I hope you had a nice Christmas, if you celebrate it. We usually go to my sister-in-law's parents' house in Illinois. I missed being with that group this year, but, in the snowstorms leading up to the day, thoughts of the perils of winter travel were making me anxious. I have many fine memories of Wigilia at the Noyszewski's house. I must say that the Polish traditions of Christmas Eve are the most satisfying Christmas traditions I've known as an adult...the Oplatek, the extra place setting at the table in case an unexpected guest should arrive, the meatless feast. Of course it helps when you have great hosts, especially if one of them is a great cook!
Still, Christmas in general seems weirder to me the older I get. It's not really a Christian holiday—it easily predates Christ (it was the birthday of Mithras before it became the birthday of Jesus), and the early Christian church tried to stamp it out before adopting a sensible "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" policy and appropriating it. More than anything, though, it's a Victorian holiday—most of our traditions date from the Victorian era. (I love the fact that the flying sleigh was invented by Washington Irving, more famous for his Headless Horseman and for a village ne'er-do-well who fell into a twenty-year trance state. I think I identify with Rip even more than I do with old Ebenezer's existential crisis.) In the early and middle years of the 19th century, coal and industrialization created an explosion in wealth that reached well into the middle and merchant classes, and the prosperous vied with each other to see who could add more gingerbread to his house, more ornately carved furniture to her sitting room. The more expensive handwork could be showed off, the better. It was an era of doilies everywhere. The heavily festooned tree, the cornucopia of gifts wrapped in expensive printed paper, the sheer exuberance (and, one has to say, wastefulness) of our current holiday dates from that time.
All that was left was the evolution of the traditional garb of Santa Claus (the name a bastardized transliteration of "Saint Niklaus"), which really didn't settle down until well into the modern era, when commercial advertising gave him his stable appearance—it's still a little disconcerting to see the Bishop's robes of purple or green on the Victorian St. Nicks. And of course there was one thing left to invent to bring the holiday into its proper modern form: the electric light bulb, which enabled us to string colored ones all over our houses. There's a certain satisfaction in that, too—the "festivals of light" on the shortest days of the year in the Northern hemishpere is a tradition that stretches back literally to the dawn of recorded time. And what could be nicer for dark days than festive lights?
Still...when I was young I re-read A Christmas Carol every December (or watched the peerless 1951 film version, with Alastair Sim in the title role—please, do me a favor and ignore the Bowdler...er, colorized variant). Now that I'm a middle-aged humbug, I think I'll start a "new tradition" (an oxymoron I just love, since it comes so close to making sense without quite doing so) and re-read Alain de Botton's lovely Status Anxiety every year. Ah, Christmas.