Thursday, December 08, 2005

Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays

There is an awful lot of rhetoric, hatred and anger flying around these days about the word Christmas. Every time I turn around someone is complaining about the use of the word Christmas. Christmas Trees are becoming Holiday Trees. Merry Christmas is being changed to Happy Holidays. Christmas itself seems to be changing into a Winter Festival. Some retail stores are telling employees not to wish people Merry Christmas because they might offend someone. Many people are taking offense when they are wished something other than Merry Christmas. Fundamentalist bible-thumping Christians are demanding that Christmas should be about the birth of Jesus and nothing else. Atheists are insisting that all religious connotations should be eliminated from their winter holiday. Then there are the rest of us, who are fed up with everyone else trying to tell us what to say, what to think, and how to celebrate Christmas.

So here's my soapbox speech about Christmas.


My family's Christmas traditions are not going to change not matter how much you yell, scream, protest, or legislate. Our Christmas traditions are just that - traditions. At the risk of sounding like Tevye the Milkman, Christmas is about traditions. Our traditions are a combination of the practices and beliefs that have been influenced by generations of parents trying to make Christmas special for their loved ones.

Our family Christmas starts on Thanksgiving night. After the food is eaten, the pie devoured, the guests departed and the dishes done then Thanksgiving is declared over and Christmas begins. Our Christmas traditions do not begin with a song, or a verse, or lights, or prayer. It begins when I haul all the Christmas decorations down out of the attic. Our Christmas holiday ends on Martin Luther King weekend, when all the decorations go back into the attic. For us, Christmas lasts around 8 weeks, give or take a day or so.

During Christmas we decorate our house, inside and out, with Nativity scenes, candles, Christmas trees, wreaths, holly, mistletoe, Santa Clauses, Father Christmases, St. Nicks, Angels, Wise men, babies, shepherds, bells, garland, snowmen and elves.

We decorate a pine tree to honor our German and Lutheran heritage. Legend has it that the Germans were the first ones to decorate pine trees for Christmas and Martin Luther was the first one to put lights (candles) on his tree. We also decorate a Christmas tree because that is what our parents and grandparents taught us to do. It is a tradition. We do not put a star on the top of our Christmas tree. We put an angel up there. Why? I have no idea, other than that is what my grandmother taught my mother to do.

I bake Krumkake and Rosettes to honor my Norwegian Heritage, and because we all like eating and sharing them. We also bake sugar cookies, ginger snaps and chocolate chip cookies. We make divinity, fudge, hard candy and lots of other treats because that is what our Cajun/Norwegian/Hillbilly/Irish/French/German grandparents and parents taught us to do.

We mail Christmas cards to dozens of people. Some of whom we haven't spoken to for years. It is our tradition. Exchanging cards with people who we haven't seen in years is our way of not losing touch with old friends and family who we just don't get to see as often as we would like to.

We open presents from family and friends on Christmas Eve because in old Norway gifts were exchanged on Christmas Eve. But mostly we do it because that is the way we learned to do it as children. It is our family tradition

We go to midnight church on Christmas Eve. It is a tradition. The most vivid memories I have of Christmas as a child are sitting in church at midnight on Christmas Eve, holding my candle and singing Silent Night. I want my children to have those same experiences, and I hope they leave such lasting memories.

On Christmas morning we get up to find that Santa Claus has visited our house during the night. The cookies and milk have been consumed, our stockings that were hung by the fireplace are filled with goodies and there is a gift from him for each of us under the Christmas tree. It has always happened this way, and as long as we are all good this year I'm confident it will keep happening.

We spend Christmas day with family and friends. It doesn't matter if they come to our house or we go to theirs. It is an Old Norwegian tradition to go visiting on Christmas Day. It is also a tradition in most cultures to feed those who come to your house to visit. So our friends and family come to our house for dinner or we go to theirs. The key is that we have Christmas dinner together, somewhere.

All too often our Christmas Holiday becomes a hectic, frantic time. We have so much we want to do, and often so little time to do it. We could simplify our lives by simplifying Christmas. But that wouldn't be keeping our Christmas traditions.

If we were to allow religion to be taken out of our Christmas then what would we have left? We would lose the entire holiday season. Even the word holiday is a derivation of the words “Holy Days”. Santa Claus got his start as Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. Whether or not it is Christianity or a pagan winter solstice celebration, faith and religion have always been an important part of winter celebrations.

Almost as unthinkable to my family as removing religion from Christmas would be trying to eliminate the commercial parts of Christmas. Christmas without Santa Claus, reindeer, sweets, cookies, shopping, gifts and all the fun commercial stuff would be just one more church holiday with maybe a special sermon, a play by the children, some carols from the choir and a special dinner with your family. While that would be OK, it surely wouldn’t be as much fun.

I just don't understand the vocal minority who insist on trying to take Christ out of Christmas, or the fundamentalists who try to decommercialize Christmas. The Christmas Holiday has spent 1600 years blending both spiritual and commercial traditions to become the holiday we celebrate today. Yet each family celebrates in their own slightly different way. That is how it should be. We should all celebrate Christmas in our own way and not try to make everyone else conform to our own beliefs.

If you are one of those radical extremists from either side of the spectrum who hate what Christmas had grown into, I feel sorry for you. Your parents and grandparents obviously did a really lousy job of teaching you that whatever you are celebrating at this time of the year, it isn't about you. It's about your faith, your family, your friends and your traditions.

So don’t try and change my Christmas tree into a holiday tree. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t believe in Santa Claus. Don’t try and take away our heritage based Christmas traditions. My family has spent generations working the kinks out of these traditions. We make small changes each year, but for the most part, we like our Christmas holiday just the way it is. If you don’t like yours then change it. But don’t try and force the rest of us to change with you.

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