Core of Christmas: Family and religion

Bryan Scheffler, guest columnist

Every year, my family travels across the pond for Christmas. However, the Christmas of 2017 was unforgiving in the port city of Danzig, Poland.

Miles upon miles of frigid Baltic Sea waters battered the Pomeranian coastline. From afar, the poor fishermen could be seen hurriedly navigating their decades-old boat through the torrential snow for their Christmas dinners; the newly-built lighthouse obscured, the ancient North Star served as a guide.

However, that same evening inside countless other Polish households, just like our own, the fireplaces blazed away as families laughed, ate, and drank away around the dinner table. At my grandparents’ house, the Christmas tree adorned with the Star of Bethlehem was the centerpiece of this room filled with black-and-white family photos and Catholic memorabilia. My grandfather, a retired sailor, played traditional kolędy on an accordion and told war stories.

Perhaps the Romantic composer Gustav Mahler best describes my warm traditions on Christmas: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

Every Christmas, when my family and I go to Poland, the metaphorical fireplace is constantly rekindled by participating and remembering ancient traditions that unite and bind us together. They don’t just serve as a method of unification in contemporary times; they also serve as a bridge to our ancestors. 

These timeless Christmas traditions serve as a torch that passes on the flame of identity – of past-acquired wisdom and stories, of nationality, and, most importantly, of God – that strengthen the links of family. They help anchor our identities against the coldness of an increasingly-chaotic world where truth is oft distorted, where depression is spiked. Where there is a confused and irresolute foresight into the future, our traditions can help ground us. 

However, I believe that those anchors are slowly dissipating away as we, our American society, embrace a more artificial interpretation of the holidays and Christmas.

Where once there was value in exchanging priceless wisdom and conversation between families, people are now concerned about the price-value of material gifts.

Where once there was a yearning for reconnection with distant family members, people now shirk away from that one ‘weird aunt.’

Where once Christmas and the holidays were venerated because of religious or communal reasons, people increasingly venerate the secular artificialities of it.

The core of what makes Christmas Christmas is those past returns to familial and religious traditions that are so commonly associated with it. The return to that core will also undoubtedly bring about a positive influence and a decrease in perturbed emotions as found by a 2002 University of Missouri study titled “What Makes For A Merry Christmas?” 

Out of a sample size of 400 undergraduate students, it was found that those “individuals who reported a high relative occurrence of being with their families and of engaging in religious activities reported greater overall well-being.” Family and religion were ranked first and second respectively in how much of a net-positive effect it had on the student. In addition, religious and familial traditions were also cited as two of the top four de-stressors during Christmastime.

Of course, that is not to say that people need to embrace specifically Catholicism or my own family traditions during Christmas. All religions and family systems have their own ways to apply their own traditions where.If applied in a healthy and productive manner, could ultimately reconnect oneself with family and help strengthen identity and well-being.

So sit down at the dinner table: 

Enjoy the warm company of your relatives.

Spiritually and mentally attend to the true meaning of the holidays.

Find a way to reestablish old rituals and form new ones. Find and strengthen those traditions. Tradition and the memory of them ultimately indicate the vitality of oneself.