Before I get into it, it’s important that you understand something. I was raised Catholic, but never really understood the concept of “God.” It didn’t make sense to me. When it came to Christmas, midnight mass felt like a three-hour marathon of droning prayers and psalms, and the smell of incense made my head hurt. If Christmas was such a celebration of the birth of Christ, why was everyone so sullen? Beyond that, I had trouble accepting the idea of one all-powerful supernatural being creating life as we know it. Even at a young age this concept contradicted common sense. I didn’t get it. I didn’t want to get it. Praying did nothing but make me feel like a crazy person. I wanted to be done with CCD (which is like Sunday School during the week), finish my eight-year obligation, get Confirmed, and never worry about it all again. Which is exactly what I did, and I never gave religion another moment of my time.
But, I loved Christmas. Sure, as a kid it was about presents. I was a kid, and I liked stuff. But, as I got older, the thrill of receiving gifts faded, while things about the season and that specific day remained. I still love Christmas music – specifically Nat King Cole, Burl Ives, Bing Crosby, and Vince Guaraldi’s ‘Peanuts Christmas’ soundtrack. I love the smell of Christmas. I love cookies. I love eggnog. I love the smell of a Douglas Fir or Blue Spruce. I love wrapping gifts – some poorly, some well. When I think of my sister waking me at 4am Christmas morning, the frittata my mom would make for breakfast, the Christmas-themed Looney Toons figures I used to decorate the mantle, driving through the neighborhood to see the other decorated houses, dinner at my grandmother’s house, and even the scent of that Catholic incense, I am filled with a sense of nostalgia that other days in the year fall short of producing. And over the years, the thrill of getting StarWars toys turned into the thrill of giving, and performing small kindnesses. There is something about the aesthetic of the season, the lights and music – and, ironically, the cold – that makes the season feel warmer. Regardless of the holiday’s origins, that’s what the holiday became to me, and that’s what it remains for me today.
But, religious controversy concerning the holidays is unavoidable. When I was in my early 20s a debate began at work about “What Christmas is all about.” Most people were upset that people had taken the “Christ” out of “Christmas.” I listened for a while before saying, in a quick pent-up rant, “Christmas is about giving presents, and little kids, and egg nog, and being with your friends and family.” A older man who worked there turned to me and said, “Wrong.” He was a kind man, very patient, and very religious (he read the bible on his lunch break). The manner in which he said “wrong” was quick and definitive, so I let it go. What could I have possibly said? I conceded because I didn’t want to disrespect an older man who was set in his ways. It didn't change my feelings on the matter any. To each his own.
So, let’s go back a few years before that. I worked at a 5&10 in Ocean City and had to dress up as Santa. I wasn’t really into it. Mostly because I had to wear blush on my cheeks and nose, and I was feeling a little bitter about my own life. The costume wasn’t all that convincing, and neither was my act (my ‘Ho Ho Ho’ was somewhat lackluster). Not long into the gig a little girl rounded the corner, saw me, and stopped in her tracks. She must have only been 4 or 5 years old. Her eyes went wide and she covered up her mouth letting out a shriek of delight that only a child of that age can produce. She was either not expecting to see Santa, or had never seen Santa. Her name was Matty and she leaped up onto my lap like a puppy dog. Suddenly, my 'Ho Ho Ho' came to life. My gestures and manner became sweeping and grandiose. I hammed it up. I became Santa Claus. I forgot about the things in my own life that were upsetting me. Here was this little girl filled with complete awe, seeing through the surface of a half-assed costume, because she saw what she wanted to see. For that moment in that little girl's life I was Santa Claus. It filled me with a sense responsibility to go outside my bitterness and fulfill the imagination of a child. If you’re ever lucky enough to dress up as Santa and come across a child like Matty you’ll forget all about all the bullshit people get caught up in – the bitterness, the religion, the consumerism – and you’ll see what Christmas means to me.
The point is: we all see what we want to see in Christmas. You may be religious, or you may not be. The holiday has been celebrated long enough that it means something different to everyone. Saying “Happy Holidays” in lieu of “Merry Christmas” is an entirely valid expression of good will and cheer. If you want to believe that it isn’t, that the holiday can only be about one thing and that anything else is a scathing gesture towards your personal ethos, that’s fine. But, lighten up. It’s Christmas for fuck’s sake. Have an eggnog.