To state the obvious, by definition Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. Nearly all Christian households celebrate Christmas. So one would expect that in most non-Christian or non-religious families, Christmas doesn’t really play a big role. But it turns out the Christmas season means different things to some people thinking there is “no reason for the season”.
Around December, it is almost impossible to not get into the Christmas mood independently of what your belief is. Cozy decorations in cold winter, colorful lights to fight the darkness, magical atmosphere of the snow, traditional beverages and food – oh such delicious comfy winter food. All of this come with different practices traditionally carried out during the holidays, some of which have religious origins while others are merely cultural.
Like many other religious holidays, one of the messages of Christmas is “peace on earth, and goodwill to all men”. The season is about compassion, understanding, and generosity. From this perspective, I think non-Christian and non-religious participation is one of the best possible endorsements, especially in today’s world with multicultural societies. More and more families these days are based on intercultural marriages and the globalization makes up of a more prevalent mosaic culture in many countries. Here in Sweden, we observe many of non-Christian population along with many people doesn’t practice religion, engaging in Christmas simply because it is an excuse to reunite happily with their family and friends.
If you think about it, most of the Christmas carols don’t even mention God or Jesus. It is not a prerequisite to attend church to receive a gift from Santa, simply being a nice kid is enough. If you have been naughty, you receive a coal or rotting potatoes in some cultures. Ideal moral judgement that is much needed these days, if you ask me.
The season is not just about Christmas, but also New Year’s celebrations (and resolutions). Fun fact, in Turkey we prepare the tree and exchange gifts on New Year’s Eve instead. Santa comes to us just a week later, after he is done with his Christmas duty.
For those of us from different cultures, I think Christmas is not only a bright and festive season, but also a chance to identify with our adopted homes. Especially in science, we have a highly intercultural working environment with many different backgrounds and traditions. Growing intolerance towards the differences makes it even more important to show that we can all exist harmoniously together.
Growing up in a Muslim country and having a family that does not practice religion much, in a sense I am an alien to the Christmas world. Before coming to Sweden for my PhD, I was in the US for two years. Even though this is not my first Christmas abroad, I must admit that I have never experienced the tradition to the fullest.
I am all familiar with the Christmas parties at work, attended a Santa-Con and surely witnessed the shopping spree not many people look for. But in my first Christmas, it was my French flatmates that prepared the Christmas tree in our house and I was kindly invited to Christmas dinner by my colleagues as I was away from my home and family. I spent a whole Saturday in the children’s book section of a big bookstore trying to pick the most appropriate one for my friend’s daughter. (It was then that I understood how difficult parenting must be.) Still, I was a guest, not a member of the commune and left after the dinner. Like many of my friends studying abroad, I mostly take the opportunity to visit home during the Christmas holidays, prepare and send New Year’s postcards or travel somewhere I haven’t been.
Finally, this year, I am all in Christmas from head to toe: decorations and lights, baking heavenly smelling goods for the Christmas eve, the hunt for the presents – including internet searches to find original gifts – and most importantly the joy of a family reunion in ugly sweaters.
In a more broad perspective, this time of the year has always been a celebration of light over darkness. The Roman Sol Invictus (meaning the birth of the unconquered sun), the birthday of Mithras, and the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness”, all on December 25th. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, is also just a few days earlier. In fact, there are arguments suggesting that Christmas itself has emerged as merely a reappropriation of a pagan festival. Light is the best reason to celebrate in the northern hemisphere in my opinion, in the end “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
Dedicating a few days to cherish our loved ones, remember the less fortunate and show kindness and compassion to our society is surely something we need in this world to shed light on the darkness. Some drink eggnog (US) or julmust (Sweden), some build a giant wooden goat and burn it (Gavle) and some hide their brooms (Norway). No matter. The more the merrier.
Wherever you are in the world – or other planets – hope you are enjoying the warmth of the atmosphere.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays!