We had a inviolable Chirstmas tradition in the Steen household when I was a kid. It’s likely familiar to you: My brothers and I hand-made red and green Christmas rings, linked them together, and attached them to a star. There were 24 of these rings, one for every day of December leading up to Christmas; the star represented Christmas Day.
This wasn’t a terribly attractive holiday decoration, mind you. The rings were crookedly cut by children with questionable dexterity, stapled together, and taped to a cardboard pentagram that was somewhat star-like.
Still, I remember it fondly. It hung from a prominent doorframe, reminding us to rip off a ring every morning before school. As we did, Bing Crosby crooned the Christmas classics in the background and lights twinkled on the Christmas tree.
It marked my favorite time of year.
Not surprisingly, I suppose, the Christmas ring tradition was mixed in with more overtly religious rituals: lighting candles on an Advent wreath; setting out our crèche set with the full complement of sheep, shepherds, and angels; volunteering for church festivities and services. It was a package deal — not wholly secular, not wholly religious, not wholly personal, but a blend of all three. And whatever that magic formula was, it made me happy.
Fast-forward to my adult years. The religious piece of Christmas has faded. I’m not on the outs with God, mind you; I just struggle to find a faith community to celebrate with, one that isn’t crammed into a box of archaic rules and blind theology. My mind and heart have embraced elements of many traditions: I’m moved by the stories of struggle and resilience that ground the Jewish faith; I’m stirred by the awe inherent in Catholic liturgies; I’m empowered by the freedoms of Lutheranism; and my love of openness and acceptance is fired by Eastern traditions still quite new to me.
How do I keep the secular, religious, and personal dynamic I experienced as a child with this spiritual wrench in the works?
I don’t. Or at least, I haven’t. As I put up my Christmas tree this morning (Bing serenading me in the background), it felt somehow empty. Is that because I did it alone, without family around me? Is it because I wasn’t adding to that tradition with an Advent wreath and church services and a manager? Or is genuinely because I feel somehow distant from and disloyal to the religious traditions I observed as a child? Christmas is, at its root, a celebration of Christ’s birth. If I feel only tenuously connected to Christianity, what does that do to my celebration of Christmas?
To be fair: I fully understand that many celebrate Christmas without being Christian. I don’t need to swing the pendulum to secular and commercial observation of the holiday — I can (and will) embrace love, kindness, community, friends, and family. I will celebrate goodness and mercy and forbearance and all of the other virtues extolled by the nagging apparitions in “A Christmas Carol.”
Though if these are largely the virtues that guide my life throughout the year, what makes Christmas different? How can I make it special again?