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The Meaning Of Christmas Extends Beyond Family

12/24/2015 09:21 EST | Updated 12/24/2016 05:12 EST
Steve Debenport via Getty Images
Mom with children choosing toys to donate to Christmas charity

I wonder if the tide is turning about Christmas. This year, it seems that more is being written about putting the meaning back in Christmas. This is pretty dicey territory, because Christmas does in fact have different meaning for different people.

To many, Christmas marks the birth of Christ in a manger, with the three wise men and the sheep and the goats and the cow -- oh ya, and Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. Most of us know the story, but is that what most of us are actually celebrating at Christmas?

The majority of people don't seem to be celebrating the holiday in an effort to recognize the birth of Christ. Christmas is celebrated more widely as a time to get together with loved ones, a time to give and, hopefully, a time to think about people who are in need. For some, they celebrate the season by contributing to a food bank, a shelter, or to a family in need.

Christmas has morphed in wild and sometimes unsettling ways. The consumerism has gone mad, it starts early in the malls and moves on relentlessly until Christmas Eve. I know, because I get caught up in all of it too... and then, there is Santa and the elves.

The Elf on the Shelf, a toy that you hide every night and is used to convince your children that the almighty Elf is watching their every move, strikes me as a little creepy. Of course, if the Elf doesn't convince your children to tone down the sibling rivalry, that big jolly man certainly will. He sees you when you're sleeping, he sees you when you're awake, he knows... you get the idea.

Again, it's all a little unsettling. Santa seems to be the more benevolent of the two, and at least he is jolly and well-intentioned. However, I distinctly remember having to back my son into Santa's lap. In one memorable photo, my son and his cousin are each crying in terror at being unceremoniously dropped in Santa's lap.

My kids are well beyond the magic and wonder of Santa Claus. My daughter, at 16, still puts out cookies for Santa and celery sticks for the reindeer, but the ritual has lost some of its wonder. The kids still need slippers and new flannel pajamas as an annual Christmas tradition, and in recent years they are trying to convince me that new phones are an annual necessity.

Gift giving and receiving is exciting for my kids. My daughter takes great pride in finding the perfect gift. She is also the designated wrapper, outperforming both my husband and I whose gifts generally look like a three-year-old wrapped them. I still feel some excitement in the gift giving, but I find myself struggling to define exactly what Christmas is to our family as we transition to the teenage and early adult years.

I seem to be more aware than ever about the sadness that exists for so many around Christmas. My daughter's best friend lost her mom days before Christmas last year. Witnessing a 16-year-old struggle with losing her mom and trying to get through the holidays shows me that it's impossible to fake your way to jolly amidst that kind of pain. Her pain is tangible and she has to navigate a world where at every turn she is met with the imperative of celebration.

My girlfriend is spending each day in hospice with her husband, who has been slipping away over the last week. She is not sure whether she should go home to her kids, for fear her husband will slip away while she is out of the room.

"I am spending more time reaching out to the people beyond my immediate family. These people need my love and caring, too."

As I go through the Christmas list of my four kids, I am acutely aware of my godchildren who are separated from their father this Christmas and don't know where he is. I worry about how they are going to manage through the holidays with so much sadness and anxiety weighing them down.

Sadness and loss is a part of Christmas for many people, and I know that we can make space for it in our rush to get presents under the tree and a turkey in the oven. I don't find visiting a hospital at Christmas time a downer, I find myself appreciating life more and appreciating the moments when everything is going well.

I am deeply grateful that my family and extended family are healthy; I know that it won't always be the case. I enjoy giving and receiving gifts far more when I have taken the time and effort to give to others who are in need -- those that are close to me and those that I will probably never meet.

What I am most aware of this year, is that Christmas is a different experience for each one of us, depending on our religious beliefs and what is happening in our lives. For many, it is the anniversary of the loss of a loved one; for some it is an acute reminder that they live on the fringes of society; for too many Canadians it is a brutal reminder of what they do not have. We need to make space for the different ways our family, our loved ones and our community is experiencing Christmas.

This holiday, I will buy gifts for my children and loved ones, as I always do, but I have scaled it back a few notches. I do not have to exhaust myself trying to get everything on the list. I am spending more time reaching out to the people beyond my immediate family. These people need my love and caring, too.

A call to my friend who is losing her husband means the world to her; a case of food dropped off at the food bank brings my daughter and me together in the spirit of Christmas. My son is learning to shop for others, to put thought into the gifts. He is learning about the joy of giving.

I can feel the shift happening in our family, the shift from it being all about us being together and caring about one another, to Christmas being about caring for others as well. I think this most accurately reflects the true spirit of Christmas, whether we are Christian or not.

Christmas is about caring and giving beyond oneself and our very narrow family unit. It is about noticing all of the different places people are at in their lives and giving space for all of it.

It is about love -- love for our family, love for our friends, love for mankind. The magic and wonder of Christmas does not live most deeply in the trimmings of the season or in its iconic symbols, it lives in the spirit of love and giving that transcends religion and beliefs.

I encourage you to take some time over the next few days to reflect on what Christmas really means to you and what you can do to extend the true spirit of the season to someone in need around you. What will you do to make this holiday a special time for someone in need in your family, in your community, or maybe even for someone you will never meet?

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