The thing about Christmas is its meaning changes the older you get.
When you're young, Christmas is that magical time of year you giddily yearn for, wide-eyed, anticipating Santa Claus and his traveling reindeer. Everything is cloaked in awe, wonder and miracles, from the tinsel-covered tree to the gigantic pile of wrapped presents. Christmases past always represented toys, gifts and playthings you ask for and hope Santa will deliver in the middle of the night, personally visiting your house and stumbling around your darkened living room to leave presents under an evergreen tree laden with shiny ornaments.
Then you get older and Christmas means something different. It's not a religious holiday marking the birth of Jesus, Prince of Peace. It's now a commercial holiday to be sold cheaply from shop windows, a retailer's dream and the chance for shops to reap a profit before the year's end. But despite the endless loop of carols played ad nauseam in the malls and the letters you get from friends describing every ailment, misfortune and awkward moment from the past year along with a studio photograph of their kids, and the many gaudy and unnecessary things that are boxed and wrapped and sold, Christmas signifies something more the older you get.
On a fundamental level, Christmas is about family and friends and sharing good times together. It's celebrating your surviving another year, of forgetting all the hardship and misfortune. It's a comforting womb, a place where you share time with the people in your life who matter to you. This year I dreaded the hassle of getting in the car and driving to visit relatives. But as we devoured two giant meals - one on Christmas eve and the other on Christmas day - and as we played charades and exchanged presents, it wasn't the material gifts I cared about but the gifts of experiencing close comfort with family.
You can never choose your blood relatives, and not every family in the world are the Brady Bunch. Yet the pettiness, dysfunction and faults melt away when you're together at Christmas. The holiday has a way of disarming us and making us vulnerable. All the arguments lasting years can be diffused over an eggnog and a few pleasantries.
The older I get, the more I realize these people who I've known my whole life won't be around forever. This epiphany leads to a whole new way of perceiving things, especially Christmas. For all of our petty jealousies and imperfections, we can come together for a few days and experience the peace and goodwill, the sort of things bandied about by greeting card companies but seldom felt in today's cynical age. Christmas doesn't become just a slogan or brand name - its something real put into action. It's togetherness on a cold night, of laughing and playing games, of feasting and acting silly with the ones you love.
It's what we want all year long, but rarely manage it.