I’m probably the last one on Earth who should be writing about the meaning of Christmas given my lack of experience and education in anything related to Christianity. Growing up in the US but not within a church means I consider myself culturally Christian. Being culturally Christian means living in a nation where the Christian principles are society’s default principles, Christian holidays are observed by schools and workplaces, and Christian icons and images are pervasive in our lexicon.
Growing up as a cultural Christian may offer a valuable, outsider vantage point when considering the purpose of Christmas. I am honestly confused by the way we celebrate Christmas given what I perceive to be the apparent meaning of Christmas.
I think that we celebrate Christmas because it’s the birthday of Jesus Christ, one of God’s prophets, who told us to love one another and died so that we can all be saved. I think that to celebrate Jesus and live according to his teachings, we should love each other without exception.
What does it mean to love each other?
This question is complex, in part because love is both an emotion and a verb. We can feel emotions of love but that may or may not translate into loving action. What I’m talking about here is the use of love as an active verb, also known as active love.
One modern way to think about active love is based on Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Though the book is framed with respect to romantic relationships, the frame can be used for any relationship including those with our friends, family, co-workers, and even organizations and communities.
Chapman says that there are five main ways that we show or perceive love: touch, gifts, loving or affirming words, spending time together, and service. During Christmas, it feels like we indulge in the gift and time love languages, though we may also provide care for others and volunteering as part of our holiday celebrations and service to members in the community.
Many of us feel that Christmas has become too commercialized, with stuff, décor, and parties seeming to overtake the main purpose of Christmas, which is honoring Jesus’ imperative to love one another. Science shows that materialism does not sustain lasting happiness. It actually tends to decrease satisfaction and happiness by making us feel overwhelmed with choices, and drives the need to acquire even more stuff. It’s also damaging to Earth without providing real or lasting value to us.
So what would be more in line with the meaning of Christmas that simultaneously improves our sense of satisfaction and wellbeing?
Both ancient (Jesus) and modern wisdom (positive psychology) teaches us that our relationships and meaning/purpose through service to others are key to our wellbeing and lasting happiness. That happiness is not acquired by materialism and a once-per-year attitude of good deeds and service.
Therefore, we should live the spirit of Christmas all year (absent the music and décor, please), by showing active love, compassion, and kindness, and in so doing truly honor Jesus and God in a meaningful way. We at the Foundation for Family and Community Healing also believe that we should be showing active love to Earth too.
If we take materialism out of the equation and live the meaning of Christmas all year, for all of us and for Earth, what would we do?
We’d use our wealth, time, and resources to help others become their best selves and live their life’s purpose.
We’d treat others with compassion and kindness, especially those with whom we have differences.
We’d take care of ourselves because we also deserve kindness and compassion from ourselves too.
We’d find ways to show love to Earth every day using time together, touch, service, words, and gifts.
The wonderful thing is that you can show love to Earth in the course of your normal time outdoors. For example, I just came back from a walk by the river where I was intentionally being present and smelling, listening, and looking at the rocks, water, sky, and plants (time). I paused to touch some leaves and hug a tree (touch; yes, I’m a literal tree-hugger). I brought a plastic bag to pick up trash (service; didn’t see any today, good for us!), and I said words of thanks at the beginning and end of the walk (words). I didn’t leave any gifts unless you count the dog poo we left off the path to fertilize the bushes and my intention to learn to garden and beautify in 2020.
May we strive to extend the meaning of Christmas by showing love all year long, toward ourselves, towards others, and towards Earth, and encourage you to do the same. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!
Written by Susanna Wu-Pong Calvert