A Very Merry Secular Christmas
We hear a lot about remembering “the reason for the season” when it comes to celebrating Christmas. Some Christians are upset that we’ve all trying to say “Happy Holidays" instead of “Merry Christmas!”, substituting pop songs for religious Christmas carols, and even taking Christmas symbolism off of Starbucks’s red cups. It’s all well and good that they’re upset that the religion is being taken out of their holiday, except for the fact that Christmas has been imposed on the rest of us who aren’t Christian, whether we never were to begin with or whether we’ve dropped the religion with age. Christianity is still the world’s largest religion, but it only consists of a third of the world’s population. Yet, Christmas is everywhere, almost all over the world. Not celebrating can be alienating, and embracing the season and everything that goes with it rather than the religious holiday itself can be a wonderful way of coping and minimizing the feelings of exclusion that seem to (at least in my experience) thrive at this time of December.
Growing up atheist in a half Protestant and very, very, very American and half Turkish, agnostic family, Christmas became something I made my own at a very young age. Visiting the Protestant side of my family at Christmas (who usually had claim on me at Christmas because, well, Protestant), I didn’t really click with the way they celebrated the holiday. Everything had an aura of stilted obligation rather than cozy comfort. At home, meanwhile, Christmas meant other things. Instead of obligations, it meant comfy pajamas and climbing onto my mom’s bed to watch all the movies she collected to watch at Christmas – White Christmas, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, Madeline’s Christmas, so many stop motion films and cartoons, every Flintstones and Jetsons Christmas special, I Love Lucy, and Bewitched. Everything was cozy and good. We listened to Louis Armstrong with my grandmother. We exchanged presents. We got Chinese takeaway and pizza and had cozy meals. We went for walks along Michigan Avenue and for hot chocolate at Ghirardelli, and just spent time together. It was a time of indulgence and family and comfort.
I consequently tend to get excited over Christmas. I decorate, I listen to Christmas music, I wear chunky sweaters, and sometimes I even mix red glitter into my nail polish. Yet, just as easily, I can get hit with spells of depression. It’s popular knowledge that Christmas is often considered one of the darkest times of year when it comes to mental health, and that has proven to be relatively true in my case. I have had very many downcast Decembers, while the rest of the world seems to be extremely merry. Aggressive merriment is unavoidably grating when you yourself are not feeling well, but the fact of the matter with Christmas is that there isn’t really a way to get away from it.
To avoid feeling worse about it, I decide to get aggressive with the way I celebrate. I stay away from everything religious and, instead, embrace all the rest as sources of comfort. Warm lights, pine trees, cranberry everything, reindeers, snow, and even Santa. Sure, all of those things have been associated with Christmas over time, but they do all go with winter above all else. Santa comes from Saint Nicholas and it’s hard to dissassociate him from religion (my husband has a lot to say about that and his religious association), but eh, I’m Turkish and Saint Nicholas is from Myra, which is now Demre in Turkey, so I choose to embrace that claim and feel a bit less left out. Add the total Americanization of Santa to that, and I figure he’s in the clear.
So, Christmas, to me, becomes a cozy celebration of winter and family. That way, it stops being a time of exclusion and I can embrace the holiday instead of holing up in my room alone, miserable for days (which I do have a tendency of doing at this time of year, otherwise - “fake it ‘til you make” it does have some truth to it with me and mental health.)
Here, then, are a few of my go-tos at this time of year.
Last year, I shared a few of the Attic’s favorite holiday-adjacent films, consisting of movies that take place near or around the holidays (whatever holiday it is) or that just have a feeling to them without being about the holidays themselves. I still stand by those and they’re my favorite to watch at this time of year, but sometimes you want something a bit more Christmassy. In my book, Christmas is okay and Christmas figures like Santa Claus and Rudolph are welcome as long as things don’t actually get religious.
Home Alone (1 but mostly 2) – Home Alone was a classic for me growing up. The first film was still number one in theatres the week I was born, and it’s just remained a set of films that speak to me. Kevin McAllister is forgotten by his family on Christmas in the first film and gets on the wrong plane, to New York, in the second, and there’s something satisfying about it. The situation is imperfect. A kid is forgotten by his family at Christmas. The anxiety is there from the beginning. And then he fights to survive and makes the best of it. It’s cathartic for an anxious kid and now, even, as an anxious adult. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is especially near and dear to my heart now, having moved abroad and left my American city Christmases behind. It captures the 90s New York Christmas spirit so well, and I and my New Yorker mother both love it.
The Family Stone – This movie is one you need to be in the right mood to watch. Sometimes I love it, sometimes it’s cathartic, and sometimes it makes my depression worse. I rewatched it once right before going to visit my husband, then boyfriend’s family at Christmas for the first time, and I’ll just say it sent my anxiety through the roof. In any case, Lee swears by this film and Muffy over on White Girl Blog wrote a fantastic piece on the movie a couple of weeks ago that has made me think about is differently and kept it on my mind.
White Christmas (1954) – The ultimate Christmas film in my book. It follows the story of four musical comedians who go to Vermont for the holiday, hoping to see some snow, and who end up trying to save an inn by putting on a variety show. Shenanigans and romance ensue. I rewatch it almost every year and love it to pieces.
The Shop Around the Corner – The original that Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail is based on. Need I say more other than it’s another Jimmy Stewart classic that isn’t It’s a Wonderful Life (which, sorry, but I hate).
I love my Christmas music, but I love for it to be jazzy and secular. Let it snow, by all means, but the little town in Bethlehem can keep its distance from me. Here are a few of my favorites. On the wholly secular side, with no mentions of anything Christmas, I’ve been listening to Almila Kakinc-Dodd from The Thirlby’s winter playlist all week, and it’s even what I’m listening to as I write this. It brought Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” back to me, and “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” has been a fantastic feeling for the season.
Food & Drink
Raquel’s mulled wine is making another appearance for me tonight, while my in-laws head to mass.
Lee’s apple and orange cranberry sauce is a seasonal fave, no matter what.
Christmas cookies are always a favorite. Lauren rounded up her family favorites last year, but the possibilities for cookies are endless. Last year, I made dipped and crisp peanut butter cookies, and this year, I’ve made confetti holiday shortbread.
Eliza’s warm apple juice is a go-to, though I sometimes/often splash some whisky or bourbon into it.
Similarly, I have my eye on Smitten Kitchen’s Fairytale of New York.
TAKEOUT or Eat Out. I’m very done with feeling like I need to cook a lovely Christmas meal because it’s what everyone does, and my side of the family’s gone back to going out for to our favorite Sichuan restaurant for our celebration.
Candles! I’ve come around to candles this year and they’ve helped make the season much cozier. My favorite ones this month are the orange and cinnamon candle from the local candle maker, Les Petits Faiseurs, in Geneva, and the holiday candle from Rifle Paper Co.
Blankets! Cozy up as much as you can.
Seasonal reads. I rounded up my favorite winter reads last year and I love to turn to them at this season.
Fun pajamas. Embrace the season and if you know you’re going to be down about it anyway, at least be cozy.
Take time for yourself. Listen to your mind and your body. Treat yourself well. Turn to self-care.