from the desk of H. Bowie...

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What Christmas Means to Me

Tourists by the Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square
image credit: iStock/coldsnowstorm

Here we are at the end of another year, well into what many of us call the holiday season.

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, when it comes to religion, I’m a bit of a mongrel, so my approach to the holidays, while imbued with many of the traditional elements associated with a good Methodist upbringing, does not hew closely to any particular set of Christian dictates.

But that’s perhaps as it should be, for Christmas, it seems to me, has always been too big a thing to be narrowly claimed by any particular religious organization.

After all, at least in my part of the world, Christmas is not a small event practiced by a few behind closed doors – no, it’s something that happens out in the public, and is shared by the entire community.

  • On the darkest nights of the year, lights are strung on trees and buildings, visible to all, driving back the darkness.

  • Warm cards and messages are exchanged with those separated from us by the miles, but still held close in our hearts.

  • When trees outside are bare, and the ground is cold and hard, evergreens are cut and displayed, decorated with ornaments and brightly lit.

  • Gifts for those most dear to us are selected, purchased, wrapped, and placed under the trees.

  • Those who can, travel home, leaving behind for a little while the cares of labor and commerce, to spend cherished time with those they know as family, however those familial bonds were formed.

  • Special foods are prepared with care and, in the coldest time of the year, when nothing grows, we have the greatest of feasts, and pour out libations, toasting our friends, family and good fortunes, celebrating the facts that we have warm homes and ample food and those to share them with.

  • And, this being the time of year when differences in human fortunes can be most cruel, those of us who have much share some with those who have less.

And, oh, the stories that are told. Of misers and beggars, cripples and kings, angels and elves, newborn babes and aging men, reindeer and sleighs, snow and ice, foolishness and wisdom, loneliness and union, enchantment and enlightenment. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Some of the finest tales ever told, tales for the ages.

And, of course, the songs that are sung, songs that touch on all the themes and stories I’ve described above, and more. This time of year I’m listening to my favorite holiday recordings, carefully collected and curated over the years, some of them familiar favorites, some that you may have never heard of. I’m especially drawn to songs and singers and recordings that can make these timeworn motifs feel as fresh and new and deeply felt as they deserve to be.

So many different voices, so many modes of expression, all exploring these same heights and depths, all offering answers to these same timeless questions: What is it that makes us human? What makes us shed tears, or cry out in joy? To what do we aspire? What is it that brings us rest, respite and redemption?

These are not questions asked only by those of some particular faith, nor, I think, are any of us so sure of the answers that we can turn away from an opportunity to explore them anew with our fellow humans.

And so I wish you the very best this Christmas season: the best of what we humans have to offer each other, the brightest gifts, the most piercing joy, the deepest love.

(Enjoy a series of short pieces about my favorite Christmas songs.)

December 21, 2020