It is Christmas Day, the 25th day of December. The Christmas season–or rather, this time of year– is rich with the presence of ritual and ceremony in the lives of many, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, where we have just passed the Winter Solstice, the “darkest day of the year.” So many cultures and religions celebrate various festivals around the “rebirth of light” or something of that variety that every year, the dominant Christian tradition in the West is accused of stealing or appropriating the holiday, usually from the pagans.
How trite. How this misses the both the internal yearning for knowledge and the urge to join in community that lies at the heart of these practices.
Our religious and cultural practices have evolved over the years as a way of explaining both the things much larger than us and the importance of those things that are closest to us, both as individuals and as a society. Those questions and desires to pull together do not really change even if the focus of devotion or worship changes over the years. Nor do they simply vanish because a particular religion or spirituality tells us that we must look at things in a particular way. It is far more common for practices to be recast in the light of changing belief or revelation.
This time of year is particularly difficult for people who have become separated, for whatever reason, from their family or community of birth, or whose early or formative years were difficult. Nostalgia is king in December, and North American society dictates to us what this season should look like: children eagerly awaiting Santa, beautiful song and music, Christmas pageants and other reminders to “keep the Christ in Christmas”, snow on the ground, the smell of holiday baking, glittering holiday gatherings, the warmth of family gathered around a communal, home-cooked meal–a family that puts aside any dysfunction and wraps each other in love. Those who are not Christian (or at least observers of Christmas) are expected to simply substitute their holiday of choice into this template, perhaps with a few tweaks, but not truly substantial ones. The worst part of it is that there is a tremendous societal pressure to conform to this template. Anything different, many are made to feel, “isn’t really Christmas.” Not to mention one’s own memories, whether they be good or less so, often set up an expectation of how Christmas should be, or shouldn’t be.
I am a student and aficionado of ceremony (and ritual, although ritual tends to imply a rote performance, done without thought.). And it will not surprise you at all that I have my own ceremonies and rituals for the season. It has taken many years for me to realize that these practices are not less-than.
It’s Christmas morning, and I woke up this morning remembering wistfully the mornings of my childhood–particularly that smell of turkey roasting in the oven. We would have attended Christmas Eve services the night before; in some years we would have set out Christmas luminaria that lined the streets in our neighbourhood. The morning brought the opening of gifts, followed by a Christmas meal with at least one of my aunts (and sometimes an uncle or two) and her family, where we would get out the good china and the special napkin rings. After the meal, games of Scrabble. It was in many ways an absolutely typical Middle American Christmas. It’s also not one I have experienced in close to thirty years. Once I moved to Canada, marrying shortly thereafter, that ritual in that form became a memory–and one I would give almost anything to experience again. Of course, that is impossible. But the fact that I cannot means that the door is open to make my own rituals and traditions, while honouring those special memories of the past.
Last evening, my husband and I followed these traditions–or at least tried to. Swiss Chalet was out of Festive Specials. That could have “ruined” it, but we instead went to Whole Foods and came home with all kinds of interesting things for the evening’s meal and for today’s. We watched A Christmas Story and the Alistair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. I ate cocktail shrimp and chocolate. In between the two movies, we gave the cats catnip and watched the antics. This has become our modern Christmas eve liturgy. Interestingly enough, there are no gifts to open. We have ceased having wrapped gifts for each other under the tree for Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, although there are certainly gifts there for others.
And there are new rituals. What else to make of the monthlong effort to not hear certain Christmas songs? The Little Drummer Boy was the first one, and last year was the first that I participated in Whamageddon- the attempt to get through December without hearing “Last Christmas” by Wham!. The month was filled with Facebook status updates of who had been sent to Whamhalla and who was still alive. Yes, this was a silly game–and no, there wasn’t much meaning to it–but it brought together friends, near and far, all participating in the same activity, having fun. It created community.
I move in circles where chosen family can be just as important, if not more important, than biological family. For me, it’s because I am an only child who has had no children; both my parents are deceased and the family I once shared holidays with has long since dispersed. When I look to the future, I can see that if I want to continue make the holidays special, I must reach out to others around me, share hospitality, and create holiday memories that are based on the love of friends. I must also, as I always have, know that my individual rituals and traditions–those I celebrate in solitude–are just as real as those I celebrate with friends–and of equal importance (if not greater). Cultivating your own soul, your own experience of the universe around you, your own inner life is what, I believe, makes you best able to engage with the world, to make a difference. Ever I will seek that balance.
For those of you who, on this day, find yourself yearning to take a walk alone in the crisp winter air, to drive around looking at holiday lights, to read a book, or to spend time in headphones lost in music, know that these, too, can be holiday rituals with just as much validity as the community meal. Stop, think, breathe, listen, dream, know. The ceremony of life continues, and the script rests with you.
These words were written because it is Tuesday, and on Tuesdays I listen to the Shostakovich 4th Symphony and ponder life–normally at night, on the way home on the GO train, after I discovered that this particular work is almost precisely the length of that train trip. I attempted to put the music on in the background while I was sewing this morning and it just didn’t work–I had to stop and write. This is a ritual of mine of relatively recent vintage; who knows if it will persist, but it has certainly been of great use and inspiration to me over the past few months.