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Presents, parties, Santa Claus, family; food, no school, snow, trees; spirit, peace and love. These were the first thoughts that came to mind when I asked my family to brainstorm about what Christmas means to them. They also mentioned eggnog, carolers, decorations, fireplaces and Rudolph. Is the lack of religious imagery noticeable to anyone else? My mother was raised Lutheran, my father as a Conservative Jew, and I was that lucky kid during the month of December who got presents for Hanukkah and Christmas. My parents' concession for celebrating both was to give presents on only four of the eight days.
The Christmas season held no religious significance to me. In fact, not until I was in high school did I learn about the spiritual meaning of Christmas from a Catholic friend. My parents had decided they would offer exposure to the traditions of both religions and then allow each of their children to choose a faith. We never discussed religion in my house, so the core of my religious knowledge came from friends and movies. For me, The Ten Commandments was just a movie and Moses was a character in the film.
I never questioned the lack of spiritual meaning Christmas held for me. My family had its own traditions, and although they were not religious, they were nonetheless ritualistic and comforting. Waking up early to open our stockings continues to be an annual custom, although the time of arising is no longer dawn.
When we were young, relishing the few gifts Santa chose to put in the stocking, including the orange that rounded out the bottom, my sisters and I giggled and compared goods. We had an acknowledged conspiracy to be up before Mom and Dad and to uncover some of Santa's secrets. The next few hours were torture. We would sit in my sister's room, waiting in silence for our parents to wake up. Every couple of minutes one of us would tiptoe to their bedroom and press an ear against the door, hoping to hear movement. An eternity later, usually around 8 a.m., a pajama-clad family gathered in the living room to inspect the plate of cookies we had left out the night before. There was always one missing, our evidence that Santa had visited. As my sisters and I whooped with joy over this discovery, we missed the look my parents exchanged as they realized that their secret was safe for another year. They clearly enjoyed the moment as much we did. A short analysis of the contents of their stockings, which had the same cans of peanuts and pairs of sox they had in them every year, was followed by the long-awaited event: Tearing open the boxes and bags that had lain dormant under the tree since the wee hours of the morning when Santa had placed them there. Each gift was opened individually and passed around for everyone to admire. After they were all opened and we gorged on the candy from our stockings, my sisters and I went through the gifts again, savoring each one.
As the years passed and some of the excitement of Christmas morning diminished, I began to realize that what had made that time so special was not the anticipation of surprises but the comfort of predictability and traditions. Christmas was the one day of the year that I knew my family would gather and pretend for twenty-four hours that the pressures of the outside world did not exist. Both of my parents had moved far away from their families, so there was no continuity of tradition from generation to generation. We shared the "spirit" of Christmas on one day, with each other. At the end of each Christmas Day, I breathed a sigh of relief in recognition that those rituals had remained, that nothing had changed.
What makes Christmas different from all other days of the year? Maybe nothing of religious importance to someone like me, who places little spiritual value on anything. Some people say that Christmas has become too commercial and has distanced itself from its religious roots. Some say that Christmas is an excuse for retailers to make oodles of money and a license to individuals to overindulge. All of this may be true, but it doesn't diminish the comfort of tradition, religious or not, that I derive from celebrating it. As I graduate from college and am about to be "on my own," I have discovered that tradition and family are ideals that I treasure.
As for my own religious identity, my agnostic nature leaves me grappling with life's major questions without any theologically satisfying answers. In hopes of coming to a spiritual epiphany, I have grilled friends of various faiths to explain how they came to their understanding of God. I have taken college courses on the world's major religions in an attempt to find comfort within one. So far my efforts have left me with more questions than I began with. My search continues.