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Finding new meaning in Christmas

By Christina H ~

At this time of year I listen to Tim Minchin’s ‘White Wine in the Sun’ over and over again. It’s on my Christmas playlist twice.

"I really like Christmas
It’s sentimental I know
But I just really like it."

Because I do. Almost in spite of myself. When I realised four years ago that I was no longer a Christian, an atheist even, I had to reorganise so many of my attitudes about life. There were so many questions to answer: What can I tell people about why I stopped attending church? Is it possible to avoid aggrieving the people I love? How do I make my parents understand that this is not a decision motivated by booze and sex? I worked through my questions, slowly, and then suddenly Christmas was upon me.

I hadn’t anticipated it, but this was one of the Hard Things to Deal With. Christmas had always been one of my favourite times of year, so deeply invested in meaning, but now all of that meaning had been ripped away from me. This favourite holiday was suddenly painful. In the past I had loved decorating and playing Christmas carols, but now the Christmas carols taunted me with a baby Messiah I couldn’t believe in and a promise of peace that rang hollow.

Throughout the month of December, not a day went by without me facing the impossible question: what is Christmas supposed to mean now? And then Christmas came. And I still really liked it.

"I’m looking forward to Christmas
Though I’m not expecting a visit from Jesus."

This year, I think I have finally put my finger on what it is that I still love about Christmas. I mean, there is obvious appeal in getting together with the people you love and in cheerful music and in pretty decorations in cosy colours and in delicious food, but none of that is what has invested my post-Christian Christmases with meaning. There is pretty much near-universal appeal in messages of peace and stories in which a hero is destined to make the world right but I don’t really believe in those things, so they aren’t invested in meaning for me either.

Here is what makes Christmas meaningful for me:

The exchange of gifts.

I know. It sounds so capitalist, so buying-right-in-to-commercialisation, so contrary to the ONE thing people of all creeds and none can get together on when it comes to Christmas: the commercial aspect of it is excessive and far too many people spend far too much money on junk at Christmastime. But hear me out.

As I clicked through to the fifth article I read this week about the evils of gift-giving traditions, something in me went ‘Screw you.’ Screw you and your advice to agree not to exchange gifts with family, or to Spend Quality Time as my gift to them, or to make the same cookies for everyone to save money and to spare me the Stress of Buying the Wrong Thing.

I really like buying gifts for my family and receiving them in return, and you can stop being all Holier Than Thou because you consider yourself Above gift-giving traditions.

Sure, gift giving isn’t for everyone but it is for *us*. For many people t is an unnecessary stressful obligation, but gift giving is part of how my family does relationships. When people complain about the evils of gift-giving traditions, I can’t help thinking they’re doing it wrong. It’s like buying spam and some tinned cranberry sauce for Christmas dinner and complaining about how unsatisfying the Christmas-dinner tradition is. If you don’t care to go to the effort of preparing a grand meal that’s fine, but don’t complain that Christmas dinners are soulless and an inconvenient obligation. Do Christmas whichever way best suits you.

Here is why gift-giving is so important to me:

Growing up, we didn’t have very much. Our parents couldn’t afford to give us things we wanted throughout the year (necessities were expensive enough) but at Christmas they always surprised us with how much they had managed to scrape together to answer our heart’s desires. They were always thoughtful in what they bought us, and I pitied my friends whose well-off parents simply bought whatever some retail assistant had told them the kids were crazy about this year. While they got impersonal ipods, I got books by my favourite authors, brain-teasing games, clothing I had mentioned a liking for in passing.

Now that I am grown up and participate in gift giving, my family still practices thoughtful gift giving. We are a broken family now, in more ways than one: my parents are divorced, I am an atheist while the rest are still devoted Christians with varying levels of commitment to church, my sister is married and has a whole family-in-law which has nothing to do with the rest of us. We have so many differences. But on this one day a year we all get together and exchange gifts. Our gifts say things we don’t know how to express in words. They say:

I care about you enough to know what your interests are. I know we have differences but I respect you enough to get you something you want rather than something I think you should have. I accept whoever you choose to love and bring into our family and I care about you enough to learn their interests and get them something too. I love you. It’s a difficult thing to communicate, sometimes, but here is a token of that love.

This is our Christmas peace, the grace that we extend to each other. We are no longer united by name or by faith, we were never united by aspirations or passions, but we extend acceptance and respect and warm attachment. It is wrapped in green and red paper and decorated with bows.