When I was a girl, my father would spend hours decorating the tree, the house, and the yard in a manner a bit like that of Christmas Vacationólots of swearing, lots of tangled lights, and (eventually) lots of genuine pride in the accomplishment. Each year, one of my brothers or I would accompany him to pick out a new nutcracker to add to our family’s collection; the jester, Drosselmeyer, and Civil War soldiers might not have been part of the Nativity story, but they meant Christmas to me. We never celebrated Hanukkah, because it never appealed to him: Christmas was the only winter holiday worth the effort, as far as he was concerned. My father passed away when I was young, but my family’s holidays remained much the same. We focused on the togetherness and celebrating my father’s memory on his favorite holiday. The miracle of Jesus’ birth was far from our minds.
For much of my life, I felt guilt about our happily godless Christmases. I worried that we were leeching off of someone else’s holiday. When Bill O’Reilly railed about “Christmas under siege,” I felt complicit. If I was content to listen to Christmas-themed pop songs instead of hymns, to open presents with gusto instead of heading to church, or to dig right into the meal instead of saying grace, was I diluting the holiness of others’ celebration? Was I insulting Jesus? Cheapening the experience for Christians?
My family celebrates Christmas in all its commercial glory. We put up the Christmas tree (with a different color scheme each year), take to the mall and, if anyone feels like getting on a ladder and it’s not too cold, hang some lights out front.
As a kid, I had making my Christmas list down to a science. I pored over Toys “R” Us, Target and JCPenney toy books as soon as they arrived. I knew that if I asked for too much, I’d look greedy, and that if I asked for too little, I’d end up with more unwanted trinkets and tiny Avon bottles than I could ever use. I even ranked the items on my list to make sure I got my favorites.
I know I’m not alone in my observance of America’s commercialized pseudo-Christmas, but I do wonder how many others feel the same twinge of guilt about it that I do. There’s a certain strangeness in claiming a religious holiday without the religion.
I like to think my family has maintained the “spirit of the holidays,” albeit without the religious underpinnings. My dad’s family gathers every Christmas Eve for a potluck dinner. While almost everyone lives within a couple of hours of one another, it’s the only time of year I get to see so many of my seven paternal aunts and uncles and their families in one place. We eat, play Christmas-themed games and exchange gifts. There’s no mention of Mary and Joseph or the Christ Child.