Christmas is inescapable.
For many, it is a joyful time, because of its festive trappings or its religious significance. For others, it is a time of increased loneliness. For me, it is a time of gratingly annoying songs about Santa, Rudolf, Frosty, sleigh rides, and coming home to roast chestnuts. But whatever our reaction, we can count on the holiday, year after year, ritually observed.
And that, to me, is the problem—Christmas is a ritual. A ritual is a repeated set of activities performed in a set way. For many Americans, the Christmas ritual includes getting a tree, decorating it with shiny baubles, and placing gifts beneath it… watching “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or some other favorite… having a traditional holiday dinner… opening the gifts, and mentally sorting out the ones you like from the ones at which you must politely smile and nod… then taking down the ornaments and tossing out the tree. Repeat annually. The tree is the only living thing in the ritual, and that gets harvested, shamed with silly ornaments, and then abandoned to wither and die.
The Christmas ritual is performed out of tradition. A very different type of ritual is compulsive behavior, such as constant handwashing or arranging little objects in geometric arrays. Yet both types of ritual are alike in the sense that they are not performed for any rational reason. Habit and compulsion are, by definition, mindless.
“No!” the Christmas celebrants say. “We are honoring Christ’s birth.” Or “We love getting together with family and friends for the holiday.” Fine. But there is no historical or scriptural basis for assigning December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth (even the exact year of his birth is uncertain); and getting together with family and friends can certainly be more frequent than once a year. Whatever the impetus to celebrate, the annual ritual of decorated trees and annoying cloying songs is a mindless irrelevance.
I place no special value on Christmas or any other holiday, religious or otherwise (yes, I know—holiday means holy day). I don’t want to stop people from doing what gives them pleasure; I just think greater satisfaction can be found in mindful observance of what is important as a constant focus than in ritualistic annual holidays.
So on this day, as on every day, I offer my sincere wish that you will be happy in whatever you happen to be celebrating: faith, family, friendship… or everything… or nothing more than the moment-by-moment opportunity we all have for spiritual aliveness.