Commercialization and culture wars can only steal your Christmas if you let them. – Maggie McNeill
I’ve written on a number of occasions how important rituals are to human mental health, and how much poorer and sadder modern Westerners are for having largely forsaken them or, more often, allowed them to be replaced with other, synthetic rituals which serve the interests of the ruling classes (festivals such as “Super Bowl Sunday”, “Election Day” and “Black Friday” spring to mind). The mistake all too many secular and rational people make is in imagining that “ritual” automatically implies “religion”, which it absolutely does not (any more than irrational belief systems require a god).
As these examples of synthetic ones illustrate, rituals need not be organized around supernatural beliefs, biological families or anything else; the one thing they share is that they involve groups of people voluntarily coming together to do something in some specific way that doesn’t necessarily make logical sense. The event is not actually about what it is declared to be about; the Super Bowl could be recorded and watched later, shopping could be performed on some other day and no individual vote is worth the trouble it takes to cast it. What is most important to those who are devoted to such rituals isn’t the actual activity, but the sense of being part of something larger than themselves. To those who cluster outside stores on “Black Friday” the wait is part of the experience, just as it is for those who wait in lines to see long-awaited new movies or those who throng to an appearance of some admired leader.
The supposed reason for any given ritual is thus much less important than the ritual itself, and Christmas is a perfect demonstration of that. What began as an attempt to ensure the return of the sun after a long decline eventually became a celebration of that return, then a festival of various gods associated with rebirth, then a way to brighten the long winter nights, then a time for family and friendship, and now an excuse for spending a lot of money. But the major aspects of the festivities (such as their extraordinary length in comparison with other holidays, the giving of gifts, the feasting, the singing, symbolism involving plants and lights, etc) continued on through the centuries no matter what the current “official” reason was, and each place and time has made its own contributions to the vast heap of traditions and rituals which we now call “Christmas” (though it has had other names before, and will again). Some old traditions eventually drop by the wayside, and new ones are added; the pattern varies from place to place and even from household to household; but if we look at the big picture what we see is one large tapestry stretching back some 6000 years in time and across most of the Earth.
The takeaway from all this is summed up in today’s epigram: Christmas is there for you if you want it, and barring catastrophe or malicious action nobody but you can take it from you. How people celebrate Christmas next door or across town or in other cities makes no more difference than how they celebrate it on the other side of the world, or how they celebrated it 3000 years ago, or even what they call it or what reason they ascribe to the celebration; anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. Take whatever elements you want from the vast Yuletide buffet, and leave the rest; add your own traditions, and cherish them year after year; call the festival whatever you want, and ascribe it to whatever excuse pleases you. The only important thing is that it’s all meaningful to you and those you care about, and that you refuse to allow the pressures of life and the behavior of selfish busybodies to rob you of something which rightfully belongs to everyone.