Christmas: tradition, atmosphere, and the human spirit

You may already be aware that I moved abroad weeks after graduating from college to Taiwan, a country where Chinese New year, not Christmas, is the time of year everyone culturally looks forward to for vacation, travel, and family. As a result, in the last 6 years, being home in America for Christmas has only happened once.

This year, I’m home. The tables have been turned, however, because my younger sister who has relocated to Los Angeles, California, is not. I am now experiencing what she experienced for several Christmases before I came home for one: beaming her in via the modern technology of facetime so she can be in the room with us while we open gifts, converse, listen to Christmas music, etc.,.

In Taiwan, I, along with my other Christmas-celebrating friends, have grown used to creating Christmas, taking all of our learned Christmas customs from our various family backgrounds and, in a combined effort, generating the Christmas spirit. We decorate, bake cookies, drink Christmas beverages, throw parties, go caroling, plan events for the church community. On top of all the festivities, we’re teaching our Taiwanese English students all about the joys of the holiday and celebrating it at school with co-workers through parties and various school-wide events. It’s been a lot of work over the years but always rewarding; then at the end of it all, we disappear to tap into modern technology by ourselves and connect with our own family and friends in their respective timezones.

That is the Christmas I know. Anyone who has lived for a time overseas, I’m sure, can relate. In a sense, celebrating Christmas this way for so many years has taught me a few things about this beloved and festive holiday, lessons that have come naturally and some not so easily.

Tradition. It seems all people – even nontraditional types, need tradition, no matter how trivially small or ceremoniously grand. If you’ve seen the movie Inception (a brilliant film you need to drop everything and watch right now if you haven’t already), you would be familiar with the idea of a totem, an individual’s grip on reality represented by some physical object as he or she navigates the precarious and unpredictable subconscious of the dream world.

The lesson here is that we all need a totem; and many times, a holiday like Christmas can provide that stability. The thing to remember, though, is that what provides stability can and will change, including traditions. Tradition can be a source of comfort, but tradition itself is not immune to the fluidity and dynamism of life as we know it. 

I learned this lesson the hard way. Now I understand that I shouldn’t be afraid of doing new things for Christmas, that changed plans and different people doesn’t mean the holiday is ruined. In fact, revisiting and remaking old traditions and new ones is what keeps any holiday alive. Yes, change can hurt; but the cliche is true: no pain, no gain. Try something completely new for Christmas and let me know what happens.

Atmosphere. Atmosphere is generated. A charismatic person is capable of carrying his or own atmosphere and spreading it to other people. My favorite example of this can be found in one the earliest Coke commercials (this one was produced before the hashtag craze):

This is how the atmosphere of Christmas is generated. Someone dresses up in a Santa suit and gives away free hugs and candy canes. A group of people go from door to door singing Christmas carols. Someone decides to bake Christmas cookies for all their neighbors. A generous employee brings presents for everyone at work. An airline decides to make their passengers’ wishes come true.

Buddy the Elf taught me everything I need to understand the atmosphere of Christmas in these 3 rules: 1) Treat everyday like Christmas. 2) There’s room for everyone on the nice list. 3) The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.

Rule #1 is essential. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of a baby that changed everything for all of us. God came down to the earth in a way everyone can relate to: as a baby. Babies represent new beginnings, new life, rebirth, life as the result of a beautiful biological union. This is what we can celebrate in our lives every day of the year.

The human spirit. Finally, holidays like Christmas bring out the resilience in all of us, if we let it. People like to rally around beauty and inspiration. Christmas gives us just that. Have you ever sang “Silent Night” or “O Holy Night” with a group of people acapella by candlelight? Have you ever witnessed a surprise marriage proposal? Have you ever gathered around with a group of strangers to pray for a person or a place none of you really know? The human spirit is powerful, and Christmastime is a chance for all of us to experience how it brings us together. If we let it.

I’ll be the first to admit that there have been times I’ve gotten in the way of Christmas. And it’s never a pretty feeling once the moment has passed. This year, even though the last 6 months have already been littered with the not-so pleasant unexpected and unplanned, I have resolved to not get in the way. So I’ve gone through the motions, I went to the parties, I participated in the festivities; and the whole time I tried not to get in the way. And I had a good time, despite whatever it was I was feeling that made me want to get in the way. 

Christmas is not about me. It’s about the hope of redemption and peace that all of us can have here on earth.

So Merry Christmas! And may the tradition and atmosphere and spirit of the season carry you and your loved ones away to the place where we can experience peace on earth. 



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