Over the past few years, I slowly convinced my family that paying money to chop down a living tree was slightly cruel and overly unnecessary. A plastic one has been borrowed each year instead and has provided more living room space as well as easy clean-up. If they didn’t think I was crazy then, they might now…I’ve had a new thought concerning the tradition of putting up and decorating a Christmas tree; why do we do it? What is the point?
The celebration of Christmas in general was not even derived as a Christian tradition. Pagan cultures in Rome celebrated Saturnalia- a feast commemorating the god of harvest and agriculture, Saturn which took place on the 17th of December and lasted through December 25th. British Druids also celebrated winter-solstice with feasts and drinking. After the death of Christ, Christians struggled joining in the celebration of these pagan rituals and longed for their own celebration. Although the birth of Christ is actually suspected to have been in late spring, ‘Christmas’ was formed from the words for ‘Christ’s Mass’ and an easy transition was made to combine Christmas, Saturnalia, and winter-solstice celebrations. Although the historical winter celebrations have been taken over by today’s world-wide recognition and celebration of the “christian holiday”, Christmas, there is an even more impacting presence of materialistic celebration that goes on today.
I’ll be the first to admit that materialism is something I struggle with- especially around the holiday season. Who doesn’t love ‘things’? Books, CD’s, clothes, gift cards… I’m not the kind of person who has a hard time filling up my Christmas list. But I often wonder if this ease to slip into such a materialistic mindset about Christmas has something to do with the traditions I celebrated as a child.
Thinking back, my fondest holiday memories have always included our annual Black Friday shopping trip, finding and cutting down our Christmas tree, picking out new ornaments and decorating the tree, etc. Although I was raised in a christian home, I can’t recall being excited about my Dad reading through the familiar passages in the New Testament about the eve of Christ’s birth on Christmas morning. On the contrary, I often dreaded the reading, eagerly bouncing about on the couch staring at the huge pile of gifts under the tree while he rushed through the passage. Going to Christmas services at church seemed boring and dull compared to the piles of sugary sweets and new toys at home I could enjoy.
While reflecting on what Christmas has become in our country and world today, I struggle to find much meaning and hope when our most recognized christian holiday has been boiled down to nothing more than piles of disguised things we don’t need, bought on credit we can’t afford, lying under a dead tree we can’t revive, dropped off by a fat man we can’t see. It seems a bit ridiculous when you really think about it.
Now, I’m not trying to take the fun out of Christmas or squander family traditions. I’m just trying to make sense of the celebrations and purify the meaning of the holiday in my own mind. I would love to make the focus of my Christmas holiday truly the celebration of the birth of our Messiah. When I have kids, I would love for them to know EXACTLY what Christmas means. I’m sure when I was asked as a child about my Christmas wishes, my response didn’t include spending time with my family, singing songs about my Lord, enjoying a meal or giving gifts to others and helping those in need. I bet my responses were excited squeals about a new Barbie corvette or a pair of roller blades.
If putting Christ at the center of my Christmas means cutting out some fun family traditions that distract me towards materialism and false meaning, I don’t mind making that sacrifice. Am I saying that all Christmas traditions should be ignored and we should solemnly sit on Christmas morning with our Bibles in our hands doing nothing but reading and reflecting? No. But shaving our traditions down to the ones that matter and don’t distract…making cookies with my Grandma, sharing a mug of cocoa with a friend, singing carols, making a meal, laughing with my family, putting up the nativity, listening to the Christmas Eve sermon…these are the things I want to be excited about. These are the moments in which I will find hope and encouragement, not in stressing about gift buying or making sure the lights on my house are perfectly aligned.
I realize that skipping over the tradition of having a Christmas tree won’t fully help me focus on the true meaning of Christmas. And for a lot of people, they are probably satisfied in saying that they enjoy celebrating Christ’s birth right along with all of the other meanings Christmas holds for our society today. But I would encourage you to reflect on the purpose of the traditions you hold dear to your hearts, and if those traditions are ultimately meaningless and distracting, why not let go of a few of them in hopes that a deeper purpose and understanding of the season will dwell within.