What is the spirit of Christmas? What is the spirit that inspires so many celebrations, songs, decorations and festivities? More than any other time of year, the Christmas holidays bring together more people and more emotions that define our lives. Is Christmas a secular celebration of Santa Claus, or a religious celebration of the birth of Jesus? Is it an opportunity to eat cookies, decorate, sing, and watch Hallmark movies, or something much more primal? What about Hannukah, Kwanzaa, or Dinali? The story of the holiday season is long and complex, and to truly find the spirit of the season, we must look deeper.
Whatever your tradition or belief, I want you to just for a moment set aside everything you previously assumed about the season- Jesus, Santa, Frosty, the Grinch- all of it. I promise we'll come back to them. Now for the blasphemy part.
The holiday season is about darkness and light. It's about the Winter solstice, and how it affects our psyches and viewpoints. To be more specific, it's two holidays- the solstice, when the meteorological calendar resets, and New Year's Day, when the annual calendar resets. This major transition in every year is what inspires reflection, celebration, and all the stories that come with them.
If you want to get truly metaphysical, it's also about death, cold and despair, and how we fight back with life, warmth and hope. The solstice has been a milestone since the early days of man, and up until the recent development of electricity, it meant a darkness that we can barely fathom today. By the time the Winter solstice hits every year, trees have shed their leaves, animals have are gone or in hibernation, and the days are cold and brutal. With the approach of winter, mankind is at its most vulnerable. If stored foods aren't enough, or the weather gets too dangerous, survival is in jeopardy.
For centuries, people around the world have held solstice celebrations marking the turning of the calendar to a new year and longer, warmer days ahead. One of the oldest and best known celebration was Saturnalia, a festival begun by the Romans. Saturnalia was a largely pagan holiday, occurring around the solstice, inspiring partying and gift-giving all over Europe at that time. It lasted into the 4th century AD, when it was replaced by Christmas.
Christians claimed the holiday season as their own in 350 AD when Pope Julius declared December 25th as Jesus Christ's birthday, giving it the name of Christmas. The problem is that no one knows for sure what time of year Jesus was born (There are no dates in the bible). Many believe that Pope Julius chose the solstice season for Christ's birthday because there were already celebrations then. We will never know. For Christians, the entire season of Advent symbolizes their faith in something good is coming, as they light candles symbolizing hope, love, joy and peace.
Many other religions and cultures have evolved seasonal holiday traditions as well. For Jews, the holiday of Hannukah is a festival of lights, where more candles on the menorah are lit in remembrance of faith. The Hindu festival of Diwali is also called the festival of lights, as Indians light candles for five days to symbolize the victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. And because Chinese New Year happens a month later than that in the West, the Chinese lantern festival happens around that time as a spectacular way to light up the skies in the midst of darkness.
Religion is one way to experience the holiday spirit, but not the only way. There are universal principles that anyone can experience regardless of faith. You need to look no further than the two most popular holiday stories around- Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. Within these stories of two men's struggles with love and faith, we find the darkest, most heartwarming examples of the Christmas spirit.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge is shown by spirits the error of his ways in pursuing profits at all costs. And with It's A Wonderful Life, George Bailey realizes the error of his ways in taking everything for granted and not appreciating the good he has done. Both stories, coincidentally, reach their climax in a graveyard, where the men contemplate their lives and realize there's a better way. Sometimes the threat of death and darkness are needed to remind us of how precious life is and transport us into a more loving space. Both George and Ebeneezer emerge from their stories transformed men, thankful for each day and the people in them.
That, in its essence, is what the holiday season is all about. Facing darkness honestly and finding the light. What better time for that than the Winter solstice? Once you get to this point, all of the other traditions and stories associated with Christmas and the holidays seem to fall into place.
- Christmas trees are evergreens that stay green and alive all winter, and we embrace and decorate them.
- At a time when food outside is scarce, why not have a big party and celebrate the season with food, drinks, and music? This has been going on for millennia.
- In times of darkness we generally turn to those we love the most, which explains the tradition of giving gifts, to acknowledge and appreciate them.
- In short days where the night reigns, why not light up our houses with flashing colored lights and light up our world as brightly and festively as we can?
- When hope is at its faintest, now is a good time for people to look for inspiration, whether a shining star and baby Jesus or another spiritual being who helps you feel peace and love.
- And for a tradition to tie the whole celebration together, why not invent a magical, elderly man who literally lives in the coldest and darkest corner of the planet- the North Pole.
Santa shouldn't be a symbol for the holiday, but he has come to symbolize the Christmas season for many. A fat old man who climbs down chimneys? Why not a virile young man with six pack abs? Santa at his age should be retired and looking down the road at decline and death. But instead he's up there defying gravity and wishing us all a Merry Christmas. In his own way Santa is a symbol of light over darkness, age over youth, and generosity over selfishness. He is perfect for Christmas.
Charlie Brown saw the light after his Christmas tree nearly died. The Grinch saw it when he stole Christmas and everybody sang anyway. Frosty the snowman saw it when he melted away in an act of sacrifice. Everybody in the Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer story saw it when Christmas was almost cancelled. The spirit of the season comes from seeing the light at the darkest point.
I struggle with the holiday greeting sometimes. What I want to say to everybody is "Greetings on the season and I wish you well in the days ahead." Some are now insisting on "Merry Christmas" in the context of "bow before my savior you stupid heathen," which kind of defeats the purpose. Not everyone is Christian nor should they have to be to enjoy the holidays- it's a universally human celebration. "Happy Holidays" seems much more inclusive to me, though I'm open to other ideas. And when I say "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" to folks, it's always in the context of "greetings on the season and I wish you well in the days ahead."
Hopefully the above blasphemy will get you to think just a bit more this holiday season about those you love and the darkness that threatens us all. A little blasphemy now and then makes us humbler and wiser if it expands our experiences. Hope, love, joy and peace all sound good to me, no matter what your race, color, creed, politics, or nationality.