As a child and as a younger mother, I celebrated Christmas. I celebrated as most people do, waiting for Santa Claus to come and fill my stockings, because of course I'd been good. As a child, my mom woke my brother and me up at midnight to the sound of sleigh bells and a resounding "Ho, Ho, Ho!" We would rush to the window to try to catch a glimpse of Santa's sleigh soaring into the distant sky. Once, I swore I could see it disappearing into the clouds. Then we would go downstairs, eat cookies, drink hot cocoa, empty our stockings and open our gifts surrounded by the lights of the Christmas tree. It was magical. We'd go back to bed and sleep late, since the gifts were already opened. I always thought that was ingenious of my parents, who also got to sleep in. So, I did the same with my kids. After all, we were usually up late anyway. One of my sons even got a piece of coal in his stocking one year, though he loved it and didn't get the message we were trying to send. Another year, we were so broke, we weren't sure we would have any gifts for our kids. We sat them down to talk about it, and I decided that we would all gift everyone something we either made, found or re-gifted. It was one of our nicest Christmases ever, and The Kiwanis Club dropped off food and gifts for all of the kids on the Free Lunch Program while they were in school, so Santa visited that year after all.
Years later, I was leaving my husband and was faced with having to sort out the holidays. Who was going to have the kids on Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc. We remained friends, so it wasn't going to be too difficult, but it made me rethink my beliefs a bit. I realized that, although I'd grown up with Christmas and loved it, it was really the magic of Christmas that I loved, not the holiday itself. I hated all the commercialism that I, like so many others, had bought into. I was no longer a Christian, and I also hated all the hype and craziness that surrounded the holiday. I was ready for a change. I told my husband that he could have our sons (our daughter had already moved on to her own life and family) on Christmas Eve. I would start celebrating the Winter Solstice. That felt like a holiday I could really embrace. After all, who wouldn't want to celebrate the end of the growing darkness and return of the light? But, what would I do about Santa Claus? My older son was old enough that he no longer believed in Santa and was a jaded teen, but the younger one was only 3 years old. After much thought and borrowing from other cultures, I invented a poignant and fun celebration.
I invited the snow fairies to visit our house during the month of December by lighting a candle for each day of the month leading up to the 21st or 22nd, depending on the year. On December 1st, there is one candle, and by the time we reach the Solstice, the house is filled with candlelight. When we light our candles, we sing and talk about the growing darkness and the importance of bringing more light into our lives, literally and figuratively. We have one song that always gets sung, a beautiful round I learned in Girl Scouts. It can be sung in 8 parts. Though we never have enough people to pull that off, we usually do a round with even the youngest ones managing to keep up. I like this video with motions to go along.
Then everyone is invited to choose another song. We sing Christmas Carols, Hanukkah songs, pop songs, whatever we want. It's not about the choice of songs, it's about singing together and enjoying each other's company. Because we have our candle lighting ritual, the snow fairies sometimes visit during the night. In the morning, there might be small gifts waiting, a pack of gum, a small toy, stickers, whatever. I found that, without planning it that way, these small gifts helped reduce the anticipation of that one big blowout day. My kids didn't bounce off the walls anymore waiting for Santa. I realized how stressful it had been to wait all month for Santa to come. As a teacher, I had seen how nutty kids got, having a hard time paying attention and getting in more trouble than usual. Now, my life is calmer, my shopping is done and my holiday celebrated while the rest of the world is racing around doing their last minute shopping and battling the growing traffic. It also helps that I don't overspend and do a lot of gift choosing during the rest of the year.
I'm not suggesting that everyone give up Christmas. It's a wonderful holiday. It's just not the only one. I hope that all of us can look at how and what we celebrate and what it means to us. Do we spend more time together as a family, enjoying each other's company, or are we rushing around, short tempered because of the mounting stress? Do our children understand what the holiday is about? And, are we singing together? Singing is a wonderful bonding experience. Over the ages, it's brought people together. I love the song "Christmas in the Trenches" by John McCutcheon that tells the true story about British and German soldiers during WWI stopping their fighting on Christmas Eve when a German soldier started singing a Carol. He was joined by others and eventually both sides sang Silent Night, each in their own language. I hope you enjoy it, too.