Sunday, September 15, 2013

Christmas and Me

Cover of "Skipping Christmas: A Novel"
Cover of Skipping Christmas: A Novel

Confined to the house for the past two months recuperating from surgery to repair a broken hip (yes, repair, not replace. I’m a minimalist), I’ve had a chance to catch up on a lot of reading. One of the books I read was John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas. Grisham is better known for his legal thrillers, but in Skipping Christmas, a story of a couple who, when their only child joins the Peace Corps and heads off to South America for a year, decide to forego the hassle and expense of celebrating Christmas and treat themselves to a winter cruise, he proves that he’s also quite adept at writing satirical humor.

A short novel – more of a novella actually – takes pokes at consumerism, materialism, and enforced conformity. It picks apart the whole Christmas angst, which is often more about selfishness, conformity, peer pressure, and greed than the celebration of a birth that actually had to have taken place many months earlier.

Reading this book got me to thinking about my own rather conflicted relationship with Christmas, and of course, that meant I’d have to write about it. It’s probably a good thing this happened now, rather than closer to Christmas. This way, maybe I won’t be labeled a degenerate Scrooge. Because, believe me, I’m not. I just don’t celebrate Christmas.

My wife does. My children do. And, I’m sure my two granddaughters, Sammie and Catie, will be taught to celebrate Christmas in a big way. I sort of gave up on it sometime during my teen years, after I read somewhere that many of the Yule traditions and practices were actually pagan rituals that had been rebranded by the Roman emperors in their efforts to co-opt the barbarian tribes. Even then, though, the fact that most people seemed more interested in how many and of what value gifts they’d get, and the efforts to reciprocate in kind, bothered me. I mean, sure it’s nice to be nice to others, but shouldn’t we do it all year long?

In my mid-twenties, after my first time in Asia, I adopted the Buddhist philosophy. After that, it didn’t seem right to make a big deal about a Christian holiday, which I’d not actually made a big deal about for years anyway.

You’d think that would solve my problems. It didn’t really. Except for my wife and kids, who are accustomed to my eccentricities, my friends and relatives viewed my avoidance of the rituals of the Yule season as, frankly, subversive and anti-Christian. Actually, they were miffed that I quit buying Christmas gifts. The fact that I gave presents at odd times throughout the year – birthdays and other events – didn’t mollify them at all.

I could have put up with that; after all, relatives always find something to carp about. It was the reaction of strangers that really got to me. I don’t wear a sign that says, ‘I don’t celebrate Christmas,’ but I avoid Christmas office parties and other rituals. Mostly they’re boring anyway. When this becomes known, some people even have the gall to call me to task about it. When I was appointed ambassador to Zimbabwe, for instance, I arrived in November. I informed my staff that, while I would make the garden area of my residence available for the staff’s annual Christmas party, I didn’t feel that I could host it. There was an uproar from the local staff, who had become accustomed to the ambassador paying for their annual party. My permitting them to use the residence to do their own party was an insult to them. They finally got over it, but it confirmed what I’d long suspected. For many people, Christmas is about what you ‘get’ more than it’s about what you ‘give.’ It’s a time when otherwise nice people go crazy buying expensive, useless junk to impress other people with their ability to waste money on expensive, useless junk. It’s a time when people send greetings to people they don’t even speak to for the other eleven months of the year.

Well, this is yet another year that I won’t celebrate Christmas. At least, not in the way most people think. Instead, I celebrate it 365 days a year. I try to spread good cheer and love every day. I’m not big on giving or getting gifts, but I do it when the mood strikes, not at some pre-appointed time on the calendar.

My greeting, today, tomorrow, and always, is: Peace on Earth. Goodwill to All.

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