by Rebecca Baumgartner
While watching a Christmas movie recently and hearing a character describe something as a “Christmas miracle,” my 8-year-old son scornfully exclaimed, “That’s not a Christmas miracle, that’s a Christmas coincidence!” He was right, of course, but despite that outburst, he’s not the kind of kid who would tell the other third-graders that Santa’s not real or ask uncomfortably pointed questions about baby Jesus. He’s the kind of kid who works on a project about Diwali and shows genuine curiosity and appreciation for the beauty of the ceremony. And he’s absolutely right about that, too. He has already learned to straddle the line that all secular people must learn to navigate: declining to accept extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence and honestly pointing out falsehoods, while respecting the social contract and generally being a well-adjusted and likable human being.
This time of year is just as heartwarming for secular folks as it is for religious ones, even if there are a fair number of eye-roll-inducing “Christmas coincidence” moments. I have fond memories of singing in the choir during my college’s Christmas candlelight service, harmonizing in the darkened, musty-smelling, flame-flickered chapel and awkwardly turning sheet music while trying not to spill hot wax on myself. There is no requirement to believe in virgin births in order to feel the closeness and vastness of a moment like that, and it would be small-minded to insist that there is.
Whether you believe in Christmas miracles, Christmas coincidences, or don’t celebrate Christmas at all, it’s the time of year when we naturally want to nestle in blankets and compile lists, so that is exactly what I’m going to do. Here are a few secular comforts and joys that have lent their magic to the end of 2022 for me.
I have been a dog owner for exactly one month now, and my identity has already undergone the transformation into a full-on dog-person. I never particularly cared about dogs before, but as with children, it’s different when it’s your own. I used to resent how dog stuff monopolized pet stores back when I only owned cats, but I get it now.
Pets of any species are a continual source of comfort and joy, but dogs seem uniquely human-like to me, better at reading a room and less emotionally repressed than cats (who, however, I continue to love for their many peculiar qualities). In the past month, I have met people in my neighborhood I’d never seen in the six years I’ve lived here. I have stood in the rain waiting for someone to go to the bathroom. I have sung the same songs to a dog that I sang to my son when he was a newborn. I have tolerated a tiny furry voyeur who watches me shower and who greets me on hind legs like a circus performer when I come home. And as a unique seasonal bonus, he is very warm on my lap.
My life was lacking in real soup for a long time. Similar to my dog-deprivation, I never knew what I was missing until a few years ago. When I was growing up, “soup” almost always meant something heated up from a can, consisting of lots of that ultra-salty processed-food flavor and tiny bits of a meat that I could never quite believe was chicken. I suspect soups like this are responsible for the unfair reputation of soup not being filling enough to constitute a real meal.
Many years later, as I expanded my knowledge as a home cook, I came to appreciate the wonders of a true soup. It takes longer. You usually have to peel or mince things. You may have to be a bit fussy with actual fresh herbs that wilt when you breathe on them. But the resulting dish will be something that warms and nourishes you and your loved ones in literal and metaphorical ways.
Traditions are just things we keep doing because we haven’t stopped doing them yet. That can either be because we get value from the thing and want to keep doing it, or because we haven’t spoken up about resenting it or found the courage to change it or discard it. On the one hand, I don’t think we should necessarily Marie Kondo our way through life, streamlining our way to an ideal; our holidays and celebrations and periods of rest are not meant to be optimized.
Nevertheless, we also shouldn’t let ourselves be beholden to the tyrant of tradition. “We did this in the past, so we must keep doing it forever” is a broken mindset. This year I experienced the liberation of a drastically altered and simplified version of one of my extended family’s supposedly cherished traditions and, surprisingly, given the pushback we anticipated, no one missed it much. Some traditions are like the O. Henry story: I thought we were doing this annoying thing because you wanted to, and you thought we were doing it because I wanted to. Go ahead and be the first to say what everyone’s thinking, and axe the tradition no one likes or cares about.
War and Peace
This could be any big novel, really, but this happens to be the one I’m reading. Even if you’ve reached an age where you don’t get weeks of leisure time around Christmas like you did in school, there’s something about the holiday season that draws you toward very large books (which the German language charmingly calls “Schinken,” or hams, a more appealing comparison than the English “doorstopper,” which conjures the image of a book’s heft being put to use in a utilitarian way, while the German analogy hits the mark by invoking a hearty and delectable feast).
War and Peace is a hearty and delectable feast, no question, and I think more people would read it if they knew that. Similar to the pernicious soup-slander that would have us believe soup isn’t a filling meal, Tolstoy’s famous novel is practically a byword for difficult and imposing literature, when it’s actually nothing of the sort. It’s basically Russian Downton Abbey (and I mean the comparison to be flattering to both).
The only thing that’s tricky is remembering who’s who, but this is hard in any epic novel, not just War and Peace. I have notes scribbled next to the character list at the front of my copy to remind me of each character’s primary features, including “bitch be crazy,” “sad and religious,” “hates his wife,” “frat boy,” and “math.” The genius of Tolstoy’s character development is that at some point in the novel, I will have to erase and revise all of these descriptions, because that character will undoubtedly have changed in some significant way. Will the bitch no longer be crazy at some point? Will the sad and religious girl grow a backbone? Will the guy stop hating his wife? Do I need to care about the frat boy? Will the math guy stop torturing his daughter with math? I haven’t found out yet!
War and Peace is the perfect book to read next to a Christmas tree and snuggled near a warm canine body. But you should also take it with you while you’re out and about, even if it does feel like you need a stroller for it, and tell people how much fun it is to read. I took it to a restaurant the other day and upon learning what I was reading, the manager comped my meal, so you never know just what will happen when you carry around a giant ham of a novel.
Mist and Fog
The difference between mist and fog has to do with the density of water droplets in the air (mist is less dense than fog). Both are magical, particularly at night. On a foggy night, the dampened, attenuated, dispersed nature of every sound makes you feel as if you’re on a stage, the only performer on a set frozen in time and filled with light and reflection. Lonesome foggy nights remind me of walking home from the library after studying for finals, across a campus filled with glowing yellow streetlamps. The lovely contrast of warm lights and terrible weather is one of December’s many pleasures.
We don’t need miracles, but we do need comfort. There are so many ways to nourish the heart with your eyes open and mind clear, and these have become a few of my favorites.