Every December, my husband Mike and I go out into a stand of pine or fir trees, cut one down and bring it home. We carefully string lights on it and then, one by one, pull ornaments from a storage box and hang them. Many of them have a story, so we tell it. Some of them we’ve had since childhood. Then, arm in arm, we turn off the rest of the lights and enjoy this special, colorful monument.
But it’s not a Christmas tree—it’s a Solstice tree.
Because I grew up with a lot of Jewish kids, I had some inkling of how overpowering Christmas might be. It was everywhere—in school, in the mall, in the doctor’s office, in the grocery store. Still, I didn’t fully appreciate the pervasiveness of this holiday until I tried to stop celebrating it myself a decade ago.
I had slowly morphed during my 20s and early 30s from a Catholic to an agnostic to an atheist, and decided that I’d rather celebrate the change of the seasons. I am more interested in the arrival of spring than the resurrection of a man, however honorable and wise a man he might be. And I am much more interested in the Earth’s turn back toward the sun than the alleged manger or stealthy fireplace spelunker.
The history of Christian efforts to supplant pagan celebrations with their own further fueled my interest in the original celebrations of December.
No problem, I thought. I will simply let my family know that I am celebrating Solstice instead of Christmas. I didn’t anticipate much pushback: Growing up, my sister and I received our stockings on Dec. 6 to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. My mom’s father was Dutch, and she grew up with this tradition (minus Krampus, thank goodness).
Friends near my old farm did the same. It was easier to make this announcement, as both sets of grandparents were thousands of miles away. The trick was coming up with an alternate mythology so their three children didn’t feel left out. They worked out the kinks of Solstice Magic with their first child, so by the time the other two were on the scene they had it dialed in: The night before Solstice they planted a “Solstice Egg” in a pot on the living room floor. That night, “Solstice Magic” came and turned the egg into a tree and presents!
I did not have children, so it would be even less complicated. I thought. My husband was game to celebrate Solstice, but he was less interested in relinquishing Christmas. My parents were used to me shrugging off mainstream culture, but there was no way Christmas was being discontinued. I only mentioned it peripherally to my in-laws in the Midwest—that would have been an exercise in futility.
For years, I struggled to re-educate myself. “Christmas” naturally came out of my mouth every time I referred to the tree in my house, the ornaments on it, or the presents beneath it. When people asked me what I was doing for Christmas or wished me a Merry Christmas, I had to decide whether to explain that I had jumped the Christmas ship.
This was, of course, magnified when we lived in the country. Portland is full of people with alternative religions and even alternate realities; celebrating Solstice barely makes a ripple in the pond. My rural colleagues were a different story. If someone wished me “Merry Christmas” and I said, “Oh, actually I celebrate Solstice,” I was lucky if I just received a stare of incomprehension. Worst case: I could see them quietly switching the dial in their minds from “Good Person” to “Suspicious Person.” I might as well have said that I worship a serial killer.
Suddenly, the plight of my former Jewish classmates became very real.
The bottom line, ten years later, is that I am just not very good at “worship” in any form. I don’t celebrate Christmas or Solstice in any real way—I simply think of my beautiful evergreen tree and its decorations as a celebration of life and our return to long, sunny days. I exchange gifts with my family—if they want to think of them as Christmas gifts, that’s fine with me. I don’t participate in Solstice labyrinth walks, set up an altar or sacrifice animals. I try to reflect on the passing year and create some intentions for the one approaching. Anything else would feel insincere.
Happy Solstice, and Happy New Year!