Not being a Christian, I don’t celebrate Christmas, but it’s impossible to avoid observing it when the world around me makes it so clear in myriad ways that, first, Christmas is coming, and, at last, Christmas is here.
Fine with me. I especially love the music and the lights of the season, and when a cyclist called “Merry Christmas” on the bike path this morning, I called “Merry Christmas” back. If I know which of the winter holidays someone celebrates, I’ll wish them a merry one, and if I don’t I’ll return whatever greeting they give me, perhaps with a “Bright Solstice” added.
Truth to tell, it’s not just the world around me prompts me to observe Christmas: it’s the memories within. I was raised in the Episcopal Church; my mother was more religious than my father, but we attended St. Peter’s Episcopal as a family, my sibs and I attended Sunday school, and I sang in the junior choir from fifth grade through eighth, when I aged out. That was also the year that I and my agemates got confirmed as full members of the church, after which I ceased to be a churchgoer.
My family continued to celebrate Christmas, of course, with “stockings hung by the chimney with care.” Santa kept coming even after the youngest of us no longer believed; we’d all play Santa, stockpiling small gifts for each other and averting our eyes as we stuffed each other’s stockings. My mother, an expert knitter, had made stockings for each of us when we were babies. Mine, the first made, was the biggest — too big, my mother realized, which led to my brother’s being the smallest. With the third and fourth kids, she achieved a happy medium.
The decades since have made it clear that though you can take the girl out of the church, you can’t take the church out of the girl. Some 55 years later I still know the Apostles’ Creed by heart, and a lot of the Nicene, not to mention Bible stories and dozens of hymns. It’s very possible to be a cultural Christian without being a believer. I may not believe, but the imagery, the stories, and especially the music are part of my cultural tradition.
In the last few days, and right this minute, I’ve been listening to the songs pretty much non-stop. They sing of community celebrations — wassail! wassail! — and of the Christmas story itself, from various angles. Some are funny, some are sly (have you listened to “The Cherry Tree Carol” lately?), and many are profoundly moving. Giving birth to your first child in a strange town? Journeying great distance to witness you had no idea what but you felt compelled to go? Wanting to offer a gift but fearing you had nothing worth giving?
I’m thinking of all the people who either made up these songs or thought it important to sing them and pass them on.
And I’m wondering about all the people in power who claim to believe but haven’t paid attention to the songs.