Quick! What the Hell is Christmas?

I dare any American to drive two blocks from where you are right now, and not see evidence of Christmas. More than a holiday, "Christ's Mass" has become an industry, an economy, a culture. It's fact, the better question may be: What the Hell isn't Christmas? And yet, here I am, offering you the latest installment of my Holiday Cheat Sheet series. I'm hoping some of you will learn something. And even if you don't, I bet I'll make you laugh. (Of course, by "laugh" I mean think about laughing. "LOL" killed real laughter a long time ago.)

Holiday: Christmas

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Dec. 25

Celebrates: The birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe is the Messiah, AKA the Christ. The four weeks leading up to Dec. 25 are known as the Advent, a time of spiritual cleansing, renewal and online shopping.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Christmas is a 9.5, just a smidge less important than Easter.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back story:As the story goes, Jesus was born to a virgin mother named Mary, who was miraculously impregnated by the Holy Spirit. In her 6th month of pregnancy, the angel Gabriel appeared and told her Jesus should be "Son of the Highest" and "of his kingdom there shall be no end." Mary went into labor in the city of Bethlehem, where she and her husband, Joseph, had gone to register for the census. There was no room at the local inn, so Mary wrapped the baby in cloth and laid him in a manger. At some later point, a number of magi (astronomers) followed a mysterious star to the house where Jesus was living at that time. They brought the little boy — whom they heralded as the new “King of the Jews” — gifts of gold, frankincense and myhrr. The story takes a dark twist, however, when King Herod learns that a new king has been born and orders the massacre of all young, male boys in the city Bethlehem — so as to protect his throne.

Associated literary passages: Two passages in the Bible tell the story of Jesus’ birth: Matthew 1:18-3:23, and Luke 1:26 and 2:40

The Santa connection: He may be called St. Nick, but Santa Claus, the famous bearded elf in a red suit, has nothing to do with Christianity, per se. His is a parallel narrative that has been folded into Christmas. 

The Food: Christmas is associated with roast beef, ham, turkey, chestnuts, cranberries, oranges, candy canes, figgy pudding and something called a fruitcake, which one should never actually consume.

The Fun: For Christians, Christmas is about peace, joy, goodwill, and giving, and — lucky for children — the “giving” part translates into presents. Lots and lots of presents. Usually gifts are placed in stockings (which traditionally hang by the fireplace) and collected under Christmas trees until a grand reveal Christmas morning. 

 Conveying meaning to kids: Tell the nativity story, followed by‘Twas the Night Before Christmas; explain the difference. Watch one of the billions of Christmas movies (particulary “Scrooge” —even though your husband does think Albert Finney over-acted in the part of Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s wrong. Be sure to tell him that.) Listen to some Christmas carols — or, better yet, go caroling around your neighborhood! Participate in a toy drive. Have dinner with your family.

And, please, for the sake of your kids: Do not underestimate the importance of Christmas crackers. Not only do these British goodies make a fun snap when opened, they contain paper crowns, which, when worn by all your family members at one time, immediately remove any underlying tensions among them. Better still, the little jokes and toys give the kids something to do and during what otherwise might be a way-too-formal affair.