboratively and iteratively over years to come.
I also realize that words can only go so far in conveying meaning. I have to make them flesh through the formation of our own Christmas rituals.
If you also decide to celebrate Christmas, I hope the information in this article helps you thoughtfully craft your own traditions while being more grateful for the gifts you already have.
Thanks for reading,