Holidays are a blend of culture, tradition, marketing, and consumerism—with sometimes a little religion thrown in. At least that’s how it feels in the US. How and what we celebrate has a lot to say about our own culture. Christmas, in particular, is a perfect example of the syncretism of modern-day religious celebrations: We can blame Hallmark all we want, but most of us have willingly engaged in the commercialization of a day that’s supposed to revolve around prayer, gratitude, and religious devotion.

Two unique Christmases from my childhood and young adult years have given me perspective on what it means to practice the holiday outside of this mainstream context.

When I was eight, my family was in central Mexico on a two-month-long trip. My mother bought my siblings and I each a bandana and used it to wrap up a few little toys and candies. We sang Christmas songs by candlelight and ate enchiladas. Even as a child, I knew these rituals differed from those of years past, when we had snow outside, holidays cartoons on the TV, and an Easy Bake Oven underneath a sparkling Christmas tree. Nonetheless, I was still happy. I relished the differences, and the night felt holy—connected more closely to the story of a savior who entered the realities of our world.

The second time I celebrated Christmas in another country, I was in India, where Christians are a religious minority. There were no decorations in the stores, no holiday tunes being piped in everywhere. It was hot and dusty and didn’t feel like Christmas at all. I was a recent high school graduate, and I cried when my parents called me on the phone.

On Christmas Eve, the group I was with attended the one Catholic church in a city of millions and ...

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