Though late December and, in particular, the 25th has been celebrated for centuries by many different peoples and cultures, some now disappeared. The Christmas tree, for example, has a pagan, not Christian origin. Though, the day is now known as a Christian holiday where Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Christ (though, the Bible does not provide this date). However, it has become an issue of some debate that the "Christian message" of the day, (ie, the reason for the season) has been forgotten through a secular celebration of it and gift giving. Right wing commentators often lament this "war on Christmas" as an almost apocalyptic sign of the end of long established traditions. Some even go so far to say that it has threatened the family structure (whatever that is) but the loss of the Christian heritage of the celebration, I think, is a good thing.
The most significant, most beautiful thing that happened on Christmas Day did not occur in a manger 2016 years ago in the Roman province of Judea, modern day Palestine, but in 1914 in Flanders. German, French, and British soldiers broke out of their filthy, rat-infested trenches and met each other in the field, gifts were exchanged, songs were sung, even football was played. The Christmas truce of 1914 has been duly mythologised, even though the historiography of the event is somewhat debated.
Though it is likely that all men in that field were of a Christian heritage (though not necessarily all of them), Christmas day brought them together for a brief moment of humanity before a return to the slaughter.
A similar spirit of ordinary human goodness is equally expressed at the reuniting of families and loved ones, the over-worked individual taking extra time to relax, in the notable increase in charity donations during the Christmas period. Even the casual greeting of "Merry Christmas" to a passing stranger all adds to the unique sense of peace, companionship and goodwill that is emblematic of the period. Perhaps having these values, these small acts limited to merely the members of a particular religion seems counterproductive, even un-Christian.
This secular form of Christmas is perhaps why in America this period is known as "The Holiday Season". People exchange "Happy Holidays" greetings just as much as "Merry Christmas". This is interesting as it allows the message to be spread to people of all religions who may celebrate late December but this is less common here in the UK.
However, this spirit of goodwill and kindness is distinct from the rampant consumerism that is prevalent and outright promoted this time of the year. The most obvious, example is the import of "Black Friday" sales (where only the strongest survive) , and a sense of love and excitement for adverts such as John Lewis (a trampoline similar to the one in the advert from John Lewis costs £179.99). Such consumerism is the bane of poor families. When I was a child, my mother, who was a talented saxophonist sold her instrument to provide me and my brother with a good Christmas. Such sacrifices are likely to be extremely common, some families may even go into debt simply to pay for gift buying. This consumerism which is sold to children first and foremost has become accepted. This can be said to be an insidious mutation of the beautiful tradition of gift-giving designed to wholly benefit corporations, more than those receiving the gifts.
I don't believe that the increasing secularism of Christmas is the cause of this, merely it is the product of a form of exploitation of the present-buying tradition, though there is an increasing demand for home and handmade goods. Perhaps people have lost their appetite for high street mass produced items and instead seek a degree of individuality behind their gift giving. As such it seems traditions surrounding Christmas are in flux.
It is an annual source of complaint that people's views of Christmas (which admittedly may very well differ from person to person or family to family) are changing; old traditions are changing or dying out. It is for some quite fearsome but, as with all change, why not embrace it?
Note: What is beautiful about this season is that although I've focused on Christmas for this piece, December 24th this year sees the start of Hannukah, the 26th Kwanzaa. It is a period of celebration for many different groups. Christmas does indeed get the greater share of focus, and I have focused on it primarily due to my background, my grandfather was an Anglican Vicar and my primary school was Church of England, so I can't help but associate this period with the Christian church which is my own failing.