Sunday, December 25, 2011

What Christmas means to me

Get ready to role your eyeballs, as I have a confession to make. 

I love Christmas. 

I love the lights and the decorations, the endless replaying of Christmas carols in shopping centers, the nativity scenes, the Christmas trees, the malls overcrowded with shoppers, and the sound of ringing church bells echoing through the neighbourhood on Christmas morning. Some non-believers might raise an eyebrow at the fact that as an atheist, I treasure everything about Christmas, even some of the religious symbolism. Some Christians might sigh at the fact that I feel an affinity towards the rampant commercialisation that takes place over this period. But I don't care. I love it all.

I think it has to do with growing up: all the images, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells of childhood Christmas experiences cemented themselves into the foundations of my neural networks, intertwining with personal, positive experiences of the holiday.

What kind of positive experiences? The quiet, relaxed neighbourhood atmosphere of families sitting around braais in their gardens on Christmas day, children splashing around in swimming pools, the smell of freshly mowed grass, and the hot, bright African sunshine. I love all these aspects of Christmas as well. But most of all, I love the time when our extended family gets together on the day around a table to partake in a special, intimate meal. The laughter and chatter that occurs between family members, as we evaluate a year gone by and talk about the year that lies ahead, is the the most important aspect that has always defined Christmas for me.

I kind of approach Christmas in the same way many Americans might approach Halloween, another cultural holiday that is important to social cohesion, steeped in long held traditions shared by the community, such as trick-or-treating and dressing up in costumes. Halloween has significance for many American families, even though most Americans don't actually believe that real goblins and spirits roam the streets on the 31 October every year. Likewise with Christmas: I don't have to believe in the supernatural roots of the holiday in order to derive any significance from it. Christmas, including the religious aspects of it, is part of the culture in which I grew up, and as a result it is part of my identity as an individual.

So instead of waging a "war on Christmas" (whatever that means) this atheist will spend the day with his feet up, sitting on a deck chair next to the swimming pool, sipping on a cider and chatting to family, while listening to the church bells ringing in the distance.

For me, Christmas is about community. But most importantly, it is about family.