I have a guilty secret that I always have to grapple with at this time of year. I am no longer a Christian, but I love Christmas.
This may be just an artifact of my upbringing. With my family, Christmas has always been a big deal, with unrestrained decoration and big family gatherings with lots of good food. There were church services for Advent, pageants, the works.
I don't go to church any more. I don't celebrate Advent or the birth of Jesus. Even so, the lights, the music, the food, even the shopping (especially now that I have children), all of it is still strangely moving to me.
It's the music that gets me the most. It doesn't matter whether its a Christian hymn or a pagan revel, at this time of year I want to hear it. We have collections of Christmas music spanning centuries, from medieval polyphony to jazz renditions of "Jingle Bells." Some of the Christian music is simply stunning, especially Britton's Ceremony of Carols and Poulenc's Christmas motets. I always look forward to the beginning of December, when we give ourselves permission to play the music until we can't stand to hear it any more.
But isn't there something ridiculous about a skeptic celebrating Christmas?
Perhaps. But then, I think there's something about this season, at least in the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere, that calls out for some kind of celebration. If nothing else, we are compelled to show our defiance of the weather.
If this is true, then it should be no surprise that the season is packed with overlapping layers of significance, some of them contrived (Santa! Rudolph!), some of them crass (Doorbuster Specials!), but some of them deeper and more serious (Solstice! Jesus! Family! Impossibly Decadent Food! Revelry!).
So, for better or for worse, whether it's simple rationalization or not, I've started to make my peace with the season. I seldom wish people a "Merry Christmas!" unless I know that they themselves are Christian. I don't particularly dig the bland "Happy Holidays!" I'm starting to gravitate toward "Good Yule!" as a suitably neutralized greeting with pagan roots: "Yule" is apparently the name for a big feast near the time of the solstice.
In celebrating Yuletide, I'm happy to borrow bits from here and there, including Santa Claus (for my young children, about which more another time) and the tradition of giving gifts, the usual mix of Christian and pagan symbols and music (perhaps with more emphasis on the pagan symbols, like the tree and the meaning-drenched mistletoe), and even a dash of contemporary commercial Christmas kitsch. I'll make sure my children know that Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus, just so they know what people are talking about, but I'll also make sure they know that the season is far richer and more complex than that.
So, why celebrate at all? Because it's dark and cold out there, and we need to generate some light and warmth to keep ourselves together, to remind ourselves to live.
P.S. A guide for the perplexed: the greeting in the title of this entry is a mash-up of Chanukah, Christmas, St. Nicholas Day (today, unless I'm mistaken), Kwanzaa, Yuletide, and Solstice.
P.P.S. I left one out: the most overblown consumerist version of the holiday should be dubbed "The Feast of Acquisition". This is a pernicious, mutant form of the more benign tradition of gift-giving. It's what happens when the joy of the Yuletide season is reported in retail sales figures and consumer confidence indices, with fistfights over cheap computers and badly-made but fleetingly compulsory gewgaws from China.