Seeking the Spirit of Christmas


I have found myself pondering the meaning of Christmas over the last week or so.  Now I know that sounds very deep but from an agnostic’s point of view it is quite a key question.

We are a somewhat small and depleted family having lost Dad a few months ago.  There is me, my two adult sons and Mum.  Of course there is also my brother-in-law and niece but since my sister died five years ago his focus, understandably, has been more to his own family, and I find myself thinking of them as an extension to our family rather than the core family if you understand my meaning.

When my sons were small the whole focus of Christmas was around them.  The excitement that built up from shopping trips, visits to Santa’s grotto, school activities until by Christmas Eve they were fit to explode and indeed they did around 4pm on Christmas Day when it all got too much and they burst into tears.  As they got older the focus moved to my niece some 11 years their junior and then we had the trauma of Christmas without her mother.  We found a way of moving forward going through the motions including trips to the pantomime.

This year, as I have said, there will be 4 of us around the Christmas table.  There is no pantomime trip for a range of reasons and it has started to feel that I was going through the motions following a prescribed routine which was fuelled by the media and commerce. It felt as though Christmas was really just a glorified roast dinner with some gifts, that none of us really need, thrown in. This is why over the recent weeks the sense that I needed to provide Christmas and some magic, whatever that maybe, has grown and grown.  It lead me to wonder what Christmas was actually about.  We don’t go to church so once you take out the whole religious meaning of Christmas it seems you are left with the commercial aspect which doesn’t sit well with me at all.

I have said I am an agnostic; despite being christened and confirmed I struggle to embrace organised Christianity.  However, I do believe there is something out there – I have no idea what – and over recent years I have felt myself more empathetic to the old religions, the circle of life, mother nature, call it what you will. I find myself more attuned to the changing seasons, lengthening of days, cycles of the moon than I ever will be to the teachings of Christ or any other religious deity.  I believe more and more in respecting our surroundings and working with nature.

So as I pondered on how to make Christmas special for my small family, how to bring some magic into the house, how to move away from the commercialisation of it all (prompted by my son on a recent visit to a well-known supermarket saying ‘You can buy Christmas here’). I found myself thinking about why we decorate our homes with greenery, why we have Christmas trees, why we feast and why Christmas is when it is?  It doesn’t take much effort to discover that the timing of Christmas coincides, almost, with the winter solstice and the old religion celebrations.  When Christianity was being devised (I’m sorry I don’t mean to offend I can’t think of another word) the key celebrations were timed to coincide with existing pagan festivals in order to ‘sell’ the new religion to the masses.  In so doing many of the traditions associate with the pagan festivals were subsumed into the new celebrations which is why when you start to think about things like mistletoe and the obsession with holly and ivy and how they relate to Christianity it makes little sense – the same applies to some of the Easter customs. The bringing in of greenery into the house was partly to ward of evil spirits, it was for decorative reasons, and  in some cultures evergreen were brought in and decorated to represent gods or goddesses.  Mistletoe was considered by the druids to be extremely sacred. It was cut on the sixth night after the winter solstice and distributed to the people to hang over their doors to ward off evils spirits. As for our modern obsession with gift giving this may have developed from the  Roman celebration of Saturnalia, an ancient festival which took place in late December.

Where does this leave me and my quest for the spirit of Christmas?  Well I have decided, that I wanted to refer to the winter solstice and nature more, and to start some new family traditions.  So I have left the artificial tree in the loft and instead we had the fun of going to choose a real Christmas tree, the annoyance of trying to get it to stand up straight and we will no doubt spend a considerable amount of time over the Christmas period hovering up the needles but it feels special.  I have kept the decorations simple and traditional – no gaudy tinsel.  Finally, I have used the branches cut off the bottom of the tree to make a wreath for the front door to which I have added foliage collected from around the garden which for me is a celebration of mid-winter and marks the turning of the year and days getting longer – as a gardener something I look forward to more than Christmas.  Just these simple things have brought Christmas to life in our house far more than in previous years.  I think the ‘effort’ of having made/created these things myself rather than buying them ready-made off a shelf means more; my sons have certainly commented on it.

This year it will be a quiet Christmas, with a nice meal, some gifts and spending time together. We will miss Dad and my sister and remember past Christmases and tell stories.  It will be a time for reflection but also for looking ahead to the future and I think that is what Christmas is, for me,  really all about – being with loved ones and sharing good times and in a way tapping into the American tradition of Thanksgiving, remembering how lucky we are in whatever way.




35 Comments on “Seeking the Spirit of Christmas

  1. I share your views about Christmas and like to think of it as a festival to celebrate the return of the sun. After the winter solstice the days gradually begin to lengthen, and the journey towards spring begins. Marking that significant turning point in the year makes so much sense to me.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your search for the spirit of Christmas, Helen. I am aware of the several times you have laid bare your soul in your posts on this blog, and this is one them. I thank you sincerely for doing so and hope that in posting this you have indeed made further progress in your search. Very best wishes to you and the rest of your foursome x

    • Hi Cathy
      I didn’t see this as laying my soul bare but I suppose it might seem that way in reading, it was meant more as a ponder!! 🙂

  3. Glad I’m not on my own Thank you Helen I have been having the same conversation with myself for a while now

    • Hi Ann
      I seem to have struck a chord with a few people

  4. Well said Helen. Your thoughts on the subject reflect my sentiments completely. Honouring and working with the seasons ,following the wheel of the year makes good sense to me. I have also been gardening according to the phases of the moon for about 5 years now,particularly where growing veg on my allotment is concerned…I use the very useful book ‘Gardening and Planting by the Moon ‘ by Nick Kollerstrom. It ‘s a kind of diary that guides you as to what you should be doing on any particular day and is published annually with spaces for notes….makes it easy.

    • hi Sue
      Glad it stuck a chord with you. The idea of growing in tune with the moon fascinates me and if I had kept the allotment I think I would have given it a go

  5. Helen, this really resonated with me. I’ve been pondering the same things. I like where you’re going with your Christmas celebration … I am going to work on taking a similar journey across the pond on my corner of Katy!

    • Hi Cindy
      It is surprising how many it seems to be resonating with

  6. Yes I love your realisations – just turn the season upside down and have sun, beach, strawberries, Christmas Lillies to add to the smell of a pine and that is Christmas in New Zealand! Families are what are important! xx

    • Hi Yvonne
      I have done a couple of Christmases in Australia many years ago and it was strange. We stopped over in Singapore and couldn’t escape the Christmas music it was like they were trying to convince themselves it was Christmas and then there were the cards with snow on which made no sense. Eating a full Christmas dinner with Christmas pudding in your swimming costume is just madness but there was no dissuading my aunt!

  7. Hi Helen.
    I completely agree with what you say about the timing of the Christmas celebrations and the Winter Solstice. We have for some years had a get-together, outside in the garden weather permitting, with family and friends, close to the shortest day, before Christmas, to celebrate the start of lengthening days and the coming of Spring.

    • hi Brian
      What a nice idea, hope the weather stays good for you this year.

  8. Having lost my mother so recently it will be a very quiet Christmas here too. Not that we ever made a huge thing of it. I am not a lover of winter at all, the solstice marks a real turning point for me and New Year is the time I really feel I want to celebrate and start planning for a better year to come.
    Take care Helen, just relax and enjoy it.

    • Hi RD
      I dont like winter either so the winter solstice is also important to me as a sign the days will start to get longer.
      Hope your Christmas is Ok as well


  9. Have a happy Christmas Helen! Love your wreath! Very cheery! My christmas tree is only 6″ tall so only has space for a couple of baubals!

    • Hi Owen
      My tree is 6’6 but quite bare at the top but I still managed to get lots of baubles on it. You need to try harder:)

  10. Helen, I loved reading this. I struggle with the same thing every year. Since we’ve never had children, we have never taken much time with the rituals, the decorations, etc. And as former Catholics, well, you know. Now that I’m retired I thought I’d have time for the rituals of putting up a tree, but that never happened either. But maybe next year I will make the effort and celebrate the winter solstice. I hope your family has a wonderful holiday.

    • Hi Jean
      I often wonder if I will go on holiday when my sons have left home etc but I think I do feel a need to be with family at Christmas especially as we are such a small family, in someways now it feels even more important.

  11. Oh how I agree with you. It’s my husband’s birthday on the 21st and he has always joked that Christmas was really a celebration of his birthday and that he is a Pagan and we like to celebrate his pagan birthday. Once I have finished school (I’m a teacher) and celebrated the pagan birthday, I will then try to make a festive wreath from the garden. I’ve made two over the last two years, not as good as yours; but you have given me the impetus to have another go. Thank you.

    • hi Mandy
      My wreath is simple, it’s just a circle of heavy duty wire (I sometimes use an old wire coat hanger) and then I wire the greenery on in small bunches going round and round the circle until it’s all covered. The downside is that the greenery drys out quickly.

  12. My feelings exactly. I like to feel that this is a time in the middle of winter, to take things a little differently, to have time to appreciate what we have and realise that we have a lot to feel grateful for, even in the small things, in the beauty of nature.

    • Hi Noelle
      I think it is a nice opportunity to reflect. There are few demands on time unless you have lots of family things to do, the shops are shut. It reminds me of when Sundays were treated as a day of rest back when I was a child before we became obsessed with shopping

  13. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. Since reading The Revelation of Arès, I have not known what to do with Christmas. It seems humanity has a strong desire for some kind of festival at this time of year, at least in the northern hemisphere. I cannot reconcile to anything false.

    • Hi djd
      I don’t know that book you refer too, will seek it out. I think your feeling of not being able to relate to anything false is where I am coming from

  14. Another one here feeling very similar. Our Christmas will be without my mother and my father in law and with my father failing. The solstice speaks to me too.

    • Hi Elizabeth
      Christmas makes you very aware of who isn’t there, its finally caught up with Mum. Thinking of you and yours

  15. I think this season’s crowd of different festivals, like a snow-globe, benefits from being shaken up gently, and I hope you’ll be happier for doing so. We started changing how we all did Christmas some twelve years ago following a couple of bereavements and family members moving abroad, and I’m so glad we did. It changed how we all felt about this time of year, I think.

    I was going to write some more, but then it turned into an essay which I’ve put on my own blog rather than taking up space on yours. I’ll just ask instead that you accept my best wishes for a calm, affectionate and contemplative festive season: whatever the festival in question might be!

    • Hi JP
      It interesting that having written this post I have received comments from so many who feel the same. There is always a feelings that everyone else is loving the whole commercial thing.

    • Hi Helen,

      I think “the commercial thing” is all right – if you like that sort of thing! We should all feel free to put together our own versions of festivities nowadays, if that’s how we feel more comfortable. If Christmas is a manufactured festival anyway, let’s each of us make the Christmas that we want!


  16. We will be in St George’s Cathedral on Christmas morning – partly for the music.
    I lean more towards pagan, Gaia, at one with nature.

    We have an ongoing battle about Christmas trees. My Swiss husband would like a real tree, but in our summer Chrsitmas a cut tree doesn’t last. I hate the idea of a plastic tree (beastly thing sheds PLASTIC needles too). We used a dead pecan branch in Porterville and now it waits to find a home inside after renovations. My great-niece in Devon has a tree made of driftwood – that appeals to me too.

    We’ve found our own Swiss and South African way. My glass Advent wreath with Coprosma and lush red Bougainvillea, and straw stars on the bay window this year. Family lunch will be different as one of my sisters now lives in England with her family.

    • Hi Diane
      your comment about the tree reminded me of the Christmases I spent in Australia with my relatives some 30 years ago. My uncle proudly produced an artificial tree which was nothing short of a green broom stick with branches screwed in at intervals but as you say a real tree wasn’t an option.

      I think once you turn your back on the media etc it is easier to find something that works for you and those you care about

      Have a good Christmas

  17. I remember a dear friend asking me in my teens what Christmas meant to me as a Non-christian and I struggled to answer… Not because it didn’t mean anything to me but because I hadn’t expected to need to explain it! In the end I replied it meant being with family and sharing the love we have for each other.

    Now I am older I have wrestled with faith and find myself drawn to a Unitarian view, that faith is unique to each of us and yet we are all connected some way. So I quite like the fact we all celebrate in our own ways at this time of year! There are so many celebrations… the Solstice, Christmas, Hannukah, Diwali… For me it is all about hope and light in the darkest days and that is worth celebrating in whatever way works for you!!

    I really enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing! Have a lovely Christmas in the way that feels right for you x

  18. To echo what your other commenters have said, this piece resonates with me. We also put up a real tree, choosing the most fragrant one we can find, then decorate it with ornaments our son and nieces and nephews made years ago. There are also lots of pinecones and birds hiding on the limbs. Our goal is to fill the house with lovely sights and smells. Happiest of celebrations to you and your family. xoxo

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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