If holidays were people, I’d feel a little sorry for Christmas, because it’s clearly overburdened. People project all sorts of things onto it – their feelings about themselves, their pasts, and the lives of others. Some people expect it to be perfect, and strive every year to make it look a certain way, only to surrender to disappointment and failure. Others love their traditions, reveling in the process of decorating and planning, cooking and selecting gifts, only to feel confused when others object to their enthusiasm as somehow either too good to be true, or setting a universal obligation.
The tension points seem endless. Some people lament that we’ve forgotten Christmas is about the birth of Christ, and not the excesses of Black Friday. Others connect more with the holiday’s roots in pre-Christian winter festivals, and prefer to think of it as a secular holiday. Some people get mad when you wish them “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”; some people get mad at the reverse; other people are annoyed that it’s an issue at all. People sue over the construction of nativity scenes, and the removal of them. Some people even insist there’s a war on Christmas afoot.
It’s exhausting. But so is living in a human community. When we live in community with others, we will constantly bump up against the triggers, anxieties, prejudices and pains of others, but also their generosity, thoughtfulness, kindness and warmth. It’s all part of the deal. Expecting Christmas to transcend that, always, is a fool’s game.
The holiday season is fraught because it is the holiday – at least in this country – that reflects us as a whole people, in all our divergent messiness. There are so many views of Christmas and Hanukkah, and the season demands that we accommodate all of them, and hold them in all their glorious tension. That’s not always easy. Some people love it, others hate it, and there are innumerable people residing in between.
I love the Christmas season, and it’s not because I am religious, materialistic, deluded, lacking in painful history, or have not sufficiently pondered its implications. I like Christmas for the same reason I like life; because even though it’s sometimes egregiously messy, occasionally nasty, and often fails to live up to its hype, it’s every bit as often beautiful, surprising, and even magical. Others disagree. I can understand that.
I also like Christmas because of the common ethic that surrounds it, in which we strive to be a little better, do a little better, and make the world a little better at this time of year. We can complain that we don’t do this all year around, or we can accept that we are imperfect human beings who might need to set aside a specific season to try harder.
So I hope people can lighten up on poor Christmas, that holiday that engenders so many strong feelings and expectations, and can never quite please everyone. I hope that you celebrate – or not! – in whatever way makes you happy, and at the same time honor the celebrations of others. At the end of the day, there is no “true” or “one” spirit of Christmas. It contains multitudes. And that may be its best quality.