Why Do We Celebrate Christmas Anyway? (aka: Holiday Cynicism vs. Idealism)

Sigh.

It’s that time of year again. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. The season of peace and joy and goodwill toward men. The time of year when children’s eyes shine as brightly as the mysterious star that appeared over the baby Jesus in his manger (although, I imagine that this is less for the birth of Jesus as it is the anticipation of getting a big sparkly pile of toys).

A Mountain of Presents

First of all, let me just say that I am not a Scrooge. While I may Bah! Humbug! the tinsel and trappings and materialism and hypocrisy surrounding the big day, I am actually very fond of the ideals that embody the true spirit of Christmas.

As a parent to three terrific kids, I know too well how easy it is to get sucked into the self-centered, mind-numbing void of consumerism this time of year. It’s just so much fun to see my children get all excited as the days progress toward Christmas Eve, and such a thrill to hear the laughter and happiness bubbling over on Christmas morning, as they unwrap the special toys they’ve been hoping for. The very idea of their reactions is a huge driving force – so strong that even I, the cynic, race to the stores at the crack of dawn on Black Friday, anxious to find The Perfect Toy and secure my place as Best Mom Ever.

Who can resist this level of excitement and happiness on a child's face?

Who can resist this level of excitement and happiness on a child’s face?

But that is not Christmas. It is not supposed to be about shoving people out of the way in order to grab the last cool toy from the shelf. It is not supposed to be about making my kids feel temporarily happy with a pile of toys they will love for two weeks, then forget about. It is not having the most impressive display of Christmas lights, or the most adorable family photo greeting cards, or being hostess of the perfect holiday party.

But when is anything ever as it is supposed to be?

Underneath this hard, cynical shell lies a soft, sentimental idealist. A daydreamer who wants the impossible. I want Christmas to be a time when people open their hearts wider than their wallets. I want the neighbors holding hands and lighting candles and singing songs together. I want the poor and the needy of our community to be more than just faceless nobodies to whom we throw a dollar or donate a shiny wrapped toy. I want them to be the guests of honor at our tables. I want for people to try a little harder, to reach a little deeper inside themselves, and to be genuinely kind, loving, humble, compassionate, forgiving, and generous. Those are the values that embody this holiday. Those are the values that were supposedly taught by that man who was once a little baby, born in such humble circumstances so long ago – the one about whom so many Christmas carols are sung today. I want that miracle.

The end of It's a Wonderful Life is filled with so many of the best ideals of Christmas. Too bad it's only a movie.

The end of It’s a Wonderful Life is filled with so many of the best ideals of Christmas. Too bad it’s only a movie.

But I keep my idealism safely locked deep inside, where the disappointment of reality cannot destroy them. Because here is the truth: there is no miracle. Many of the same people who sing the carols and claim to believe in the same ideals of Christmas are sucked into the same void of self-centered, mind-numbing commercialism as everyone else. And so, the holiday becomes a pointless blur of shopping and decorations and fancy events. We pretend to pay homage to some cute little baby in a manger, when the truth is that he is not much more important to us than the plastic blinking reindeer our our front lawns.

This.

This.

And so, I sigh. And I spend too much money on expensive toys for my children. And I deck the halls with plastic holly and twinkling lights. And I sing Joy to the World and smile to see my children’s sparkling eyes as we await the big day of celebration. But what do we celebrate?

I Do Not Celebrate Kwanzaa! (And Neither Does Anyone Else)

Kwanzaa Candles “Happy Kwanzaa,” a white cashier greeted me as I was returning unwanted Christmas gifts last year.

I couldn’t help it. I scowled at her. “Um…I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa.” The cashier muttered an embarrassed apology and quickly finished my transaction. I felt bad for ruining her multicultural moment, her chance to display her tolerance and understanding of my culture. But the thing is, Kwanzaa is most certainly not a part of my culture. I do not celebrate Kwanzaa, and neither does anyone else.

Well okay, fine, I’m sure that somewhere in this country, someone actually celebrates Kwanzaa. Though there are no official statistics to indicate how many people actually embrace the holiday, I am reasonably certain that at least a few families out there are lighting the candles of their kinaras, dressing in African clothing, and eating whichever foods symbolize the holiday for them. But here’s the deal – although I am Black, and have numerous Black relatives, I do not know a single person who observes Kwanzaa. Not one.

“That’s a racist holiday,” one of my sisters remarked long ago when I asked her why no one in our family celebrates. It’s true. It doesn’t take much research to figure that out. Kwanzaa was invented in the turbulent, racially-charged 1960s by Maurana Ron Kulanga, a black separatist (who was, at the time, sitting in prison for brutally torturing two women). He created Kwanzaa as an alternative to the “White” holiday, Christmas. “…Kwanzaa is not an imitation, but an alternative, in fact, and oppositional alternative to the spookism, mysticism and non-earth based practices which plague us as a people . . . ” (pg 14, Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice. 1977). Kwanzaa was intended to be a separatist, secular holiday in which Black people can celebrate being black. Is that racist? Well let’s see…if an imprisoned  Neo-nazi leader were to create a holiday just for white people in order to celebrate being white, and to shun the cultural and religious practices of non-whites, would we consider such a holiday to be racist?What the Hell

I say yes.

Two years ago, when my youngest child brought home a Kwanzaa kinara craft from school, I considered making a complaint to his teacher. It bothers me intensely that children are being taught to accept Kwanzaa as the “African American winter holiday,” as though it is a normal, widespread part of Black American history and tradition. Well, it is not. Many of us see no need to celebrate a so-called harvest festival in the middle of winter. Many of us see no need to symbolize our heritage with corn, a Kwanzaa “First Fruits” tradition. (Corn is not even an indigenous crop to Africa, but was brought over from the New World by white people. Ironic, isn’t it?). Many of us see no need to embrace the Swahili language, which most likely was not even spoken by our ancestors, who were ripped away from West Africa and probably spoke Yoruba or Fula or something. And I personally feel insulted that anyone would assume that, because of my ethnic heritage, I would choose to celebrate such a separatist, radical holiday created by a violent criminal.

Okay, enough ranting for now. Just keep this in mind: most Black Americans do NOT observe Kwanzaa. In fact, most of us just wish it would curl up and disappear. Yes, there are a few people who see it as important, just as there are probably a few people who were happily airing their grievances and showing their feats of strength in honor of Festivus. But seriously…unless a black person walks into your store after Christmas wearing kente cloth to purchase a kinara, please do not wish us a Happy Kwanzaa. Not sure what to say? Try “Happy New Year.” It’s pretty-much non-offensive.

Just Another Christmas

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Just Another Christmas

So this woman sees me standing there

in line

at the store full of plastic and junk and

tiny lights that blink

and cash registers chiming

like canned holiday tunes.

And she smiles all wide

and spreads out her hands

like she wants to say,

“It’s Christmas. You should be happy

and merry and shit.”

So I flash her the quick-fake smile

that you have to give

to strangers

and look away

because who is she?

And why should I care that it’s

just another Christmas

full of rich people who aren’t me

wasting their rent money on shiny paper

and battery toys and clothes

that ain’t gonna fit anyway?

She don’t know that the smell of pine

makes my eyes water and my heart twist up

like an old rag

from those memories

of music and love

when Christmas smelled like a perfect

peppermint candy cane hanging on a tree,

not just another day of

empty stomachs and

empty pockets except for

$2.75

to stand in this line

to buy me one loaf of bread.

Then the cash register chimes

in front of me

and that lady has the nerve to

reach over me

and give the guy some money.

Then she walks away with nothing

and I walk out of that store with

a loaf of bread

$2.75

and one perfect striped

peppermint candy cane

that smelled like

Christmas.

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Where Are You Christmas? (aka: Rants of a Holiday Cynic)

I hate LED Christmas lights Oh Christmas, how you have failed me! How you have drained my pockets of every spare cent, so that my family can have the latest, shiniest toys wrapped in glittery premium wrapping paper. How you have crowded the stores with piles of cake pop makers and mini sno-cone machines and other useless Thneeds, which nobody, nobody, nobody needs. You have ruined my eyesight by surrounding me with ultra-bright LED Christmas light displays. (Why on earth does anyone think that LED lights are pleasant to look at?).

Then there was that Black Friday incident in the high-scale shopping mall near my home, in which some men got into a fist fight in the Victoria’s Secret. In Victoria’s Secret! Over a pair of lacy panties! (I was just in that same Victoria’s Secret hours before the fight, and believe me, there was nothing worth fighting over). Oh Christmas, with your empty promises of goodwill and peace…well there is NOTHING peaceful about listening to Rockin’ Around the Christmas tree five times per hour on the radio (please, somebody kill that song), not to mention the plethora of songs worshipping the snow. Um, hello? Some of us live in California, where snow is practically a myth, unless you count the artificial spray-on snow we use for decorations.The Grinch

Okay I know, I know…I am Scrooge, looking with scorn at the meaningless trappings and festivities that seem to make everyone else happy. I am also The Grinch. My heart has become three sizes too small, while my cynical mind has grown three sizes too big. And I am Charlie Brown, throwing my hands in the air with frustration and yelling, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”

And suddenly, a song begins to play in my memory. No, it isn’t a bunch of villagers singing Fah-who Foraze. It is Faith Hill, singing Where Are You Christmas? When that song ends, another begins. It is Aislin Debison, singing The Gift. And just like like the Grinch, my cynicism begins to fade. Because Christmas is here…Christmas has always been right here, waiting for me. It has not failed me. It is I, with my critical eye and self-absorption, who has failed Christmas. It is not that Christmas owes me peace, love, and goodwill, but it is I who owes the world my peace, love, and goodwill.

The realization is so simple, and so stunningly beautiful, like Disney magic or a surprise snowfall in California. And suddenly I feel like whistling Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree while hanging up decorations…not for me, but for other people to enjoy. And I feel like walking through the crowded shopping mall while wearing a Santa hat…not to buy a bunch of stuff, but to smile at people, and drop my spare change in a charity bucket, and spread the Christmas spirit. Because the good in Christmas, the wonder in Christmas, is in the ability to do good for a fellow human being. It is in the joy of giving back to the world, whether it is through charity, or homemade cookies, or raking leaves for a neighbor (okay, well, shoveling snow if you live anywhere but California).

Christmastime is here, and so I will swallow my cynicism, wrap gifts for my kids in shiny, glittery paper, and call my relatives to remind them that I care. I will drink (low-calorie) peppermint cocoa and sing along with the radio, and maybe get so carried away that I go out to look at all of your LED Christmas light displays. Look for me. I’ll be the one wearing the Santa hat and the sunglasses.

Just Another All-American Christmas

When I was a kid, Christmas was all about the presents. On Christmas morning, my brother, sister and I, like millions of other American kids, would race into the living room and stare in awe at the magical scene before our eyes: a table heaped with candy and nuts, fat red stockings, and piles and piles of gifts piled beneath the Christmas tree. My parents would eventually stumble, bleary-eyed, into the room, and we all spent the morning ripping open packages of Barbies and Star Wars playsets and Cabbage Patch Kids while Nat King Cole crooned from the record player (yes, I said record player).

But when my husband and I had kids, we swore that we would celebrate differently. No piles of presents. No Santa Claus stories. No focus on the materialistic glut that Christmas has become. No…our kids would grow up with solemn Christmas Eve candle-lighting services at church, and stories about the baby Jesus in the manger, and one…maybe two small gifts beneath the tree. Simple. Quiet. Full of meaning.

But as our children grew, I learned something. As our children awoke on Christmas morning and raced into the living room, their eyes shone with that same eager, awe-filled, Christmas-y expression that my siblings and I had worn each year. And that look filled me with a new, even more wonderful feeling of magic. I wanted them to have that feeling, if only once a year. And so, the piles of gifts began to grow. The stockings grew fatter. And stories about good old St. Nicholas began to compete with Baby Jesus in the manger. Twas the Night Before Christmas

This year, we have spent a frightening amount of money on materialistic stuff. Our boys are getting shiny new bicycles. Our daughter will get an iPod touch. We have given in to the All-American Christmas Dream of contributing to the growth of the economy. I am excited, as always, to see that Christmas morning expression on the faces of my children. But the idealist buried deep within me still wishes there was some way to change the way we celebrate the season, to restore a greater sense of meaning to the most celebrated holiday of the year.