It’s Christmas.228283_564760040220120_6873465_n

I stay away from politics and religion on this blog. I don’t do that because I don’t have any or don’t want to discuss them; on the contrary, as my conversations and posts on other sites bear out, I do indeed have them, and I do indeed discuss them. In fact, I stand firmly behind my literary hero G. K. Chesterton in this regard, who (when he was instructed he could write about anything other than these two subjects) said “There is nothing else worth writing about.”

Rather, I stay away from discussing them (aside from the occasional review) because I don’t want to argue about them. Not, at least, here on this blog, which I have always intended as a source of information about stories, whether written or being written. These two subjects are divisive, despite being — by definition — unitive at the same time.

But I am going to talk for a moment about “the reason for the season.” Not a Jesus lecture, not some sermon about how getting together with a bunch of strangers to read from a 1,700-year-old book of 1,900-plus-year-old words on a cold day is the most important thing you can do on an arbitrary day of the last month of the equally-arbitrary year. It’s not even something Christian, really — or rather, not exclusively Christian. And that’s fine. We celebrate a lot of holidays without having a direct connection to the origin of those celebrations.

I look around, in fact, and see a lot of people celebrating a holiday that belongs to a religion I profess, yet they themselves don’t profess the same beliefs. Sometimes they differ a lot. Other times, just enough to really notice. And as I look around for a common denominator, asking myself why Christmas matters to so many non-Christians, I find myself settling on two ideas: hope and family. 

Yes, commercialism exists. I actually don’t mind that so much. We get it with lots of other holidays as well. A few days after Christmas, for example, we’ll start seeing pink stuff all over the place as the stores switch over to selling stuff for St. Valentine’s Day. After that, we’ll get lots of green for St. Patrick’s Day (though perhaps not as much as the pink, and even then not as much outside the United States, as even Ireland doesn’t celebrate it like the US does). Later on, we’ll get lots of red, white, and blue bunting for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. So on, so forth. But each of those, at heart, represents what the holiday means to people.

At Christmas, we see a lot of emphasis on family and lights, even more so than Thanksgiving (supposedly the most family-oriented holiday in this country). We rush to find gifts for those we love. Perhaps there is indeed, as is often stated in a deriding or dismissive tone, an obligation pushed by companies to buy useless things for people for no other reason than it’s expected. But the fact that people try to make money on it doesn’t change the fact that this tradition of gift-giving goes back a lot farther than the modern age. At its root is not some Victorian requirement of outward mannerisms, no matter the real desires hidden inside; no, the root is the simple joy of providing a gift that itself brings joy to the ones we love.

While a commercial, I don’t think this is just a celebration of material gain. The anticipation of a surprise, and the wonder of the reception — that’s what gift-giving is all about. That’s what we’re all aiming for when we give a gift, no matter the time of year.

And while many companies will give a (perhaps tongue-in-cheek, perhaps not) “buy something for yourself” sales pitch, even more will focus on giving gifts for others. So even those vilified as merely caring about the bottom line recognize that what drives that line this season is charity. Charity in the older sense of the word, of giving to others for no other reason than that you care.

Yet, why now? Why this time of year? Wouldn’t it be better to have a family holiday in the summer, when everyone can step outside and enjoy warm weather? (Apologies to my Australian readers. Have an iced eggnog, I don’t mind. Just don’t tell me what your temperature is like, please.) Wouldn’t it make sense to have a family holiday when travel is easy, and when we don’t have to pretend to like ugly Christmas sweaters? When we don’t have to huddle together and turn up the heat and wish we’d remembered to replace that one drafty window we keep neglecting? Why should we deal with all these headaches at what is already a miserable time of year?


I would argue that this family time is so powerful precisely because of the weather. (*cough* Again, apologies to the Aussies. You’re allowed to disagree with me.) Here we are, a few days into the official start of winter. The nights are slowly getting shorter again, but with the cold driving us indoors, it feels progressively darker outside. As average temperatures drop lower, more and more winter storms build up, and it will be a while before the world starts looking like it remembers to switch to the disc marked “spring.”

And that’s with modern technology and all its conveniences. A modern world where we have plowed streets for our self-heating cars. A modern world where even the poorest generally have a warm place to sleep and warm clothing to wear and warm food to eat. A modern world where, when nature calls, we don’t have to choose between a chamberpot by the bed or an outhouse outside. A modern world where darkness and cold are defeated with the flip of a switch.

Another ad, showing the importance of finding hope and comfort in the midst of the deepest darkness.

We don’t have to think back to a world without these conveniences to understand how vital it is to have a holiday which is all about putting up decorative lights while spending time with family. In a world where it’s easy to light up the night, it’s strangely even more vital to light that night with more than we need; to draw a line against the darkness by filling it with beauty. It’s a defiant shout, a declaration that we are here, and we’ll last longer than the darkness. Even a single candle does that; and here we have so much more.

Dickens and all the jolly English giants who write of the red firelight are grossly misunderstood in this matter. Prigs call them coarse and materialistic because they write about the punch and plum pudding of winter festivals. The prigs do not see that if these writers were really coarse and materialistic they would not write about winter feasts at all. Mere materialists would write about summer and the sun. The whole point of winter pleasure is that it is a defiant pleasure, a pleasure armed and at bay. The whole point is in the fierce contrast between the fire and wine within and the roaring rains outside.
~ G. K. Chesterton

It’s not a commercial holiday, where no one cares about anything but a few deals in stores. It’s not a social obligation, merely carrying through motions regardless of one’s feelings. It’s not even “just” a religious celebration, however closely tied it is to that. It has never lost a thing; it’s only gained as more join in — even if, from the eyes of the religious, it’s an imperfect union. Ultimately, the hopeful message remains: that friends and family will come through the darkness, more easily than ever before.

This is one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs. It’s in part because I’m a Washington DC local, but mostly it sums up how I see Christmas. For all the constant divisiveness of the national capitol, this is how it always winds up here in “America’s Hometown.”

It’s a season that is rooted in a religions observance, yet the cultural aspect is far from supernatural. The cultural Christmas descends from a day, long ago, when one family huddled together for warmth, and were visited by strangers for no other reason than that they cared.

Or perhaps it is supernatural. After all, what’s more important, more awe-inspiring, more magical, than family?

Merry Christmas, everyone. Keep those lights on.