A Secular Sacred Christmas

Not feeling like Christmas is no stranger to me, but it was strange to hear my wife say it.

“It just doesn’t feel like Christmas there,” she says. “Everyone just unwraps everything all at once. It’s a gift orgy, really.” She took a deep breath, as if inhaling the melancholy that had wafted about me all day. “They don’t celebrate Christmas the way we do. It’s just so… secular.”

“I don’t think that’s what you mean,” I said. “I think the word you want isn’t secular, but greedy.”

Our religious views and habits have been a source of some contention lately, but this wasn’t about that. She’s right; I’ve been around plenty of families (including my ex-wife’s) that simply tear into the gifts under the tree with wild abandon. And it does feel empty, and shallow, and, well, greedy. But that’s not being secular either.

The entire tradition of gifts at Christmas is far removed from its religious origins (and yes, both the pagan holiday and Christian appropriation). It’s hard to relate getting a new Playstation to anything religious. But it’s the quality of sacredness that she was referring to, and so I’d like to share our Christmas tradition with you.

We do not visit relatives, nor do we answer the phone – at least, not until dinnertime. One gift may be opened on Christmas Eve, though that might become optional soon. We prefer Christmas Eve services (and preferentially Midnight Mass).

On Christmas Day itself, the children may get things out of the stocking before we get up, but nothing more. (Fruits, candies, and small toys may appear there, as if placed by the hands of mischievous but vaguely healthy elves.) We eat breakfast, then proceed to slowly open presents. We take turns; the children wait while the parents open as well. Each gift is examined to see whom it is from, then opened. (A frenzy of opening that one present may occur, and is, indeed, encouraged.) But here’s the key part – when that present is opened, the child is encouraged to try it on, play with it, to explore. Last year we stopped for an hour or two while my son and I played a newly opened game. We may take the entire morning doing this, appreciating the gifts instead of just tossing them aside and reaching for the next one.

This is the flip side of adopting a true spirit of giving. To truly give a gift, one must be concerned about the enjoyment of the other, not recognition of oneself. In turn, as the recipient, one must appreciate the gift and the spirit in which it was given. (Yes, that means you have to try to appreciate the fugly sweater with too-long sleeves your aunt got you. Again.)

It’s this reflection, and time with your immediate family, that makes this sacred. It isn’t a religious element; the same thing can be used with any celebration with gifts. It is entirely possible to have a sacred secular Christmas; it’s equally possible to have one that claims to be religious, and be utterly profane.

I challenge you, then, this holiday season. Celebrate your holidays. Celebrate them secularly or religiously.

But do this: Make them sacred. Celebrate them without greed.

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