The True Meaning of Christmas (That Everyone Forgets)

Let's say we find out an asteroid is going to hit the earth at some point over the next three months. It may kill all of us, it may kill some of us, it may splash harmlessly into the ocean -- but there is no stopping it. All we can do is hunker down and see what happens. How would you react? How would humanity as a whole react? Well, I know how: we would prepare as best we could, and then we would surround ourselves with the people we love most and party our asses off. We would do it, because we would realize it might be our last chance. I know this, because we have Christmas.

Allow me to explain.


Get some cocoa, and get comfy. Here's some background music.

This is the time of year when my Christian friends remind me via Facebook image macros that Christ is the reason for the season, and my atheist friends remind everyone that "Christmas" is at best a renamed pagan orgy and at worst a crass hybrid of religious conditioning and economic stimulus ("God became a man to save us from sin, so let's get into a fistfight over the last PlayStation 4 at Target!"). Well, let me take the bold stance that if you're using Christmas as an excuse to be a dick to somebody, you're probably doing it wrong. The real origins of this holiday are amazing, sacred, and etched into your very DNA, if not by God then by evolution. There's enough magic here for everybody, damn it.

It's hard to understand why Christmas came to be a big deal even for people who have never stepped foot inside a church without understanding the context. And the context -- which does predate Christianity by thousands of years -- is that December kicks off winter in the Northern hemisphere. And for most of human history, winter meant a bunch of us were going to freaking die.

Purestock/Purestock/Getty Images
So like this, but with corpses piled up under the tree instead of gifts.

We're so detached from that idea today, when the cold means nothing more than mild annoyance and sometimes slippery roads, that it's hard to grasp how recent this was, and that this was the way of things for virtually all of human history. Every year, you headed into winter with just enough stored food and fuel to get by. The old and the sick knew they might not make it through, and an especially harsh winter could mean no one would feel the sun's warmth ever again. Every year, you watched all of the plants turn brown and shrivel into husks, followed by an unrelenting darkness and cold that threatened to swallow you and everything you love.

And looking back at that, we see an awesome little portrait of exactly how much humans kick ass. Every year, you see, winter arrived with a short day followed by the longest night of the year (aka the winter solstice), and since before recorded history, humans have been celebrating that day with a feast, or festival, or outright debauchery. On that longest night before the frozen mini-apocalypse, in all times and places you would find light and song and dancing and food. Cattle would be slaughtered (to avoid having to feed all of them through the winter), families would travel to be together, and wine would flow. Precious supplies were dedicated to making decorations and gifts -- frivolous things, good for nothing other than making each other happy.

Wiki Commons
Sure, some of the kid toys ended up looking like fetish gear, but the spirit and intent were pure.

These celebrations went by many names over the millennia, and everyone did it their own way. But deep down, I think the message was always the same: "We made it through another year, some of us won't see spring, let's spend a few days reminding each other of what's good about humanity." Or, I'll just let you read my favorite Christmas quote, from esteemed essayist Dan Harmon:

No matter how black, white, male, female, Irish, German, tall, short, ugly or pretty you felt this year, you are part of a family that has been targeted by an unforgiving cosmos since its inception but has, regardless, survived ... humanity, warts and all, is an inherently heroic species that has spent about 99.99% of its short lifetime as an underdog. And If you see no billboards telling you that, it's not because it's not true. It's because there's little to no profit to be made telling you.

I could go on and on about the suffering we've endured and the adaptations we've made, but to me, our species' crowning jewel is that on the shortest day of the year, when the sun spends most of its time swallowed, when everything is frozen, when nothing can grow, when the air is so cold our voices stop right in front of our faces ... we put a string of lights on a universe that is currently doing nothing to earn it. We not only salvage an otherwise desolate time of year, we make it the best time of year.

MSPhotographic/iStock/Getty Images
"Winter: we have eggnog."

"Wait," you might say, "so your inspirational, 'true meaning of Christmas' is that we should remember how our filthy ancestors used to freeze to death on a regular basis?" No, Christmas isn't magical because of what it was, or where it came from. It's magical because that's what it still is.

See, around this time of year, my social media also fills with friends and acquaintances half-joking about having to tolerate the holidays around their extended family, people they only see once or twice a year with whom they have nothing in common and don't like talking to. It all seems so arbitrary to them, a holiday that as a kid meant free toys and as an adult means travel, shopping, and trying to remember the name of your cousin's new wife while the two of you make awkward conversation around the eggnog fountain. But that's only because we're separated from that ancient, unspoken truth, which is that this festive gathering around the fire might be the last time you see those faces.

And that part hasn't changed.

estt/iStock/Getty Images
Though, admittedly, some of the particulars are a bit different.

This will be read by tens of thousands of people, and statistically, some of you are in fact traveling to see your grandparents, or parents, or siblings, for the very last time. You don't know it's their last Christmas, of course -- if you somehow knew, you'd do it differently. You'd try to stretch out those moments, you wouldn't spend conversations nervously looking for an exit point, you'd spend a little more time digging up old memories and laughing about your shared past. You'd spend less time worrying about the gifts and the budget, and more about how we're spending the precious little time we have left. Once upon a time, nobody needed that reminder that life was short -- the holiday was the reminder. You hugged your family extra tight because, to quote the HBO series all the kids are watching these days, "Winter is Coming."*

*The Alex Winter Show

Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

"Joke all you want, but you have no idea how much Tinder mileage I've gotten out of that line."

So in my mind, the Christians complaining about people losing sight of the real meaning of the holiday are right, in the sense that people do forget that it's supposed to be about generosity, and redemption, and forgiveness, and clinging to hope in a world turned dark, cold, and cruel. But it stood for those things before it was called Christmas. It stood for those things back when religion wasn't just something you did out of obligation to some tradition, or a set of ceremonies you performed in order to join a tribe or political party. No, back then if the sun didn't shine on your crops, you had to watch your children slowly die. So you got on your knees and begged the sun to shine. You pleaded for the rain to fall, for the plague to pass your family by, for the winter to go easy on you this year. It was a time when it was so much harder to pretend that the universe was under our control, when all you could do was look up at the sky and beg it for mercy.

And then, receiving no immediate answer, we would gather around the fire and eat rich food and sing songs and give gifts. Because while we waited for the frozen gray skies to render a verdict, all we had was each other and the warmth of our generosity.

James Thew/iStock/Getty Images
"Not having to resort to eating each other truly is the greatest gift of all."

But that was a long time ago. Our problems are less dire and immediate these days, and as a result, we forget that we're still the same fragile creatures we were then. And if you think that's all a big downer, this idea that Christmas (or the solstice, or Saturnalia) was all about the last hurrah before a slow death by freezing or starvation, you're looking at it the wrong way. I mean ... look around you. This is humanity in a nutshell: when faced with the cold specter of death, we put on a festive sweater and eat cookies and sing songs about a jolly supernatural being who brought joy to our lives, before the spring came along and he melted, leaving only his hat behind.

Warner Bros.
I am of course referring to the classic Christmas parable, Gremlins 2.

Soon, many of you will be sitting in a room with laughing kids who won't be kids much longer, and proud grandparents who won't be around much longer, and it probably won't occur to you that all of it is as tenuous as a snowflake on a dog's nose. It won't occur to you that there will never be another Christmas exactly like this one, that time will move on and people will change and that some day your most treasured memories will be things that at the time you experienced with nothing more than detached, mild annoyance.

So, if you're gathering with your family and friends this time of year, I personally don't care what you call the holiday as long as you celebrate it with this in mind:

You don't get many of these. Make them count.

-DW

Want to talk to David Wong? He's doing an "Ask Me Anything" over at the official Cracked subreddit right now.

For more from David, check out 5 Popular Beliefs That Are Holding Humanity Back. And then check out If Classic Christmas Movies Were Rated R.

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