Christmas is one of the most complicated holidays of the year for me.
When I was a young, I liked all the trappings of my family’s traditional celebration. This included a gathering of 20 or more people, an extravagant meal, an excess of desserts, and many, many presents. As a teenager, I became aware of family discussions about simplifying Christmas, scaling back. I was a voice of resistance, preferring the traditions. Talk of “drawing names” for gift giving was particularly upsetting to me.
(Of course, it was easy for me to advocate for the large meal and over-the-top gift giving: I was neither the cook for the meal nor someone who had to pay for the gifts.)
My preferences changed as I entered young adulthood. Now that I was making my own money (not to mention coming home from work too exhausted to contemplate holiday shopping), I suddenly understood the need to simplify gift giving in my large family. Our holiday name drawing is the tradition I would now defend against change.
As my adult life became more demanding and more complex, I found other ways to simplify Christmas as well. Peter and I sometimes exchange gifts with each other, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we have a Christmas tree, and sometimes we don’t. I like the tradition of sending holiday cards, but I haven’t had the time or energy to devote to it in several years. Rather than committing myself to obligations in the name of “tradition,” I consider most aspects of Christmas celebration to be optional. Each year Peter and I decide afresh how we want to celebrate.
All I’ve described speaks to the secular celebration of Christmas: decorations, gifts, food. Christmas was not a religious holiday to me for a long time. My Earth-centered spiritual practice is to observe the winter solstice, that time of longest night, and to wait with faith for the returning strength of the sun. I have come to understand Christmas as a very similar celebration to that of winter solstice: the celebration of birth in a time of darkness.
Now the challenge for me is that the secular celebration of Christmas often feels at odds with what is—to me—the quiet promise of the winter holidays. I am aware more than ever of the tendency toward extravagance and wastefulness. This is an especially difficult time of year for families struggling financially; the expectation of gift giving is an unwelcome pressure. And the obligations of the holiday season are often more tiring than they are rejuvenating.
Nevertheless, it is a special time of year, a time to remember our connections to friends and family, a time to offer help to those who are struggling, and a time to celebrate that even times of great darkness come to an end, and that hope is born anew every day.