This post is approximately one month late. Better late than never?
We've all heard and perhaps participated in the ongoing grumblings about the holiday creep over the last several years and I've been no different. A few years ago, my eye-rolling had more to do with the utter ridiculousness of advertising Christmas before Halloween as well as the jarringly consumerist/materialist focus of the holiday in general, particularly compared to what I remember from my own childhood. In the last few years, holiday creep has been bothering me for different reasons. In fact, I've been having a little bit of a crisis over the last few years in determining how best to honor the traditions of my ancestors and my childhood, while incorporating my values and spiritual beliefs and/or non-beliefs.
I've begun to wonder, how does one celebrate Christmas when one is not only not-Christian, but has now decided they are Something Else. Buddhist, in our case. How does one respect the beliefs and sanctity of the holiday for those who do believe, while allowing ourselves to participate in family traditions and the nostalgia of our youth? How does one participate without cheapening it? How the heck do I explain all of it to my kids? (Most importantly).
I've polled like-minded friends, who celebrate out of tradition rather than religion, and heard a variety of answers most of which involved something like "well, we try to focus on the meaning of the season as being about family and togetherness". I'm down with that. I loved Christmas as a kid and I still love it. I have really fond memories of hanging out at my Omi's house on Christmas Eve, eating cabbage rolls and watching the adults twitch nervously hoping the lit candles on the real tree didn't result in a four alarm emergency. My family celebrated Christmas in a secular way. I want our family to be able to continue some of those traditions, develop new ones, and leave some behind. I want to be able to continue to celebrate the secular stuff that means something to me without being disrespectful of the fact that its not a secular holiday at all.
So this year we decided to emphasize a Buddhist holiday, Bodhi Day or Rohatsu, which falls on December 8th and condense our Christmas-ey stuff into a two week period after that. The intent behind this was to shift some of the focus away from Christmas and towards Bodhi Day in order to place emphasis on things we do believe in. I feel like we reached a good balance this year. We started our Christmas stuff later, made the holiday more simple, emphasized the things we wanted to emphasize and felt that we were being true to our own values.
Here's how we celebrated in our house:
Advent Calendar - In previous years we've had a simple advent calendar consisting of ornaments in little numbered bags. Each morning, our older son would place an ornament on the tree. He loved it and it was simple, but our younger guy is old enough now to want to participate. After the Great Felt Calendar Fiasco of 2014, I ended up placing little cards with activities on them in numbered envelopes for the boys to open. And every few days, they'd get a chocolate covered pretzel with the envelope which thrilled them.
From December 1-8th, the activities were related to Bodhi Day rather than Christmas. They included colouring mandalas, buying food for donations, making a Three Jewels craft, baking leaf-shaped Bodhi tree cookies, and lighting the Bodhi Tree.
Bodhi Tree - On December 8th, we wrapped a little Ficus Benjamina with multicolored lights to represent the many different paths to enlightenment and placed our Buddha statue underneath. The tree was lit every night for a month.
Rice Milk - This is a significant meal because it was the offering of rice milk to the Budhha by the young girl that brought him out of his ascetic quest and set him on the path of the Middle Way. I made a delicious rice pudding from this book which we enjoyed in new bowls for breakfast.
Small gift - the kids received a new book and their own chopsticks.
Stories - We talked about the story of the Buddha's Enlightenment and why we celebrate Bodhi Day. The kids have lights strung in their room which we lit each night for 30 days as well. We lit a candle and incense and three smaller candles representing the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The kids were a bit young for all of this but I was happy to start a tradition that they will grow into.
Overall, this holiday season felt more "us" than previous years and I think we struck a good balance between tradition and belief.