I’m 8 years old. It’s two days before Christmas and I’m sneaking down the basement stairs, careful to superstitiously avoid the third step from the bottom with the crack in it…
No one knows I’m here. And I’m being as quiet as a mouse.
My heart is pounding and the adrenaline is making me extra brave today.
My fears of the furnace room with its dark corners and the menacing oil burning beast can’t compare to my curiosity or my desire to find hidden Christmas presents!
I enter the forbidden room. My breath held tight in my chest. And YES! There amongst piles of dusty cardboard boxes of old dishes, clothes and magazine clippings is the treasure I have sought!
The hidden Christmas presents for this year are peeking out in their glorious red, gold and green covered papers!
Jubilation! Excitement! Magic….until…I look at one of the gift tags.
And there it is…impossibly…undeniably…heartbreakingly…the four words that to this day, still make me feel sad,
“To Susan, Love Santa.”
Every Christmas since that year when I first discovered that Santa wasn’t real, I have struggled to regain that magical Christmassy feeling.
The problem is…it’s really hard to find the true spirit of the season when you don’t attend church, when Santa is no longer real, and our ever over-commercialistic society bombards us with the pressure to buy, buy, buy!
However, I think I’ve finally got it figured out.
In the last few years since my son was born, I’ve begun to get my Christmas mojo back.
Although it might not be that same magical, excited feeling I had as a kid, it’s still a warm and fuzzy and grateful Christmassy feeling.
Today, I’d like to share what I’ve realized that has brought back the magic of Christmas for me. And maybe, if you’re searching for it too – you just might find your way back to it as well!
What IS the true Christmas spirit?
I guess it was this question that started nagging at me the first Christmas after my son was born. Soon others followed…
As non-churchgoers, how was my son supposed to learn about the true meaning of Christmas?
Should we even be telling him about Santa Claus instead of Jesus?
Does Santa Claus even have a place in celebrating Christmas?
And when exactly did it happen that Christmas became more about Santa Claus and Rudolph and getting presents, then it did about celebrating the birth of Jesus?
And then came an even tougher question…
Is it even RIGHT for my family to celebrate Christmas if we don’t go to church?
But wait…Before you decry me as a hypocrite, let me first tell you about my religious upbringing…or my lack of it…and then you can decide if I still have a right to celebrate Christmas!
A Failed Christian Upbringing
When I was a little girl, my mother took me and my siblings to church for a few years. She believed it was important for us to understand the tenets of Christianity from a young age.
My father, however, did not come with us. He saw organized religion as the cause of too much conflict in our world, and often described examples of how religion (taken to its extremes) could lead to bigotry.
As a teen, desperate to find answers to my existential questions, I attended church with a friend’s family.
And although I loved the feeling of belonging (and the Billy Graham concerts) … I also saw the dark side of organized religion when an open-minded sounding “information movie night” about other religions – turned into a religion-bashing fest full of propaganda.
There have been many other times when I wanted to attend church since, but had difficulty finding a place where I could openly talk about evolution, find equality between women and men, and…express nagging doubts.
Maybe my father was right all along about the pitfalls of organized religion.
And yet…I DO still believe.
I read my son stories from the bible and about Jesus, have talked to him about God and heaven since he was born, and yes…we celebrate Christmas.
Would you judge me as a hypocrite?
With low church attendance statistics across North America (studies show an estimated 22-37% of the American population attend weekly) – I know my family is not alone.
There is definitely more than a quarter of our population celebrating Christmas – without going to church, and maybe even without believing that Jesus was the son of God.
But are we just going through the motions, decorating Christmas trees, singing carols, and wrapping presents – as I was for many years – vainly searching to regain that magical feeling from childhood?
Or maybe even worse…because we have succumbed as a society to the pressures of the advertisement industry and just really want to shop and get presents?
I know that sounds harsh, but when I recently asked a group of my grade 2 students what they were most looking forward to this holiday, about 90% of them answered, “Presents!”
How can we really celebrate the true spirit of Christmas…and teach our kids about it?
How I Regained my TRUE Christmas Spirit
For me, the answer was to start questioning many of the typical cultural Christmas traditions.
Christmas Traditions Gone Astray…
Do we really have to visit Santa Claus at the mall and possibly encourage feelings of greed and selfishness – as this mind-blowing research shows?
And aren’t we actually lying to our kids when we’re talking about Santa Claus like he is a real person? Especially if we’re going so far as to create fake footprints, letters from Santa, and leaving half-eaten cookies?
Aren’t our kids going to feel tricked, let-down and possibly resentful when they eventually find out the truth?
I know I did.
Won’t that affect their connectedness and trust in us?
Doesn’t that damage the parental-child bond?
Don’t we want to establish a trust within our family that is not shaken down the road by a shattered belief in a story that was perhaps innocently told to entertain?
(This excellent article in The Washington Post helped me get some perspective on this question at least…)
And what about more recent trends like the Elf on the Shelf...
Is it truly caring to give our kids the impression that they are being watched and judged all the time?
Is it fair to threaten them with the withdrawal of gifts on Christmas because they have made poor choices?
Or even to bribe their good behaviour with promises of gifts?
Doesn’t that totally go against what positive parents are trying to do with their kids – teach and guide, instead of control?
As you can see, I started to really struggle with some of these questions.
Have any of these questions crossed your mind too?
How I Changed My Focus
In order to NOT feel like a hypocrite in celebrating Christmas, and in an attempt to avoid participating in cultural traditions which have been molded primarily by companies wanting to sell products, I began to think about HOW we could justify celebrating Christmas without being religious.
And it finally dawned on me…Christmas doesn’t have to be about presents, or Santa, or even attending a Christmas church service.
It can be about celebrating and remembering the MESSAGE that an incredible peacemaker, Jesus of Nazareth, brought to us over 2000 years ago.
And whether you, or I, believe that Jesus was the son of God or not, his amazingly powerful message is timeless and is TRULY what Christmas should be all about:
Unconditional love and kindness towards all.
Forgiveness of ourselves and others for imperfections.
Compassion for those in need.
Gratefulness for what we have.
An understanding of the connectedness of all the people on Earth.
Focusing on these tenets is what brought back that magical Chrismassy feeling for me.
Bringing the True Meaning of Christmas to My Family
And so for now…as I continue to wrestle with my own religious beliefs and contradictions…I will celebrate Jesus’ birth and his message with my family.
We will focus on being grateful, kind, accepting, and empathetic towards all others.
We will focus on kindness and love towards all over the holidays. And we will use this season as a reminder to look for opportunities to demonstrate it – especially towards those in need.
(By the way, I love Sybil Brun’s calendar of kindness for simple daily ideas on how to look beyond ourselves over the holidays. Also, Kids Activities Blog has a list of ideas for activities that kids can do to help spread kindness here.)
We will spend quality time together – and show as much caring and unconditional love as we can towards one another – because that kind of love creates a legacy that will last longer than any gift.
We will create our own traditions of love within our family to bring us closer during our celebrations.
Instead of focusing on receiving gifts (by emphasizing Santa Claus), we will focus on how we can best show our love to others through thoughtful and meaningful gifts or acts of service.
And lastly, instead of reading countless stories about Santa and his elves, we will fill our souls with stories about the power of helping others, being generous, and being a good neighbour and friend.
And that, for me, is the true spirit of Christmas and of love.
What is the true spirit of Christmas for YOU? Have you struggled with any of these questions for yourself or with your family?
I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below – they make my day!
P.S. Know someone who has lost their Christmas spirit? Why not forward them this link – or PIN the image below?
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Rondee Fuchs says
I appreciate your post. I am an over-active church member who also happens to be a follower of Christ. I know the two do not necessarily go together… I teach preschool in a secular environment and I often struggle with how to deal with Christmas. While it is something that the children are excited about, I must be careful not to interfere with the family cultures represented in my classroom and often they are at war with each other (the cultures, not the families :)). I cringe whenever a child tells me “If I’m good, Santa will bring me lots of toys” but I am not sure how to respond in a way that is truthful and yet honouring of the family. I was raised in a church-attending family and my parents always had fun with the idea of Santa but never told us he was real and our Christmas celebrations were always centered on the Ultimate Gift. This year we visited the Food Bank and talked about ways in which we could help those who were hungry. I felt it was a good “common ground” activity and all the families were excited about it. I plan to expand this somewhat next year.
Your post has given me some good ideas for navigating in the future.
“I believe that if you believe God is telling you to do something, you’d better do it. I also believe that doesn’t tell everyone to do the same thing!”