“What do people who aren’t religious celebrate at Christmas?” a dear friend’s daughter recently asked her – or something along those lines.

“Well, some people celebrate a religious Christmas and some people celebrate a secular Christmas,” she explained, describing a friend who celebrates the season by hosting friends and giving to others even though she doesn’t recognize the spiritual significance of the holiday.

It seemed like a fair explanation until last weekend, when I cozied up on the couch with my 8 year old son to watch a Hallmark Christmas movie, An Old Fashioned Christmas. Simple, harmless fun. Right? And it was until one of the main characters stood beside a piano to sing O, Holy Night and came to the verse about the thrill of hope over which the weary world rejoices.

“Fall on your knees,” the young lord’s voice rose. “Oh, hear the angel voices. O night divine. O night when he was born.”

“What?” I blurted.

“What’s wrong?” My son sat up.

“They changed the words. They took out ‘Christ’ and replaced it with ‘he’.”

Which made me think of my friend’s words about a secular Christmas. Is there really such a thing, I wondered? Can anyone truly celebrate Christmas without Christ? And if not, what are they celebrating? A glimpse at the advertising fliers piling up in my mailbox suggests one possibility. Stuff. More and more stuff. As if the thrill of hope can be bought in a store.

Whether our increasingly secular culture recognizes it or not, since the fourth century, December 25th has been a historic Christian holy day – otherwise known as ‘Christ’s mass’ – to observe only one thing: the birth of Jesus. For those celebrating something else, why not give it a new name, such as Stuffmass? If you enjoy hosting friends and being charitable, how about throwing a party to celebrate Givingmass. Or if you prefer a celebration that feels religious without causing offence, might I suggest you follow Hallmark’s lead and wish friends a Merry Hemass or a gender neutral Theirmass? Happy Holidays (which stands for Holy Days) simply won’t do.

Or we could recognize that Christmas is a historical church holy day, which some people celebrate and others don’t – like some people celebrate Hanukah and others Ramadan. Gathering friends and family is wonderful, whatever the occasion. Generosity is something our society needs more of. But Christmas is much more.

Four years ago as Christmas was approaching, my mother, who had cancer, was confined to a Connecticut rehabilitation center. I was determined to make the four-hour drive with my family to visit her on Christmas day. “It’s okay,” she said over the phone. “Don’t worry about coming. I already have what’s important. Everything else is just jingle bells.”

Mom didn’t have a tree or gifts. No lights or decorations. She had Jesus, the thrill of hope over which many in our weary world still rejoice. She had the true meaning of Christmas, which challenges me to pause in the crazy frenzy of the season and ponder what it is I myself am celebrating on the 25th of December. Jinglemass? Or Jesus?

Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Christmas Cradle, the first book in her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series, is available now.