The Christmas Crunch

With the upcoming Christmas season, we are having to address questions about Christmas. We are not religious and merely enjoy the festive season as a holiday time to celebrate family and friends. We do not decorate or exchange gifts. We make a point of spending time with family and friends far and near. We do not know how to share our chosen method of celebrating without having our children feel “different” or “left out.”

This is a difficult issue. The reality is that your children will probably feel “different” and “left out” if all their friends celebrate Christmas and they don’t. Quite frankly, I don’t think Christmas is primarily a Christian religious holiday any more in North America. If it is, it’s all mixed up with Santa Claus and Rudolph and other non-religious myths, so that kids of Christian families get quite confused. If Jesus is real, is Santa real in the same way? So some Christians try to celebrate Christmas just as Jesus’ birth, and leave out Santa. Then they’re in a similar situation to the people who wrote this questions, opposing the surrounding culture and trying to put something more meaningful in its place.

Materialism is in my opinion the biggest issue in which both thoughtful Christians and thoughtful non-Christians may differ from the rest of society about Christmas. Stores trying to get you to buy, buy, buy, starting at the beginning of November. Things, things, things. Toys, toys, toys, most of them guaranteed to wear out one week after you get them. Low income parents sacrificing basic needs to get huge Christmas gifts for their children, who don’t really appreciate them all that much. Busy, busy, busy. Rush, rush, rush. Only 137 days until Christmas! Many people give in to this pressure. And some get so sick of it that they reject the whole thing, leaving their kids feeling left out.

What are the positive values in our culture’s celebration of Christmas, which can be appreciated regardless of our religious background? The writer of the questions described one of these values : a holiday time to spend with family and friends. Hopefully, to play. When my extended family get together for Christmas, we play charades and lots of board games, and the adults play bridge. Our life is so rushed, we don’t get to just play with one another. The Christmas holidays can provide this opportunity, if we’re not all caught up in buying. Kids can get to know their cousins. Another positive value is tradition. Each family has its own traditions for a festival like Christmas. Since there are holidays from work and school, and the whole culture is celebrating, I think it’s especially important for those who don’t agree with some of the cultural values to find their own ways of celebrating, which can become family traditions for them.

Another positive value is celebration, having a festival. Each culture has its festivals. I remember being shocked when in India that no one celebrated Christmas, but they had Diwali, Holi, and other festivals which were just as big. In most cultural festivals there are decorations, people get dressed up, and there’s special food and drink. Everyone in the culture celebrates the festival together, and children are awed and amazed, and wonder at the excitement and all the special decorations and events. Although I respect the viewpoint of the letter writer, I wonder why he feels it necessary to discard the festive aspect of Christmas. You can reject the materialism and also the religion without getting rid of the festivities. In the middle of winter, when the days are so dark, it’s great to have something to celebrate. You can decorate a tree or a house without it having anything to do with either Jesus or Santa Claus!

What about gifts? My son tells me that kids at school compare their Christmas gifts, and those who get inferior gifts are ridiculed. He says I should never forget the effects of peer ridicule, as it can reduce a child’s status in the peer group and make him the butt of jokes on an ongoing basis. Consider this before you decide to give no gifts at all. A six-year-old, or even a thirteen-year-old, is too young to be able to say confidently “My family don’t believe in giving gifts.” And even if he did, he would probably hear about it in a derisive manner for the rest of the school year. I realize there are some values that it’s important to stand up for even at the expense of your child, such as anti-racism. But is “no gifts” such an important value?

For young children, much of the excitement of gifts is in the wrapping and unwrapping rather than in the actual gifts they receive! That’s an important part of having a festival. When I was a kid I’d much prefer ten gifts with tiny little things inside them than one big expensive gift. The other meaning of a gift is that the giver has thought specially about the person receiving the gift, and has selected something that will be meaningful to them. This kind of gift tells the recipient that s/he is loved. Everyone, particularly children, needs to receive this kind of gift form time to time. Christmas gives us an excuse to do this. I know how I always hated receiving gifts form one particular aunt, because her gifts were always totally unsuitable for me, designed to make me more “feminine.” And some relatives sent socks for Christmas! Unless the family is too poor to afford socks, this sends the message that everything must be “useful,” and pure enjoyment is wrong.

You can give gifts without getting caught up in commercialism. You might consider buying gifts from one of the agencies which helps people in developing countries rather than from the big money-making companies. Or making unique individual gifts as an exercise in caring. For adults, you can give something small which shows you have thought of that person as an individual. Or you can give to charity in their name. One year several of my relatives, unknown to one another, bought one another “trees in Africa.”

Finally, the spiritual emphasis. Every year, Christmas carols are played on the radio, and schools sing these (as well as the secular Christmas songs) at their concerts. For non-Christians, are there not some basic human spiritual values which you can celebrate, while explaining that you do not agree with everything the songs say? Some of the words in the Christmas carols still send shivers up my spine, because of their message of hope, that there is something greater than our human mistakes and misery. I think we all need that message, and we can all celebrate it, regardless of our religious background. Joy to the world!