By Lilly Gelman
In today’s constantly secularizing world, Christmas has developed into much more than a religious commemoration celebrating the birth of Jesus. Songs, traditions, decorations, and food all rooted in the foundations of Christmas have made their way into our vibrant and beautiful secular world with New York City as the poster child for areligious Christmas cheer. People have debated the meaning of Christmas for as long as time can tell, with the endless number of holiday Hallmark movies teaching us that the Christmas spirit evokes everything from love and kindness to giving and forgiving.
But what can Christmas mean to those who didn’t grow up attending Midnight Mass to return home and ogle at gifts under the tree in the living room? Coming from a home of a different religion or one merely apathetic to the traditions of Christmas, can people still take advantage of all this most wonderful time of year has to offer?
Living in the city, the answer to this question becomes an almost default yes. Around every corner and in every building, Christmas music emanates from speakers as bright twinkly lights grab the attention of onlookers. Already spectacular locations like Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park, Macy’s and Sak’s Fifth Avenue turn themselves into extravagant spectacles with impressive Christmas trees, window displays, and outdoor light shows set to the sounds of everyone’s favorite Christmas tunes. Coffee shops and bakeries bring out the peppermint and nutmeg flavoring, warming and winning over hearts with gingerbread cookies and mocha-mint lattes. Unless New Yorkers plan to avoid any outdoor commuting beginning right after Thanksgiving, they can bet on some exposure to these derived Christmas displays.
Maybe this statement proves too large an assumption, but all the sights, sounds, tastes and smells associated with the holiday kindle joyous emotions, comforting thoughts, and an excited spirit sometimes unexplainable to others.
Anthropologist Dimitris Xyalatas says that “holiday rituals are bursting with sensory pageantry. These (often quite literal) bells and whistles signal to all of our senses that this is no common occasion – it is one full of significance and meaning. Such sensory exuberance helps create lasting recollections of those occasions and marks them in our memory as special events worth cherishing.” Because of this, every sense stimulated by the holiday cheer in New York City potentially opens up a Pandora’s box of happy memories and emotions, making the simple act of living in New York City one of holiday celebration.
The prevalence of Christmas stories and themes in the media allows this exuberant sentiment to permeate even those people and communities who did not grow up with their own Christmas memories. Watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and hearing Michael Buble’s Christmas album playing in the local coffee shop engrains a similar tenderness towards the holidays in the minds and hearts of those with no religious foundation underlying the feelings. Additionally, rituals involving elaborate meals, selfless gift giving, and themes of gratitude run through the veins of religions other than Christianity, making the ambiance and emotions of the holiday comforting and familiar even for those who do not necessarily believe in the religious origins of the season.
Now, a lot can be said regarding the potentially negative notion of commercializing Christmas, and the Christmas predominance that all too often overpowers other religions’ winter holidays, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. America would definitely gain from some elevated commercial holiday diversity and checking one’s consumerist tendencies can only lead to positive, mindful awareness. The holiday spirit that radiates throughout New York City, however, seems to add some light and warmth into the early-to-dark and chilly December days.
So go saunter around Rockefeller Center, making sure to stop and watch the lights at Saks Fifth Avenue. Try every holiday drink at Starbucks until that sugar rush hits, and ogle at Macy’s creative window displays sprawling an entire block of 34th street. Take advantage now, because, in the blink of an eye, the new year will come, pushing Christmas cheer into the cupboard until next year.