Monday, December 16, 2013

Do You Celebrate Christmas?

Well… yes and no. I celebrate the secular version of Christmas, and not the birthday of Jesus.

Christmas means a lot of things to a lot of different people, and there’s a whole range between the extremes of “It’s all about Christ,” and “It’s all about sales and crass commercialism.” Actually, there’s a whole lot of meanings that don’t fall anywhere on the line between those two positions.

I could go on, I suppose, about the fact that it’s pretty much impossible that December 25th is the actual birth date of Jesus, or how Christmas is just a Christian appropriation of pagan midwinter celebrations anyway with a modern incarnation defined more by Normal Rockwell and the Coca Cola Company than any religion, but I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard that before. My telling you about it again isn’t going to give anyone any new insight. And if you have somehow failed to hear about those things, there are people better qualified than I to spell out the details who are just a Google search away.

No, the purpose of this post is to talk about the Christmas I celebrate, and why I celebrate it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was raised in a Christian household. So, of course, I was raised celebrating Christmas. We used to do the whole Christmas Cantata thing, where my brother and I would participate in church productions of the little play telling the Christmas story. We sang all the religious carols. We set up an Advent wreath with the four candles, lighting one more each Sunday leading up to Christmas. We decorated the Christmas tree, and gave each other presents, and had a big Christmas dinner (which, as wonderful as it was, still placed second behind Mom’s Christmas cookies for holiday foodstuffs, as they are the best cookies in the known universe). Christmas from my childhood holds nothing but happy memories for me.

And really, that’s a big part of why I celebrate it: because it reminds me of happy memories. And I would like to share those happy memories with my children and help them form some of their own. Obviously, the religious symbolism (including the symbolism of the huge number of pagan elements contained in the celebration) is pretty much ignored, but the things they symbolize played little to no role in my enjoyment of the holiday to begin with.

Another reason I celebrate Christmas is that I happen to believe that the secular notions that it has come to embody are very good things. Setting aside time to be with your family and loved ones. Demonstrating love through the exchange of gifts (and no, I do not accept the notion that doing so is inherently shallow or commercial). Encouraging acts of generosity towards even total strangers. I think those are good things to do, and to be reminded of.

And finally, I happen to like tradition. That doesn’t mean I think tradition should always be adhered to without examination. But at their best, traditions are things that help to bind families and communities together through shared experience, and Christmas traditions are generally pretty fun and positive. Our family has a tradition of gathering at my parents’ house the first Sunday after Thanksgiving to decorate the Christmas tree. It’s a time we have set aside where everything else gets put away so we can get together in a loving environment and each contribute our efforts to creating something together. I love it.

So this season, we will once again put up our Christmas tree, and hang our lights around the house. And my wife and I will put in some late nights shopping and wrapping up presents in secret. We’ll even hold back a stash to lay under the tree Christmas night after the kids have gone to sleep, even though they know the truth about Santa, because it’s fun and it’s tradition, and it contributes to the whole magical feeling of the holiday. We’ll give to our charities, and we’ll visit our families (and score some of Mom’s Christmas cookies!).

So for those who celebrate it: Merry Christmas! And for those who celebrate other traditions: Happy Holidays! And for those who don’t celebrate anything at all: we love you too and wish you only the best!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Aren't You Thankful?

Well, I was hoping to get something up on the subject of Thanksgiving before the actual holiday happened, but life sometimes has a way of foiling these little plans. Still, I want to say a little something on the subject of thankfulness. Because personally, I think it’s a good thing to set aside time now and then to think about it.

There is no doubt that I have plenty to be thankful for. I have a wife and kids whom I love and who love me, I have supportive and loving parents and in-laws, a roof over my head, and a full-time job that keeps us fed and housed. I have some friends I can count on, and others that I can simply have a good time with once in a while. I live in a country where I can have all of those things while being able to choose (more or less) what I do for a living, and where I can say the things I say on this blog in spite of them being an extreme minority opinion.

So that’s just a few of the things I have to be thankful for. I’m sure that if I really set my mind to it, I could come up with more and more until I completely bogged down this post with a huge list of everything positive in my life. But listing what you’re thankful for does raise a related question: who am I thankful to? I think that bears some thought as well, and may even be the more important question.

Almost every year, we spend Thanksgiving with my parents. And my parents, like probably millions of families worldwide, commemorate meals on significant occasions by offering a prayer of thanks to God (the Christian God – they’re Baptists) and asking for his continued blessings. I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that I’m not a big fan of the practice. Usually, I just sit through it in silence out of respect for my parents, and this year was no exception.

But what’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable to me is the fact that God is the only one to get thanked. He gets the thanks for the food, for the home, for the family, for all of the things that my father calls out to name in his list of blessings, he gives the thanks to God even though there is no visible participation in any of that by any immaterial being.

Meanwhile, it’s demonstrably true that a farmer grew the food, and a store sold it to us, and that my father’s earnings paid for it, and that my mother’s efforts transformed it into a feast. We have a family because each and every one of us makes the effort to plan these times together, and to let one another know that we love them, and because each of us there lends their own personality to the mixture that is our family.

And, of course, when you think about it a little more deeply, it’s not hard to expand the circle of people and events to be thankful for. Even just the ones that were necessary in order for me to be alive to be writing this, much less to be having any joy in life. For example: I was born in breach position, a situation which could easily have resulted in the deaths of both myself and my mother. So I have a doctor to be thankful to that I ever got to draw breath in the first place. And he couldn’t have had the knowledge to save us if it weren’t for the generations of people who not only investigated that knowledge but also set out the means to record it and train others in how to apply it. And each of those people, in turn, had to have all the things go right in their own lives to allow them to survive to achieve what they did. Plus each and every one of their ancestors all the way back through hominids, apes, primates, and on and on to the first organic molecules. It rapidly becomes absolutely mind-boggling the sheer number of events that came together so that I could be here writing about the fact that I’m kinda glad it came together in such a way as to make me.

That’s an awful lot to be grateful for. And a huge amount of those things are so impersonal, or so distant in time and space, that it would be impossible to express thanks to them in any meaningful way. It’s a vast and incomprehensible web, and merely getting a glimmer of the incredible number of things that had to come together so that I could even exist is both humbling and awe-inspiring. When I look around and realize that every person I meet is the result of an equally vast number of events coming together, that’s even more humbling and amazing still.

But that, I think, is the connection to the enormity of it all. I cannot express my gratitude to the impersonal and distant forces that led to my existence. But I can express it to all the people around me who are the equally improbable products of those same forces. By thanking them… by thanking you… I am thanking the universe as well.

So I say in all sincerity to all who are reading this, and even to all who aren’t… THANK YOU!