The Meaning of Christmas
Christmas celebrations as we know them have a long and varied history. And even today, Christmas is celebrated in many different ways around the world. For a taste of Christmas worldwide, have a look at the CBS photo essay about Christmas in several countries.
When I lived in Antigua, I learned that one tradition there on Christmas Eve is for people to hang out downtown until late at night, many doing last minute Christmas shopping. Throngs of people—mostly teenagers, I think—would line a few major streets. It reminded me of Carnival. In Guyana, the entire Christmas Season (and that’s what it was referred to as) meant it was time for masquerade bands. These groups of merrymaking bands wander neighborhoods, drawing crowds.
They feature stilt walkers, Mother Sally and a Mad Bull or Mad Cow. The Mad Bull or Cow is really two people costumed to look like a cow, with the person in front wearing a cow head mask, using the horns to butt people, and the other person serving as the back of the cow, kicking at their audience. I found them frightening as a child, and the heavy drums and flutes that accompanied them heightened my terror. Christmas in Guyana also meant “putting away the house” an expression meaning redecorating. New furniture (or at least spruced up furniture), new curtains, along with heavy cleaning are all essential at Christmastime. In fact, most people are awake past midnight decorating so that everything is fresh for the unveiling of their newly “put away” house on Christmas Day.
Special food and drinks like Pepperpot, Garlic Pork, sorrel, mauby and ginger beer are all enjoyed at this time. And as in many other countries, special decorations, Father Christmas and gift gifting are central to Christmas in Guyana.
But when I was in graduate school, I asked myself why I celebrate Christmas. At the time, I laid claim to no religion in particular, although I was not anti-religious. I attended no church and don’t recall praying on a regular basis. So, I wondered why celebrate Christmas? I had, and still have, wonderful memories of Christmas from my childhood. Apart from the special food and drink, spying the dollhouse that was to be a surprise for me is a treasured memory, as is saving to buy my parents gifts, and successfully hiding gifts for my Mum. I also remember having visitors and helping Mum to serve hors d’oeuvres on special trays. Having soda! And Nat King Cole’s voice. All of these are part of my Christmas memory book.
But fast forward to the days when I was in graduate school and had my own over-priced apartment in Los Angeles. Thinking about the reason for doing so, rather than simply doing it because I always had, why was I celebrating Christmas? The question for me hinged on with what other particularly Christian activities was I involved? Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the principal figure in Christianity. And so given that I was not involved with anything particularly Christian, I was trying to take part in Christmas merely to enjoy its goodies—food and fun. Since moving to the U.S., I had been spending hundreds of dollars on Christmas presents for lots of friends and relatives. Each year, there was a feeling of uncontrollable spending and gift exchanges. (Don’t misunderstand. I was living what seemed like a fairly decent life but that didn’t make me a practicing Christian; people of the major world religions and even those without are doing the same too.)
As a baby, I was baptized Christian and while I did not grow up attending church, I had become rather interested in the institution when I was about eight, and took up Sunday school in earnest. I don’t remember how long that interest lasted but in my late teens I became interested in religion and started going to church again. All of my church-going up to that point had been in Guyana and Antigua, but when I came to the U.S. for college I stopped going to church—that was yet another area of life to try to navigate in a new society, and I let it go.
I didn’t really know much about Christianity actually. So why was I celebrating Christmas? How much of my Christmas celebration was based on the purely consumer aspects of it? It’s clear why Christmas is beloved by retailers; they earn as much as three-quarters of their annual profit at this time! But why should I love it or celebrate it? And why do you celebrate Christmas, if you do?
What meaning is there in your celebrations, if any at this time of year? Is it important to you to know the origins of traditions? Does it matter if they are related in a traceable way to that which you are celebrating? Left to your own devices—can you imagine not having the advertising blitz that we see late in the year that direct us to the “must buy” gifts of the season—how might you and your family celebrate? Consumption has become a part of the Christmas ritual in North America. How much of the meaning of Christmas is tied to shared consumerism and the objects we consume?