What Makes Christmas Work?

by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

This topic is potentially so sentimental it may turn even me off.  Still, once reared in Christian culture, if you can’t be a little sentimental about Christmas, when can you? Just be prepared.  The sentiment may not be entirely soft and jolly because for lots of people, it just isn’t.

What I’ve been pondering is what does or doesn’t touch the heart about Christmas that makes it work for a person, or not work at all?

Irrelevant Christmas

First, give a thought for that multitude of people for whom the holiday has always been a bust.  Non-Christians raised outside the celebrating population have variations of ‘outsider’ experiences and in a multicultural city, that’s a lot of people finding other ways to pass the day (movies, travelling south, putting on skis or tying one on).   The sting of not being in the Christmas gang is mitigated, I have to think, by having other festivals that are just as important in one’s own community in the days or weeks around Christmastime.  The equinox, the passing of the darkest days, was part of all human experience and celebrated in all kinds of ways.

It’s perhaps best not to be too hard on Christmas, seen as a festival for part of the population – to be enjoyed if we can.

Negative Christmas

More uncomfortable to contemplate are those for whom Christmas has been soured when it was supposed to be the best time of the eyar.  There are so many people for whom Christmas is painful and distressing.  Parents hung over and angry, fighting full out, gifts sold for drugs leaving an empty tree, except there isn’t a tree, a parent breaking a gift made by child – truly the worst experiences of the year, on the day that others are trumpeting Joy and Peace fulfilled.  Not having any money for gifts and special food is another kind of misery [though O Henry, in Gift of the Magi, captures the desperation and utter love of two who have little to give but still give their all].   Once Christmas stirs vestiges of emotional trauma, it’s death to the circuits that could register happy times.

This is all too real in the heart of Toronto’s downtown and right into the regions.  I believe that praying -and thinking-people include knowledge of these realities in their prayers and thoughts among their families at this time, not taking their own happiness for granted.

Christmas Spirit

The continuum of those who can keep a good Christmas (using Dickens’s term) include people embracing the whole array of traditional ritual and decoration to those who have gone minimalist and keep it all as simple as possible. There’s no formula for a good Christmas and many variations in the particulars of what sparks Christmas Spirit,  but I’ll offer my  list of core Christmas goodnesses.

My Own Good Luck, Christmas-wise

My mother, by the way, was the jolliest of elves in her capacity to create a wonderful Christmas for her children.  Christmas Eve she came home from a full day of work and put the home-made sausage rolls into the oven before setting out the fruit cake and pastries for the neighbours and ourselves.  Around 7:30 we settled down to listen to The Christmas Carol on records my father had brought back from the war.  No talking allowed.  Only the tree lights remained on, and in the darkness we thrilled to the dramatization of the story.  Half way through when the four records had to be flipped, my mother refilled drinks, got out more sausage rolls, and off we went for another rapt half hour.   Talk about setting a mood.  The next day opened around the tree where Santa left a modest number of gifts (Nancy Drew for my sister, Bobbsy Twins for me, and maybe skates or some games).  The dinner might include someone who had nowhere else to be and with candlelight and carving the bird, we were delighted to be having another act to the Christmas drama, among people we loved.  The firing up of the plum pudding actually happened, with brandy set alight.

So that was the parade of beloved tradition.

What The Core of Christmas Seems to Require

But while I can’t mount the same array, being joined to another family for 34 years where things are kept more simple, the constants are there.  Here’s the core stuff:  taking pleasure in being together, tribute to the love of light in these darkest days (candles, sparkle, glowing corners), moments where we delight in the coziness of our gathering, some music.  Perhaps most of all is the presence of people, particularly the children, who are overflowing with love.  We catch the scent and touch of it and feel enriched.  It may not even happen on Christmas Eve or Day itself but if we’re lucky, at some point in the season, we’re touched by love and we feel it.

I hope that for each of you.

Wait a Minute!!

Hey!  What about the Reason for the Season??  How can one possibly have a seriously good Christmas without at one point putting Christ smack into the centre??

Yes, that is my own first and last core point.  It really makes a difference, the more time I’ve spent in quietly entering the whole mystery of the incarnation of the Great Spirit, come to bring love alive.

But I know that some of the most loving and Christmassy people – not speaking of the most garlanded or producers of the biggest pile of home-made splendiferousness, but of those who spread love around them generously and humbly — do not profess close acquaintance with the one many of us call Lord.  Hence I think that if we carry that One, that Spirit, with us all through the season, that’s our calling and we can hold it close while letting it out in peace, over and over.




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4 responses to “What Makes Christmas Work?

  1. My mother knew how to keep Christmas. My father knew how to ‘do’ a tree.
    We did this (in the early days) together. With popcorn and fudge. It was magical, although I did not know it then but only later when it was all gone.
    I have just gone back to work at the ballet. I was a bit late and as I came in the stage door I heard the opening bars of the Nutcracker..HOME, I sighed.
    I don’t know how Christmas will be for me. Many have been very rough. But this year I have this.
    I sent my gifts, I paid my bills, I have cash in my pocket and some money in the bank. I have a bottle of white and a capon. I have desert and a surprise gift….which hasn’t get come…. (course that could be the surprise). I am going to look out my window Christmas day and be grateful.
    I will work the matinee to fill my heart and soul (yes, to me it goes to the soul) with Nutcracker. The kicking horse, the fighting children, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince, yes even the Mouse King will lift my spirits as I see little girls in sparkling shoes and dresses. Little boys who look so ‘scrubbed’.
    Last year as I was standing at the boutique and selling a sparkling ornament to a shinning eyed child with her happy faced mother, I glanced over her shoulder and looked out the window and saw a Dickensian sight. It was a person lying on the heat grate in front of the hotel across the street. The uniform colour of clothing and bedding told me this was an ‘old-timer’. He or she was just keeping warm. I stood in awe of what I saw. Unusual to me, I made no judgement, only an observation of contrasts.
    Do we really ever know if someone else, Christian or non, comfortable or less so, know how to ‘keep Christmas’?
    If I don’t then I pray that I will. And if I do, I hope that I see it in time.
    Merry Christmas, however you chose to keep it.

  2. Juanita Rathbun

    What a wonderful look at all aspects of Christmas. You have encapsulated the essence of all these various perceptions of the meaning of Christmas. The truth is that the birth of a baby over 2000 years ago signalled the arrival of the ideas of universal love for all people. The continuing Spirit speaks of inclusiveness, justice, peace, forgiveness – and once again LOVE. I am glad that I have been raised in the Christian tradition as here in Canada we are governed by laws which are based on the Judaeo Christian values and traditions. Have a Merry and Happy Christmas season.

  3. elizabethsherk

    Yes, Rosemary Snelgrove, a wonderful pulling together of many aspects of this yearly season. I am going to forward it to a few people who may be interested in how you have reflected on it. thank you, Elizabeth.

  4. Kay

    I have just watched Miracle on 34th. Street, a favourite of mine. Wonderful! Kris Kringle says Christmas is about feelings. Christmas is not about things, however buying those things provides so many jobs and that is a good thing For me it is about joy, for Christians it is, or should be, about the birth of Jesus, about his parents Mary and Joseph. For others it is still about joy and peace and sharing. Remember it isn’t only christians who support community care, food banks, toy drives, the Salvation Army and all those wonderful initiatives that bring something tangible to all people who may not be as fortunate as me.
    My parents were non-believers but often we would have a young girl from a local group home through out the year for a day or weekends, and not just at Christmas.
    So please remember that people are in need year round not just in December.

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