What Does Christmas Mean

The race began on Black Friday (or earlier) to get the best gifts, the most gifts at the lowest price. There are lights to be strung, songs to be sung, and decorations to be hung. Parties are planned, cookies are baked and cards are written and sent. Children wait breathlessly for Santa. It can be the most wonderful time of the year or the most stressful time of the year.

Don't get me wrong. I love the season with all the lights, decorations, and songs. I have so many fond family memories of decorating the Christmas tree with my siblings and father -- laughing and squabbling. And baking cookies with my mother -- "don't forget to burn one tray because your father likes them." I still remember the year I got a baby doll with a crib and wardrobe. It was much more than I expected and it was wonderful! The best part of the season was going into Manhattan with my father for a day, walking down Fifth and seeing the stores decorated, seeing the tree in Rockefeller Center and having lunch or dinner someplace special.

Now I live in an area where people come from many diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. Not everyone celebrates the holiday, and if they do they bring different rituals and customs to it. The most diversity I remember from my days of ole were my Jewish friends who went out for Chinese food and a movie on Christmas day.

These days I see a holiday that has become over-commercialized. People bemoan the fact that clerks in stores (where I live) "won't even wish you Merry Christmas!" Perhaps they don't celebrate the holiday and it doesn't occur to them.

Last year I was in Albuquerque, NM for Christmas. It's a diverse geographic area in many ways, but the cultural and religious diversity are different from Washington DC. Associates in stores still say Merry Christmas. The local paper ran an article about what atheists do at Christmas. Christmas Eve and Christmas are normal days. One gentleman (who was raised Catholic) spoke of still decorating with lights and greenery, pagan, not Christian, symbols. When greeted with Merry Christmas he thanks people, acknowledges the thought, and responds that he's an atheist. He respects the role religion plays and the meaning it has in other people's lives.

Christmas is a day that celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but the date of his actual birth is unknown. It is not recorded in the Bible. The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336 AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the December 25. Christmas is a religious holiday that has become a universal holiday for government and business offices. And the universal holiday has created a commercial one.

“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss)

Religion aside, for me the month leading up to Christmas is filled with wonder and light -- the excitement before the gloomy days and nights of January and February. It's a reflective period, one of hope and compassion. Whether you celebrate Christmas, another holiday, or no holiday at all, do you take any meaning from this time leading up to a new calendar year? Are those meanings reflected in any of your traditions?

Even cultures that celebrate Christmas, have different traditions. Some cultures that I didn’t think of as celebrating Christmas, have traditions associated with it. I was surprised when I visited China in December 2008 to see Christmas decorations and hear Christmas music playing. Over the next two weeks our phototweets will feature Christmas traditions around the world. Follow us on Twitter @bigbookofhr and enjoy the journey. We’ll be back in January.

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