Festivus for the Rest of us
An airing of grievances about Christmas and the redefining of its meaning for the rest of us
I’ve felt really conflicted about Christmas for a few years. Here’s why.
I love the traditions like baking, listening to old-timey holiday music, watching A Christmas Story or White Christmas (a very white Christmas), wearing ugly sweaters and holiday pajamas, and decorating the Christmas tree with my family.
As an ex-Mormon and an atheist, the conflict for me is in the heavy symbolism surrounding Christianity and the influences of capitalism, and the consumerism surrounding Christmas in the United States.
Does putting a star at the top of a tree mean I am celebrating a deity I not only do not believe in, but participating in a tradition of a religion that I often find problematic in its practice? No offense to those who are Christian, I find all religions problematic. Why are we rushing about finding and collecting the “perfect” gifts for our loved ones, whereby losing our patience and at times our minds? Aren’t the holidays meant to be about family and relaxing, instead of being stressed about travel and spending money we would rather save for rainy days, a mortgage, or a much needed vacation? Why are we ordering so many things online that those who work in retail, warehouses and courier services don’t actually get to have a holiday to spend time with their loved ones? Not the mention the carbon footprint of Christmas caused by air travel, the transportation of goods, the plastics and the trash.
Not to be the grinch, but everything about American Christmas goes against the spirit of Christmas, from what I remember being taught in my previous church-going life. Only those of us in middle-class, white collar jobs really get to enjoy it, while simultaneously adding to everyone’s stress and continued destruction of the earth.
Though as an aside, in Japan where I grew up — a very non-Christian country — Christmas is celebrated in a very non-Christian way, with a Christmas cake 🎂 and no time off. Instead, the new year is considered the significant holiday that includes family gatherings, feasts, trip to Buddhist and Shinto shrines and gifts of money for children. Many companies provide additional holidays around the new year so many people are able to take the entire week off.
So while I continued to participate in the tradition of gift-giving with my family, partner, and his family, I couldn’t help but wonder why celebrate Christmas if you’re not Christian or religious?
I remembered reading something about pagan Nordic traditions a while back. A bit of googling revealed that once again, Scandinavians had answers. According to this article:
a surprising number of general Western Christmas habits owe their origins to Scandinavian Christmas traditions, some of which are actually of pagan origin
Early Christians chose their holidays in line with the pre-existing pre-Christian holidays, or holy days.… Few pragmatists actually believed that Jesus was born exactly on December 25 (the Bible makes no reference as to the date), but rather it was chosen as a symbolic date of birth because it coincides with the pagan Winter Solstice.
Ok I’m listening.
The Western focus on Christmas is more of a modern, and quite capitalistic tradition, where the focus is on gifts and Santa.
The Christmas Tree is a tradition that comes from a northern European tradition of bringing outdoor greenery indoors in the middle of winter. It was popularized in 17th century Germany, but has been practiced since the ancient times throughout northern Europe and certainly pre-dates the establishment of Christianity.
Ding ding ding!! Ok, so the Christmas tree tradition existed way before it was highjacked by Christians. Good to know.
I also came across this article that talks about Jul / Yule, the Nordic Winter Solstice celebration:
Nordic Christmas roots go into the pagan holiday of Yule, a days-long feast that was perhaps the most important celebration of the year, the winter solstice. Yule was important for several reasons: it gave farmers something to do at the time when field works were over; it lifted spirits during the toughest time of the year, when sickness and cold temperatures often claimed easy victims; and it defied the forces of evil that lurked in the dark, giving hope to people in surviving the long Scandinavian winter still ahead.
Makes total sense.
In another article:
So many Yule traditions are heavily steeped in Ancient folklore simply because the missionaries weren’t able to reach Norway or Scandinavia until the 10th century. By then, tradition had been well established.
And this delightful Icelandic Yule folklore:
Iceland contributed the legend of the Yule cat, which is apparently a remarkably large creature with a pension for devouring lazy people. Lazy people of the village were not only declined any type of Yule reward, but were in constant Yuletide danger of being gobbled up by the ferocious and sinister Yule cat. Naturally this threat made people a bit more motivated to be contributors to the well being of their village.
This all answered the questions I had in my head about the “Christian” Christmas symbolism and traditions, which was all I ever knew about Christmas. I was taught that the star on the tree symbolized the star in Bethlehem. The ever green tree symbolized Jesus’ everlasting life and the light he brings to the world.
I guess it’s symbolism that makes sense those who are Christian, and naturally a symbolism popularized by those who colonized the world and got to write history.
I’m not saying it’s bad symbolism, it just doesn’t work for me because I made an intentional departure from the Christian religion as an adult. I thought for a very long time that Christmas was 100% about Jesus and belonged only to Christians, but turns out it doesn’t, because the traditions pre-dated Christianity in Northern Europe, and this makes me feel better about celebrating Jul/Yule/Winter Solstice.
This whole post might seem silly to those who didn’t grow up in a strict religion, and blasphemous to those who are religious, but it was important to me to understand the background and re-think the meaning of this holiday as a non-religious person living in the Capitalist States of America. It’s okay to bake ginger bread. It’s okay to have a tree and decorate it with lights and delightful things to lift up the spirits in the dark winter. It’s probably okay to gift your loved ones a thoughtful gift, ideally something you picked up locally and isn’t something that adds to landfills. It’s also not outside of the realm of possibilities to start encouraging our families to move away from gift-giving and shift to enjoying experiences together, or gasp, contribute to charity??
It’s also okay to adopt traditions that speak to you, and practice it in a way that makes most sense to you, without being tied to a specific religion (and by you, I mean me. I am telling myself this).
Looking back, in my Japanese family, we had adopted Christmas to fit what made sense to us. We didn’t eat ham or turkey, but instead ate sukiyaki with rice.
So in the same vein, I present to you Festivus for the rest of us, non-religious version! Celebrating longer days. Warm meals and drinks shared with loved ones. Lights, evergreen trees, and smells of pine indoors. Stressful shopping and travel, not so much. 😅🎄