My absolute favourite thing about Christmas is the way it’s continually (annually, in fact) being reinvented. Indeed, the only reason Christmas has been able to retain its overpowering ubiquity in a modern, multicultural society like ours is because the traditions that surround it are flexible and open to exploration and reinterpretation.
More specifically, I love the eagerness with which my generation — a generation that operates almost entirely in ironic mode — gobbles up the relics of Christmas past to create its own smarmily self-aware Christmas activities. In our obsession with self-awareness and trend-setting irony, we’ve re-imagined what a “traditional” (read: 1950s Americana-style) Christmas should look like.
So here we are, my four favourite re-interpretations of classic Christmas activities.
1. Ugly Christmas sweater parties. Ugly Christmas sweater parties have always existed, insofar as people have always worn ugly Christmas sweaters to parties, but it was only recently that the participants of these parties became self-aware. We turned around, looked at each other and said, “Gosh, they ARE ugly!” Then, instead of taking them off and hiding them shamefully under the couch cushions, we kicked it up a notch.
You know what kind of sweaters I’m talking about — the heavy, red, woollen monstrosities with knitted snowmen and felt reindeer and bells. My parents’ generation might have invented ugly sweater parties, but they’ve become so popular with my generation that it’s almost impossible to find a suitably gaudy sweater in a second-hand store for less than $29.99.
2. Christmas lights. They’re a decorative, tasteful and, above all, non-auditory way of celebrating Christmas. “Well, that simply won’t do,” declared one American household in 2005, and decided to sync up their lights display to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s electric guitar sampler of the Nutcracker Suite. Within a few years, this gleefully obnoxious trend was elevated to an art form, and now Christmas light displays are being synched with all manner of music, including dubstep, hair metal and even Gangnam Style, all of which have nothing to do with Christmas.
This trend is not so much a clever statement about the holiday as it is a deliberate misunderstanding of the fact that decorations are intended to beautify your neighbourhood, not drive your neighbours into a murderous rage. Here’s to cheerfully missing the point!
3. Pop-culture Christmases. The late ’90s and early ’00s were a dark period, when consumer-culture shallowness threatened to devour Christmas. We were witnesses to countless pop renditions of carols and aggressively unnecessary remakes of beloved holiday classics.
My generation reacted to this naked consumerism with vitriol; we spent a lot of effort rejecting things that were “Christmassy” and embracing things that weren’t, in an attempt to create experiences that were meaningful and spontaneous rather than proscribed and stale. Ironically, for many of us, this meant turning back to pop culture.
So while I’m not quite sure how my own family’s tradition of Christmas Lord of the Rings marathons came about, we are the better for it. In an attempt to overcome the pre-packaged feel of the season, we turned to things that we genuinely enjoyed. While Christmas in Middle-earth might seem tacky or silly to some, it’s what we like best, and we are happy together.
4. Straight-up money. Christmas has always been a time for charity, but it’s only recently become completely acceptable — nay, common — to entirely remove yourself from the gift-giving cycle by donating to a charity instead. This decision eschews the agonizing mathematics of Christmas shopping (if I give X a present, then I need one for Y, but not for Z …). We no longer struggle to give people gifts that they don’t need or want.
No-gifts Christmases are prevalent, not because we don’t care for each other, but because we’re rejecting the artificial pressure that we bowed to for so long. And so, by re-interpreting (and even outright rejecting) some of the Christmas traditions that have been handed down to us, we have been getting closer to the meaning of Christmas.