The question "what's the point of all this [Christmas]" has been floating around a lot lately, particularly in my home. You'll always have your cynics* who get turned off by the commercialism of Christmas, and forgetting that there's anything else to it, turned off to the holiday altogether. Then you've got your genuine crisis-of-faith types, who used to believe in the spirit of the season, want to believe in the spirit of the season, but just can't seem to bring themselves round to doing it. That's the bug running around my family at the moment.
Mom and I were out for our morning constitutional through the freezing cold park yesterday, when she radomly asked me if i believed in an afterlife. She's my mother, and the woman can smell a fib from 50 paces upwind, so I answered honestly, "not really."
"Do you believe in God?"
"What's eating you, mom?"
Cue the waterworks. "It's just that I used to believe, and now I don't know what to think! The world is so awful, what kind of God can let these things [ie, republicans in the white house] happen? I remember when I believed, and now there's this huge hole inside me. I've lost my faith, and I feel empty!" *sniff*
She continued, "What do people do on Christmas if they don't go to church?"
"Um, watch the Queen's speech and misbehave at the office party?" I offered, rather unhelpfully.
The thing is, i've never had a lot of faith in the devine, so i'm really not the best person to ask about filling spiritual potholes. I was a skeptic (as opposed to a cynic--that's different) before I made my first communion, and a professed atheist before I was confirmed. At the moment I'm somewhere between Buddhist, Druid, and Jedi. On the other hand, since i've never had a lot of faith in the devine, i may be the perfect person to ask about what us nonbelievers do on Christmas.
It won't be exraordinary; we'll do what we've always done. Go to church to make mom and Sr. Aunt happy (we still have a nun in the family, after all), exchange gifts, eat some fantastic Polish food, and watch a few Star Wars movies (we've been watching Star Wars movies on Chrismas day since we bought our first VCR when I was 10. Is it any wonder I'm 1/3 Jedi?). But what does it all mean? Why bother? Are we just going through the motions? No.
For one thing, tradition is important. Ritual is important. From a psychological standpiont, humans need ritual to mark the passage of time. It's a comfort zone. Rituals and traditions provide us with material for stories and excuses to tell them. Ritual is good for its own sake, and whether you get your ritual from corney family traditions (like eating pierogi and watching The Return of the Jedi) or from religious services, psychologically it all amounts to the same thing.
In addition, merrymaking is an end unto itself. Holidays are great excuses to celebrate and make merry, and that is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with periodically creating excuses to party.
So what to people do on Christmas who don't go to church? Probably the same thing the church-goes do: enjoy time with family, eat some good food, go to a few parties, frost some cookies, give and receive presents as tokens of friendship, love, or affection, and generally have a good time. So if Jesus is the reason for your season, good on ya, mate. If he's not, big deal. Mark the occasion, serve up some eggnog, phone your mum, kiss your missus, and remember that life is, by and large, not to shabby.
*Cynic, n. One who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. -Oscar Wilde