I think Linus Van Pelt was only partially correct all those years ago when he attempted to explain the true meaning of Christmas to his depressed friend Charlie Brown. In case you haven’t seen the Peanuts’ special in a while, the essence of the message is that it’s easy to get caught up in the commercialism of the season and forget that the real meaning of Christmas is religious in nature and that goodwill is more valuable than good presents.
But I believe that as many people as there are who celebrate Christmas, there are just that many interpretations about its true meaning.
(Full ironic disclosure: I played Charlie Brown in our class production of the TV special in December of 1974. It was my last starring role and within two years, I was an innkeeper).
Like most any other “Christian” kid, I grew up loving Christmas. While we weren’t wealthy by any monetary measure, there were always things under the tree that I cherished. Toys for the little kid I was. Skates or a new stick for the hockey player I became and then by the time I was in university, I actually did appreciate a warm sweater or new socks. (Sadly, my mother never did believe me when I tried to explain to her that there really was a difference between regular and irregular underwear and it wasn’t worth saving the three bucks if it meant her risking not having grandchildren).
I’m not religious and that aspect of Christmas isn’t part of my experience. Though I still like the idea of midnight mass if it means a kid can stay up late and increase the odds of running across Santa Claus.
My wife and I don’t have children and while there are a few kids we buy for, it’s not like it would be if we had a house full of kids or grandkids with the mayhem of too-loud toys and a hurricane of wrapping paper.
I have a soft spot for some of the old Christmas music but I like the jazz, gospel and classical interpretations best.
I still have sentimental feelings about the Christmas food I grew up with but looking back now, I think it was the warmth of the people around the table as much as the flavours on the plates that nourished us. And in the last five years I’ve had more Christmas dinners in Asian restaurants and retirement residences than I have in family homes. It just hasn’t been the same.
This year is the first year in five or six that my wife and I don’t have a hospitalized or very sick parent to look after. After years of that kind of experience, it is hard to remember what the Christmas of my youth used to mean to me because I think we all fall victim to recency bias and if Christmas comes to mean Japanese food or Tim Horton’s in a hospital, then that’s what Christmas becomes.
For many, Christmas might still mean turkey dinners and the smell of baked goods and Christmas trees. It could mean lots of toys and midnight mass or quiet spiritual reflection and a speech by the Queen or the Pope on television.
For others it might mean an act of kindness to a homeless person. Or the way you feel as you shop for your groceries and fill up that extra bag for the food bank. Maybe it’s making mashed potatoes at a women’s shelter. Or buying a stranger a hot cup of coffee because they have to work on Christmas Eve and can’t be with their kids.
A friend of mine just died last week and I have another friend who is sick. And I have yet another friend who has to drive hundreds of kms every weekend to tend to her mother who has been in and out of hospital all season. I think that Christmas means something different this year to each those friends and their families.
Linus was right in a sense when he stood in the spotlight to deliver his speech. But Christmas is not just religious. It can be simply about our well-being. Perhaps that entails religious devotion, maybe it’s called spiritual serenity or maybe it’s about simply being thankful for our health and the health of those of our loved ones, physical and otherwise. And not each of us is lucky enough to always be in the right spirit for it each and every year.
I don’t know what future Christmases will look like for me.
I’d be happy for my sick friends to get better. Or for my friends’ sick parents to find some respite. Or for the families who have recently lost someone to find some comfort in their loved one’s memory. And more than anything, I hope each of you has the opportunity to be with the people who mean the most to you.
Families change. Loved ones leave us. But if we’re careful to remember them, they stay with us somehow. The composition of our families might not be the same from year to year. But the meaning of the word can remain the same.
Nothing under the most beautifully decorated tree can compare to that.