Christmas Secular Symbolism: a guide


If, like me, you really enjoy Christmas but are not a Christian, it can feel a little weird to fill your home with Christian symbols of the celebration: the tree, the star, the candy canes, the wreaths, the whole deal. A fair list of those Christian symbols can be found here and here.

I figured it was long past time we came up with a list of explicitly secular symbols for the modern Christmas decorations, so that they can not only be beautiful decorations, but meaningful to non-Christians as well.

The artificial tree: Long reviled by purists, fake trees look better and better each year and they’re becoming more popular. Of course, they’re made of serious plastic, so they have to be in use for some 15 years or so before they offset the effect of cutting down trees every year. But an artificial tree reminds us of what we make out of the world and that we have to be mindful of how we use it. As human beings, we make our lives better by creating joy and beauty, but we have to remember that it comes at a cost.

The natural tree: Except for the part about “serious plastic” and fifteen years, same thing.

The star atop the tree: Stars are the source of all life (well, ours is) and they also represent the future. As we celebrate this annual holiday, we need something to remind us to keep moving forward.

Multi-colored lights on the tree: It would be easy to say that these stand for the need to keep a wide variety of people in your life–not just variety in the color of their skin but also in their political beliefs, their gender, their sexual orientation, their hobbies and preferences. That would be easy but it’s not enough. The colorful lights should also remind us to seek out a wide variety of experiences, too, and to do so brightly with exuberance. And, of course, they’re all strung together, because it’s important to share those experiences with the important people in our lives.

Little white lights on the tree: These symbolize a need for uniformity, conformity, and a desire to withhold powerful emotional expressions to give the appearance of good taste. (Sorry, white-lighters, but ugh, go for the color.)

The wreath: Everything that comes out of the Earth must return to it someday.

Garland: A strand or rope of bright reflective stuff, garland represents the connection we feel with the people closest to us all year long. Sometimes that’s family, sometimes it’s friends, sometimes it’s a family of choice. And best of all, garland is easy to break when it has to be broken.

Stockings: I’m told that once upon a time, the stocking hung by the chimney with care were actual stockings sized to fit actual feet, and people received their gifts in them and were grateful. Now they’re sized for giants, are sewn to hang flat (to be decorative) and are made to hold gifts. What’s more, the gifts inside stockings have become the little things we get for each other, trifles that we don’t have to wrap or put a lot of thought into. “Stocking-stuffers.”

Those giant, oversized stockings should remind us all of the *stuff* we can make now, and how cheaply we can make it, how little we really value most of it, and the poverty of some of those people who actually do the manufacturing.

Mistletoe: Once again, I refer to the olden days (of not that olden ago): Women were mostly forbidden from expressing overt interest in a guy if she wanted to be treated with respect. She wasn’t allowed to *want* to kiss, not at first. So you had bullshit like mistletoe, which gave people an excuse to kiss someone else, and hopefully that someone else actually wanted to be kissed and was glad for the excuse.

Nowadays, that stigma is reduced to the point that we don’t need excuses like mistletoe anymore, which means it now represents people taking liberties they would not otherwise be offered. Mistletoe: a tradition we can do without.

Santa Claus: Santa represents generosity, which is especially important for little kids. Generosity can be very difficult for little kids to grasp, and all the myth and story around Santa Claus present utterly selfless generosity to them in the best possible light. Among the other benefits of believing in Ol’ St. Nick, he’s a role model for very young kids that their parents can never be.

For you very young child, everything comes from their parents and/or guardians: clothes, meals, TV time, a special milkshake all your own–getting stuff from your parents is how the world works. But Santa is different. Yeah, he is also giving things to kids, but it *feels* so different. It feels like a special occassion.

Finally, when a kid gets old enough to figure out that Santa is just a story, what do they discover? That their parents have been behind it all along and taking absolutely zero credit.

Secret kindness. Generosity without expectation of being repaid. Just talking about it makes me want to watch the end of HOGFATHER again.

What else? Are these too dour? Is there a decoration I left out? Do you want to defend little white lights (as if)? Comments are turned off on my blog but you can add them on LiveJournal, Twitter, Facebook, or G+ if you want.