Christmas music evokes images of crackling fireplaces, steaming hot cocoa, and, most predominantly, snow thickly frosting the roof of every house in the neighborhood like white icing piped on fresh gingerbread.
In a part of the country where sweater weather is when the mercury drops to the low 80s, one has to wonder if Christmas music brings the same sense of nostalgia to Hawaii locals as it does to those who live in temperate regions. After all, many here in Hawaii have never experienced a white Christmas, nor many other Christmas traditions like door to door caroling or cutting down your own Christmas tree from a tree farm or your backyard. When we sing about how “Frosty the snowman was alive as he could be” how many of us have actually spent an afternoon building a snowman? Yet, whether or not we have actually had a white Christmas, many of us have embraced the stories of popular Christmas songs as if they were our own experiences, feeling a sense of longing for a certain Christmas past. What is this nostalgia about? What is the universal appeal of Christmas that makes both religious and non-religious people agree that it’s the most wonderful time of the year?
Well, when we hear Christmas songs, regardless of the lyrical content, we remember our own past Christmas experiences. We think of our family traditions, opening gifts, and other times in our youths when we recall Christmas music being played. It doesn’t matter that we don’t have chimneys for Santa to slip down, but that when we hear the tune of “Let it Snow” images of the fried noodles grandma makes for holiday parties pop into our heads, and that whenever someone hums the melody of “Sleigh Ride” we remember heading to the beach for some Christmas day splashing with the family. Remembering these “happy golden days of yore” induces a comforting sense of being with people we love.
But apart from just our unique individual experiences, Christmas is a time of transformation. It’s the one time of year even people who don’t believe in a God will dare to hope for a Christmas miracle. Christmas is universally celebrated, at least in the Western World. Even the most atheistic of us believe at least in “the Christmas spirit” and the higher likeliness of good things happening around the holiday season. As soon as the leftovers are boxed up at Thanksgiving dinner and the Christmas lights downtown go up, the atmosphere almost immediately switches to one of increased generosity, kindness, and wholesome indulgence. The holiday season is a pocket universe within the year, reminiscent of the scene in The Nightmare Before Christmas in which Jack Skellington falls through a portal into Christmas Town, where the Christmas spirit resides year round and the holiday is continuously celebrated with fervor. Similarly, retreating from many of the concerns of “real life” once a year feels familiar and comforting. Christmas music serves to transport us into this peaceful yet joyful state of mind, a reminder that, even with stressful and difficult things happening outside the holiday bubble, there’s still hope that everything will turn out okay.
Even the most atheistic of us believe at least in “the Christmas spirit” and the higher likeliness of good things happening around the holiday season.
Though these themes of familial bonding, giving, and celebration are all beneficial, the meaning of Christmas still remains relatively shallow without an underlying reason. Why are we celebrating? Why are people more inclined to generosity and kindness towards strangers during this time of year? You won’t have a clear answer to questions such as these unless you believe that Christmas marks the birth of Christ and that Jesus really was God’s son who came to earth so “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus came to bring restoration and relief to a chaotic world, much like the holiday season comes each year to relieve us of stress and anxiety. Christmas reminds me what I’m ultimately working towards as a believer: a new earth, without struggle or strife. The celebration of Jesus’ coming is like a sample of the perfect future all Christians hope for. I even think non-believers subconsciously hope for a future like this– humans naturally yearn for seamless connection and goodwill, a vestigial characteristic of the flawless beings God originally intended us to be.
When you listen to Christmas music this year, try to remember the meaning of the season, deeper than giving and receiving, and even deeper than the importance of family and kindness. Think of that night two thousand years ago when a baby was born in a cow’s food trough and wrapped in scraps of cloth, while a choir of angels nearby sung of the promises this young child brought with him. After all, the most time-withstanding Christmas songs aren’t bubblegum pop hits about holiday romance and heartbreak, they’re carols lauding God’s incredible graciousness and mercy. And perhaps our state is the easiest in which to realize this. We’re not blinded by the allure of cold winter nights, icy windows, or roasted chestnuts. Hawaii in the winter season undergoes no significant change except in attitude, which forces us to look past trivial details and dig for the actual reason behind our festivities. If you don’t believe in God, challenge yourself, then, to determine why you celebrate Christmas. But in the meantime, feel free to turn on some Michael and Mariah and celebrate the traditional Hawaii way: by blasting the AC, wiggling into an ugly Christmas sweater, and pretending you’re somewhere colder!