Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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The meaning of Christmas


In 2009, I wrote a short text on Christmas and humbug, to some degree dealing with the purpose and benefit of various holidays.

By now, Christmas 2023, I have some further thought on the topic of “the meaning of Christmas”.


In the interim, I have written a few other Christmas-related texts, most or all on Wordpress. They will be imported and linked in due time. (TODO)

These were usually written around Christmas and are themselves examples of my take on Christmas, as described below, with a common focus on nostalgic topics. The current text, too, is a partial example.

Note on scope/shortening due to lack of time

I had originally planned on a longer discussion, including more depth on my own takes, most notably the current one, and more breadth on other common takes. For reasons of time and for the time being, I have decided to cut down considerably—other things keep getting in the way, I have already arrived at the 31st, and the status as a Christmas text is increasingly dubious. Next Christmas might be a good time to revisit the topic.

A consequence is that the amount of text spent on “preliminaries” and excursions is disproportionate—I began with these and the core text has yet to catch up.

Note on celebration vs. cerebration

Much of my own take can humorously be seen as “cerebrating [sic!] Christmas”, of replacing a party with thinking.

However, it can be argued that the meaning of “celebration” has drifted in a trivializing manner over time. Where someone might today use “celebrate” to imply “eat, drink, and be merry”, earlier use is more likely to have involved contemplation, solemnity, or similar—especially of a religious nature. Going to church on Christmas day might then have been a central part of the Christmas celebration, while the “eat, drink, and be merry” was merely the Christmas dinner.

(Here, I stick to the newer meaning for the purpose of emphasizing the contrast of celebration vs. cerebration.)

Main discussion

The meaning of Christmas depends strongly on who is asked, when, and where, with the likely most typical variations being the “birth of Christ”, “here comes Santa Clause”, and “reunite with family” takes. There are even some Christmas songs focusing on such differences (including at least the Perry Como version of “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S”).

Looking at my own take over time, the following (singly or in combination) have dominated:

  1. A time for presents, Christmas trees, candles, great TV (relative the rest of the Swedish year and measured by a child’s standard), etc.

    This especially when I was very young.

  2. A window of light in the long and dark winter.

    This especially in the time between outgrowing the childhood take and leaving Sweden in 1997, but to some degree this continued even in Germany, through force of habit. (Winter days become shorter, the closer to the pole one gets, and see their time-wise minimum shortly before Christmas in the northern hemisphere.)

  3. Something that was partly ignored; partly an excuse to have some days off from work, to indulge in unhealthy foods, whatnot.

    This especially during many working years in Germany.

  4. A time to mentally revisit my childhood, to reminisce, to grieve a little over dead relatives, to emulate the naive joy of a child (to the best of my abilities), etc.

    This is the main form for the last five years, maybe longer. Note that I have, to some degree, arrived back at the starting point, if with a different perspective and as a radically different person.

A borderline case, through some years, was a visit to my paternal grandmother together with my father; however, this visit was almost always over New Years’, not Christmas. Christmas, in contrast and during a similar time range, was mostly celebrated with the same relatives that I saw regularly, mostly daily, anyways. Correspondingly, a real “family reunion” aspect of Christmas was not present in the way that it is in some families.

The Christ-is-born aspect has never been more than an also-ran in my personal view, even at an age when I would still have considered myself a Christian, and despite my being aware of this aspect for as long as can remember.


Not only did I come from a highly religious family but both my parents were, in my early childhood, officers in the Salvation Army, which made religion an integral part of daily life, to the point that we actually lived in a church building for, give or take, the first two years of my life.

In an interesting contrast to the typical U.S. depiction of the highly religious, there were no attempts to force religion down the throats of the children, there were no demands that we go to church (beyond those cases where pragmatical reasons made our presence a near foregone conclusion, notably, because both parents ran the service), there were no heated objections to Evolution, etc.

The one negative, and much later, thing that I can recall in this area is that my mother, then a priest in the Swedish Church, tried to convince me to go through confirmation when I was 15 (the customary age), despite my being largely atheist. Even this was not done to push religion, however, but because she thought that it would look funny if specifically the son of the priest did not go through confirmation, while most others did (and often for hypocritical reasons, at that; I stuck to my guns, as I found her argument weak and misplaced).

Even as a non-Christian, and even with the past and present takes on Christmas that I discuss above, I find the PC-nonsense about “happy holidays”, artificial holidays like Kwanzaa, and whatnot, abominable. Indeed, there is strong reason to suspect not just stupidity and narrow-mindedness as explanations, but outright and deliberate attempts to distort and destroy for ideological, anti-Christian, whatnot, reasons. As an atheist, I have no objections whatever to e.g. being wished “Merry Christmas!”—but I do find “Happy Holidays!” offensive.


Kwanzaa is an outright absurdity, created in the U.S. in the 1960s, for political or politics-adjacent reasons, and with a deliberate timing to compete with the conventional Christmas period. Even a charge of “holiday appropriation” (analogous to the common accusation of “cultural appropriation” from various woke extremists) might be relevant.

There is no true African connection/background/history/tradition and the timing would not even make sense from an African (and, especially, sub-Saharan) perspective, where a cold winter and long nights finally growing shorter is close to a non-issue. This, much unlike parts of Europe, where the independent arising of important feasts and holidays that, to some approximation, coincide and/or fill a similar role is unsurprising.

(I am aware that the timing of Christmas might have had a similarly co-optive reason; however, Christmas, as such, had a much more natural justification, there is less reason to suspect something nefarious in the choice of time, and the one error would not justify the other, even if the timing of Christmas was deemed an error.)

If Christmas is viewed as a secular holiday, as a day of presents, good food, whatnot, there is no need to avoid the word “Christmas”. This, especially, as the word has taken on a life of its own (like “Halloween”) and as the religious connotations of “Christmas” are not obvious to most, e.g. because the first syllable is pronounced differently from “Christ”, few non-Christians would even speak of “Christ” over “Jesus”, and variations like “X-mas” further weaken the connection. (A connection with the similarly pronounced “Christ-” in “Christian[s]” is not of great importance, as the overall words are too different. Moreover, when “Christian” is taken as a name, not a description, few in today’s world would see a connection with the Christian faith. Similarly, most Biblical names are not recognized as such by the broad masses.) Ditto the “mas” part, which even many Christians might not take in its original meaning. (Note, in a parallel, how Swedes speak of “Jul”, cognate with “Yule”, for the same event and approximately same traditions, be they secular or religious, with no true feeling for the original pagan context and use of the word.)

If, on the other hand, Christmas is viewed as a religious, Christian holiday, then skipping the word “Christmas” is certainly misguided—just like it would be misguided to mangle the name of an important day or period from another religion.

The sole case that can be made, and restricted to the religious view, is that there can be unnecessary confusion and/or waste, in that an atheist might not recognize a point in a religious Christmas (or, more specifically, receiving a “Merry Christmas!”), that a Jew might be focused on Hanukkah, or similar. Even they, unless unreasonable, have no more cause to take offense than a Christian in Israel who was met with a “Happy Hanukkah!”, and could, in doubt, choose a secular interpretation. On the outside, a deliberate choice of another greeting towards those known to celebrate some other holiday in the roughly same time period can be justified—and note that e.g. Christmas and Hanukkah are only approximately at the same time, with no guarantee of an overlap even if a longer Christmas period is used, implying that either wish might be relevant when two colleagues part way for a December vacation, but not necessarily on any given day.

(Had “Christmas” been in global use, a weakening to include non-religious cultural/traditional differences might have been needed. Restricted to the U.S. or, even, the Anglosphere, such weakening is not needed, as Christmas celebrations are close to exceptionless and the few exceptions at least understand the secular version of Christmas.)

Excursion on birthdays

My take on birthdays might also be unconventional: to me, they are a matter of self-reflection and an opportunity to “take stock”, to consider issues like how the last year has gone, what I should do with the next year, etc. Cerebration—not celebration.

Why should I celebrate my birthday? There is nothing magical with yet another turning of the Earth around the Sun, the time interval is largely arbitrary, being born was no particular accomplishment, etc. I might or might not eat something “special” or otherwise “treat myself” (for instance, in the days of yore, I often timed the purchase of some movie or TV season to my birthday), but I have never even considered throwing a party. On the contrary, I have often even avoided some social contacts that would have been unremarkable on a non-birthday, e.g. in that I have given a girlfriend the slip or taken the day off from work, and I never volunteer information about when my birthday takes place.


In all fairness, I am not overly social to begin with and have never thrown a party, at all, on any occasion. (Not counting e.g. childhood birthdays arranged by my mother.) However, “throwing a party” provides an easy to understand example of the general principle, and chances are that I would never have thrown specifically a birthday party, even had I been more in favor of parties.

Likewise, I have no particular interest in attention, visitors, birthday songs, and whatnots. (But I would not turn down expensive presents...) A few years ago, my birthday coincidentally fell during a visit to my father’s. There was a “congratulations” and a piece of cake, the day was otherwise like any other during my visit, and that was so much better than a big brouhaha.

An important observation, which might or might not be given an own text at a later date, is that there seems to be a general tendency in society for various things to drift in a manner that perverts their respective original purpose—usually in a highly negative manner. The secularization of Christmas is just one example (maybe, depending on point of view, one of the rare exceptions to the “highly negative manner”). Consider Halloween as another holiday example; how museums and documentaries have increasingly moved from education to entertainment (and often cheap entertainment, at that); the lowered quality of various media; the dumbing down and other deterioration of education; the observation that “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” (attributed to Robert Conquestw); and my own competing observation that organizations tend to abandon their ostensible purpose in favor of their own existence and well-being, as a purpose in its own right, and/or in favor of the respective organization’s leaders. A particularly interesting (meta-)example is how introducing a metric to give some rough quantification or measure of some underlying good often leads to blind attempts to improve the value of the metric, regardless of the effects on the underlying good.