Friday, 26 November 2010

The Meaning of Christmas

Probably the result of having a name like mine at a country claiming to be multicultural, I was recently asked to provide a paragraph on how I celebrate Christmas for an internal office publication at work. I delivered, recounting our yearly Christmas adventures while also implying there’s life beyond religion and while also taking a jibe at the mindless consumerism that relegated the whole Jesus thing to a faraway second place as far as holiday priorities are concerned.
Where my paragraph was short is on account of what Chrismass means to me. Growing up in Israel I spent the majority of my life with knowledge of Christmas limited to what American cinema provided me with, and there wasn’t much Christmas in personal favorites like Terminator 2. Obviously, it’s not like Christmas suddenly became the most important thing in my life once I moved to Australia (the way you would think given the behavior of many if not most of the people I have encountered since moving to Australia); given my very negative views on religion and on following tradition for tradition’s sake without paying it much thought, I am no fan of the Christian take on Christmas. I will admit, though, that some of the holiday’s pagan motifs (which were borrowed by Christianity) are nice.
With that said, it is important for me to add that I like Christmas. I like it a lot. But I don’t like it because of some elusive promise made by an imaginary zombie who rose from the dead; I like it for very earthly reasons. I will let the following song from Tim Minchin, White Wine in the Sun, explain what I consider the ideal Christmas experience to be like:

The above song has proving controversial lately: it was included in a charity CD for The Salvation Army, yet some of its lines upset some Christians who brought it into public attention. Attention the song deserves by virtue of it being a beautiful song by an incredibly talented artist rather than by upsetting the type of people that claim “Homosexual practice however, is, in the light of Scripture, clearly unacceptable” (as per The Salvation Army’s own publication here). In light of the feedback, Minchin (whom you can follow on Twitter here) has diverted proceeds from the song towards secular charities.
Regardless of the controversy, the more analytical and less poetic thing the song is trying to say is that Christmas is a time for people who love one another to be together, if not physically then at least in the mind. Christmas is unique in offering us the ability to achieve this closeness by virtue of the fact the majority of us are free from work/school or any other sort of external obligations that time of the year, free enough to be able to turn our attentions to the people we love more than we’re capable of doing the rest of the year. That is Christmas’ main value and that is the meaning is holds for me. It is also important to note that this meaning is entirely man made – the freedom to indulge ourselves during Christmas' obligation free time is the result of civil legislation allowing us to be free for a few days.
That last point concerning Christmas’ man made nature is important to stress about because so many people forget it. Too many people forget the true value of Christmas and instead focus on its religious rites or the shopping bonanza that comes with it. That, in my opinion, is the greatest tragedy that is Christmas.
I need not look far for evidence of this tragedy. I grew up not celebrating Christmas, but the Jewish calendar supplies several major holidays of its own, most notably the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year) bunch of holidays around September and the Pesach (Passover) holiday taking place roughly together with Easter. As a little child these holidays used to be the times when we met with the greater family, cousins and all, but as I grew older family disputes moved us apart and holiday celebrations became less of an event due to the smaller number of people involved. Despite the reduced number of participants my family still insists on doing the prayers and the religious ceremonies, regardless of not one of them actually believing or adhering to them in the first place. Given the rather tedious and repetitive nature of Jewish religious celebrations the end result is a rather boring affair; no wonder family members are not trying hard to take part.
Holidays are not the only time when my family seems to cling to rituals because they seem afraid of other, more involving options. Yearly memorial services for dead relatives are usually nothing more than a collection of people showing up, reading from a prayer book that no one understands for half an hour to an hour, eating something and then going their separate ways. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone, dead or alive, to sit together and browse family photos, or – for that matter – do some joint activity that is linked to the dead person? When questioned about their preferences the reaction is almost unanimous: unexplained anger (I was close to being punched over this) coupled with statements along the lines of “this is what people do”. How incredibly constructive of them.
Sadly, most people seem to lack the imagination required for making the most out of a holiday; I cannot claim self immunity there either. Yet as it is, I have grown fond of the Christmas holiday and I am definitely looking forward to my upcoming break. Whether it’s merry Christmas or merry kiss-my-ass, I hope you’ll have a good time, too!


Sarah said...

Interesting what you say about the way your dead relatives are remembered. On my brother's birthday I always have a "Beer for Ben" as that is what he would have been doing and for Mum we get Chinese from the local restaurant where we would have gone if she was still here. These things have been good to keep a connection and is a pleasurable thing to do where we can reminisce about good stories and memories not just about the sadness of their passing.

Christmas has never been the same since their death. Christmas was never about religion for me it was about spending time with family and the excitement about the surprises in the presents (consumerism = bad I know but as a kid it was very exciting!). Christmas is a time I would rather forget now as there is such a big hole in it now they aren't here. I just hope as the kids get bigger I find the fun again.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Thanks for the touching input (and the show of support).
My memorial services are similar to yours, although I don't celebrate them on any particular dates - just when I feel like it. Watching The Empire Strikes Back, the first of many films my uncle took me to see (and the first proper cinema memory I hold), is the best example I can find.

Just a comment on consumerism: Don't get me wrong, I consume big time. I've gone crazy buying things over the Internet lately.
But... When I buy something, I fully intend to use it. I don't buy people gifts just for the sake of buying them and leave them in a position where they can't even sell the stuff on eBay. I also do not turn a certain date on the calendar into an accounting exercise in gifts, and the gifts are certainly not the center of my existence prior to that date.
I guess I'm a very hard person to buy gifts to (only two people I know have a good record there), but that's fine; want to buy me a gift but don't know what to get me? Give some money to Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders (i.e., a secular charity).