Why do we love Christmas?
Once a year, rootless moderns find an anchor in the past
Why do we love Christmas so much? Other holidays have their loyal followings and their elaborate rituals, to be sure, signaling their appearance on the cultural calendar weeks in advance by a change of décor at department stores and a different line-up of kitschy gifts and candies on the seasonal aisle at the pharmacy. But for most of these—Valentine’s, Easter, Halloween—most of us grimace at the tawdry store displays and actually celebrate the holiday for only a day or a weekend, if at all.
When it comes to Christmas, though, most of us can’t seem to get enough of it. From late November till early January, we hang Christmas decorations, listen to Christmas music, attend Christmas parties, bake Christmas goodies, and of course, participate in endless rites of gift-shopping and gift-giving.
Indeed, even as so many other cultural pastimes and traditions wither away, Christmas just seems to keep getting bigger. Some time ago, it burst through the calendar barrier of Thanksgiving Day and, judging by radio playlists, store décor, and Starbucks specialty drinks, has by now colonized most of November.
It would be easy to cynically chalk this up to capitalism’s insatiable demand for customers and the determination of retailers to add as much as possible to their bottom lines before closing out the year. But something more is going on. In a world where, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air,” where each and every anchor rooting us to the past has been cut loose by a revolutionary anti-culture, Christmas has become the only haven for tradition amidst a tempest of self-invention. Increasingly, Christmas offers a home for homeless moderns exhausted from trying to forge their own path and find their own truth.
As much as our culture rails against tradition, our love for Christmas—our almost desperate lunge to embrace the Christmas season the moment the Halloween pumpkins have been thrown away—is a reminder of how deeply we all still need something that ties us to the past. We yearn for the comfort of hearing and singing the same familiar songs, baking and eating the same familiar recipes, and gathering and giving with the same familiar friends and family. For at least six weeks out of the year, we crave the tried and true over the new and transgressive; we embrace customs given to us rather than lifestyles chosen by us.
Of course, we should not make a test of faith out of a Christmas tradition or fall into the temptation of imagining that there is one “proper” traditional way to celebrate Christmas, and every innovation is heresy. Traditions are living, growing things with a remarkable ability to assimilate one another. Much of what we take for granted as ancient Christmas traditions are comparatively new—and startlingly multicultural in their origins.
Christmas trees may date from 16th-century Germany, but advent wreaths appeared three centuries later (also in Germany). The phrase “Merry Christmas” was not popularized until Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a book that profoundly shaped our present-day ideas of celebrating Christmas. Our modern Santa Claus is a composite of the Dutch Sinterklaas and the English Father Christmas. And the annual holiday ritual of watching It’s a Wonderful Life is, of course, of very recent vintage indeed.
Nor is there one traditional calendar for the timing of Christmas celebrations. Whereas more liturgical Christian communities have long celebrated the “twelve days of Christmas” beginning on Christmas Day and continuing to Jan. 5, the intrusion of Christmas festivities into mid-November is nothing new; the Dutch Sinterklaas season traditionally began on Nov. 11.
And while some may pietistically tut-tut about the intrusion of secular rituals into a season that is supposed to be strictly theological in its focus, Christmas celebrations over the centuries have always blended religious and secular elements. Certainly, we should seek to put the worship of the newborn King at the center of all our holiday festivities, remembering the Gift above all gifts that came on Christmas Day—but we need not turn up our noses at Santa sleigh rides or Nat King Cole songs in the lead up to Christmas.
Although so much of modern-day American Christmas seems to be more kitsch than culture, we should not lose sight of the importance of even relatively frivolous rituals in anchoring rootless moderns to something larger than ourselves. The nostalgia generated by a funky family holiday tradition, a Christmas tune on the radio, or even a cup of peppermint hot chocolate may seem cheap and sentimental. Still, it reminds us that we were made to live in history.
In a world where nearly every message from advertisers and educators calls us to embark on a journey of self-discovery and break free of the shackles of the past, even the corniest Christmas traditions have the potential to remind us of our dependence on those who came before. And that is something worth celebrating.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.