How I Gave Up Christmas and Found Serenity
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Editor's note: AlterNet first published this article in 2010. This version is updated.
I can't remember exactly when it was that I gave up Christmas, but I've never regretted it. While my friends and family run around in a frenzy of mall purchases and the attendant anxiety of how to pay for it all, I bask in the serenity of having let it all go -- well, most of it.
It seemed to happen in stages. One year, I asked my brothers that they stop buying gifts for me and to forgive me for not buying gifts for them. It took a while for that to take. One brother refused to buy into the pact. Another has a wife from a non-Western country who, in dealing with her in-laws, expresses her love by thoroughly embracing the traditions of her new homeland. But, as time went on, everybody seemed to accept, however grudgingly, that I was not taking part.
Eventually, I stopped making the 300-mile trek to go home for Christmas. I made a point of getting there every Thanksgiving instead, a holiday for which the company of family is its own reward, and love is shown through the preparation and sharing of food. Sometimes we even pull out the guitars and make bad music together, passing out rhythm instruments to the kids.
Christmas, on the other hand, held such expectations of material splendor that it was impossible to have any quality time with my nieces and nephews, wound up as they were on the highs of the day, with their exhausted parents busy trying to police the pandemonium. And so, one year, I decided to stay home and cook myself a duck. I could have gone to the families of friends nearby, but that would have been just another permutation of what I had escaped, so I opted for solitude. It was delicious -- both the duck and the solitude.
On Christmas, the phone doesn't ring, except for the occasional well-wisher. The streets are quiet, and no one expects you to check your e-mail. If you've ever wished for a moment of silence, of peace, of space to contemplate the abundance of life, spend a Christmas alone, and your wish will be granted.
Now, I'm not anti-Christmas. I love the decorations, the special foods, and some of the seasonal music. I'm not religious in the traditional sense, but Christmas Eve often finds me in church, hearing friends sing in choirs, or play liturgical music. I love the Christmas story: the notion of the redemption of the world through the birth of a child is breathtakingly beautiful. And so I come back to that.
My solitude rarely lasts a whole day: it lasts just as long as I need it to. Friends drop by on their way home from their Christmas feasts. Or I decide to do something non-Christmas-y for a few hours, as I did one year when I joined a Jewish friend for Chinese food and a movie with his little boy.
Christmas existed before there were Christians. Nearly every culture celebrates the winter solstice, and the Western traditions of Christmas trees, mistletoe, Yule logs -- all that -- are the vestiges of European paganism. I've never made a pilgrimage to Stonehenge, nor do I belong to a coven, but I feel those ancient forms in my bones. The practice of lighting fires and bringing nature indoors at the darkest time of the year just makes a lot of sense. It's how we get through, reminding ourselves that all is not dead and lost to us, that the sun will reappear.
But solstice was not a time of travel; it was a time to hibernate, to mediate, to contemplate the mysteries of nature with those in our immediate circle. And so, I stay put.
Throwing a holiday party? Sure, I'll come -- but only if it's in my neighborhood, or not more than a subway stop or so away. My house is open to friends passing through. The decorations are simple: an edging of tiny white lights around the window, a few pine boughs on the window ledge.
As the solstice approached in 2010, the full moon was covered in the veil of the sun's shadow -- the first full lunar eclipse to occur at solstice in hundreds of years. Had I spent that at the mall, or packing for a trip home, I would have missed it. Instead, I got to marvel at the spectacular sight.
My family's Christmas has survived quite nicely without me. My nieces and nephews know I love them, and they get little presents from me at other times in the year. My parents have accepted my choice, even though they'd rather I was with them. And me, I feel a little less guilty each year for seizing my moment of peace, knowing I'm a far more pleasant person for it than I could ever be if caught in the Christmas frenzy.
I understand that, if you have small children, opting out of Christmas may not seem a good choice (unless, of course, you adhere to a non-Christian religious tradition). But we can all simplify our traditions and distill our expectations to their essence: a time of joy and peace.