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’Tis the Season

Veena Thomas

This isn’t going to be a column lamenting the loss of the “true meaning of Christmas.” Plenty has already been written about how nobody appreciates Christmas anymore. Everyone complains about the commercialization of Christmas. People moan and groan about how no one realizes that Christmas is supposed to be a day to honor and to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps this is true; the abbreviation “X-mas” completely destroys the meaning of the word by removing “Christ.” Why do we need an abbreviation, anyway? It isn’t such a long word.

But we all, Christian or not, know the origin of Christmas. We might forget or overlook it in the frantic rush of the holiday season, but we know what it is. Yes, we should pay more attention to the “true meaning of Christmas.” But to hear some people talk, you might think that they want to remove all of the trappings of the season, the Christmas trees, the decorations, the spirit. Should we ignore the festivity and not mention Christmas until December 25, when Christians would then go to church, and that would be all?

I’d prefer not. I speak for many when I say that the Christmas season is my favorite part of the year. I love decorating my house with decorations and foil snowflakes. I enjoy pulling out the ornament box each year and sifting through all of our ornaments. They range from fancy glass ones to ones my sister and I made out of construction paper many years ago.

Ornaments accumulated over time are remnants of the past. An ornament of Santa Claus with his leg in a cast reminds me of the year my dad broke his foot. Some ornaments bring to mind the friends who gave them to us. Hanging up a walnut that I made in nursery school, painted red and studded with fake pearls, is the highlight of my tree-decorating. It’s like seeing an old friend, year after year.

I like all of the traditions: decorating, drinking egg nog, baking cookies, and hanging up stockings. Of course, none of these actually relate to the birth of Christ in any way. Rather, they represent the secularization of Christmas. I don’t think it’s wrong to look upon the Christmas season as a time extending above and beyond Christians. Christmas originated as a religious holiday, and it remains a religious holiday. However, I think we should, and we have, secularly extend the meaning of Christmas beyond its original intent.

Christmas has become a time to spend with family and friends and to celebrate with those you care about. It is a season of giving and a season to recognize those less fortunate. People become more generous “in the spirit of the holiday.” Some have parties to share the merriment and the general happiness of the season. We pass out candy canes to our friends, and we wear red and green. We make countless fruitcakes (though no one actually likes them). We listen to odd Christmas parodies on the radio. Undoubtedly, none of this actually relates to the “true meaning of Christmas.” Why can’t we have an alternate, secular “true meaning of Christmas?”

Seinfeld joked about “Festivus,” a nondenominational winter holiday that everyone, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or otherwise, could celebrate. Perhaps that is what Christmas is starting to become -- a season of giving, of love, and of family and friends. It can have a greater, overlying meaning for everyone, Christian or not. Yet sometimes it appears that even this second meaning of Christmas gets abandoned in the holiday shuffle. Gift-giving, while not religious, originated as an act of love. People who really cared about others gave them something meaningful as a token of affection. It didn’t have to be expensive, but it was usually thoughtful, and the giver knew the recipient would like it.

Giving gifts today has, more often than not, lost that meaning. The holiday shopping season begins even before Thanksgiving. Stores extort everyone into spending as much money as possible. Kids make mile-long lists of expensive toys they want from Santa Claus. Parents can go into debt attempting to satisfy their children’s demands. Crazes like Tickle Me Elmo and Furby demonstrate the worst part of the holiday greed, as harried and stressed parents wait in line for hours and fight with other parents, spend exorbitant amounts of money, and return home cranky, all to appease their three-year-old -- who will have more fun playing with the box the toy came in.

Giving a gift to someone often becomes a matter of obligation and not of any real feeling. People buy others presents simply so they will get something in return. I once knew a girl who would distribute her Christmas presents to her friends and casual acquaintances a week before Christmas so they would feel obligated to buy her a present while they still had the chance. What about Secret Santa exchanges? My friends from home and I would always do a Secret Santa exchange, ranging over the course of several weeks as people would send others anonymous cards and leave little gifts. All of it served to increase the fun and build anticipation for the final present, when the Secret Santas would reveal their identities. We had a great time in the process, and it made things easier because a person didn’t have to attempt to find presents for everyone in the group, just one, and everyone would get a present in return.

Sadly, such exchanges often turn into large anonymous gift trades. People may not know each other that well, if at all, so everyone buys something as generic as possible for their person, and they receive something as anonymous in return. There’s no spirit of the holiday in such an exchange. In the words of Jerry Davidson, “We exchange presents like exchanging gunfire in a war: ‘Why did she get me something? I didn’t get her anything! Now I have to go all the way back to the store...’”

This Christmas, I urge you to change this. If you feel moved to give a gift to someone, and can do so with no expectations, then do so. Don’t give gifts for the sake of getting something back -- that’s an exchange, not a true gift. If you feel obligated to give someone a present, then don’t do it; something given out of obligation isn’t a real gift either.

Save yourself the time and money. Instead, enjoy the happiness and generosity of the holiday. Spend time with family and friends, and spread the merriment. Continue your traditions. If you are Christian, remember the religious meaning of the holiday, but even if you aren’t, consider celebrating the secular aspects of the holiday and reveling in the spirit. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or otherwise, we can spread the feelings of joy, caring, and generosity, and make the holiday season a happier time for all of us.