Every year I experience cognitive dissonance at Christmas time (and Easter, Halloween, ANZAC day and Australia Day, but I digress). Before I had children, I really didn’t give Christmas much thought. As a kid, there was a Christmas tree, presents, family and food. When I went out into the world, I would always reconnect with my family at this time, as well as having a break from study and/or work. It was completely fine, my family was loving and easy to be with.
It wasn’t until I had to create a Christmas experience for my own children that I started experiencing the feeling that something didn’t add up. I resented feeling culturally pressured to participate in the Santa myth, I felt freaked out by the associated financial stress, and there was an ongoing conflict between the me which wanted to give my children everything, and the me which wanted simplicity, meaning and authenticity.
So what even is Christmas? Where did it come from, and why do we celebrate it on the 25th December? Baby Jesus’ birthday? Highly doubtful – the bible doesn’t mention the birth date of Jesus, although some theologians have surmised that Jesus was born in early Spring because of the references to shepherds and lambing season. So if Christmas doesn’t have a Christian origin, where did it come from?
The most likely origin of Christmas is Saturnalia, a Roman mid-winter celebration which started out as a one day feast at the end of autumn, but moved later and later, picking up other festivals as it went along. By the time Christianity came along, Saturnalia was a seven day festival beginning on the 17th December, and including the Sigillaria– the day of present-giving on the 23rd of December, and dies natalis solis invicti on the 25th of December – the birthday of the ‘invincible’ Roman sun-god Sol.
This seven day period also includes the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which in northern countries is very short indeed.The idea of doing away with the Saturnalia festivities was unthinkable – people needed something to get them through the interminable winter – so the Christian church just hopped on the bandwagon of what is essentially a pagan celebration. Lots of Christians refuse to participate, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, and the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas in January, which coincides with the feast of the Epiphany. Puritan Oliver Cromwell even tried to cancel the whole thing, which proved unpopular and was eagerly overturned at the first opportunity.
So far so good – a mid-winter celebration sounds fun. Except it doesn’t help me and my cognitive dissonance, because Christmas falls in mid-summer here. Like so many of our cultural festivals in the Southern Hemisphere, it feels wrong to have a mid-winter celebration in Summer, not to mention a Spring festival in Autumn (Easter) and an Autumn festival in Spring (Halloween). Mid-winter is not a big deal in Australia – in fact, it’s mostly seen as either non-existent in the north, or a welcome relief from summer which is long and often brutal.
Okay, so what about Santa? According to this article, Santa Claus is what happened when Saint Nicholas, a saint born around 280 ACE near Turkey, and Sinter Klaas, the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, came to America with Dutch immigrants in the late 17th century, then popularised in the early 18th century in New York when the tradition of gift giving came back into vogue. Cool story bro, as my surly teenager would say, but it doesn’t really help me find meaning, especially since Santa has become the capitalist symbol for spend, spend, spend.
This year, I’ve finally made some progress in turning the white noise of my cognitive dissonance down, because this was the first year Santa was not invited to our festivities. My 10 and 14 year old have let go of the story, and oh, I can’t tell you the relief of not having to pretend. Just that alone helped me so much.
The next phase, agreed to by my family, is to move the feasting and gift giving we do as a family on Christmas day to Summer Solstice, which happens between the 20th and the 23rd of December, depending on the year. We’ll still attend Christmas out in the world, but I don’t have to create Christmas inside the house. Even just the thought of that turned the static down even further.
It took me a while to slip away from the cultural constructs – at heart I’m an upholder, so it wasn’t a good option for me to decide on behalf of my family that we not participate in Christmas, although I know some families who do. I needed to let my kids participate in the broader culture, and then when they’ve had their fill, explore another way of doing things and see if that’s better.
That’s how we build a new world – by questioning the dominant narrative, the story our culture tells us – and then implementing something different. It’s not just Christmas; there’s plenty of scope for things to be better. In fact, I bet you are re-inventing something so that it is more meaningful for you and your family right now! It might be education, art, birthdays, religion, work, family structure, gender roles, politics or any other part of our culture that you can see a way to improve.
Let me know how you do it differently, I’d love to hear all about it!