Holiday Season

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I stop to think about what holidays really do. “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs have popped up like winter dandelions as Trump signs consider to litter the landscape. Thanksgiving, however, gave me the opportunity to forget about all of this for a while. The culture of signs. Signs telling us we must bow down and worship. The holidays signal a season when it is okay to hibernate and forget that more powerful forces out there may wish you harm. Part of the trouble is that those who are coming sometimes can’t see beyond their own interests. Perhaps what I do for a living conflicts with the job I’m paid to do. Conscience dictates that one or the other must go. But conscience is such an old fashioned idea.

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The holidays start with Thanksgiving, but it is now the Monday after. Those in liturgical traditions of Christianity will note that we are in Advent, a season of anticipation. I do wonder what we’re anticipating. Perhaps it’s because Thanksgiving came and went in a blur of travel weariness this year. The few days when commuting wasn’t an issue were the opportunity to stay still for a while and not look at news feeds and reflect on all we’re thankful for. I started hearing Christmas carols in stores shortly after Halloween. We’re entering the season of money in a country in love with lucre. Take a close look and see what lies in that manger.

Most years the stretch of dark months of November through January are accompanied by a sense of peace. Human beings loving each other and getting along. I guess I’ve been away from the news for a few days. I know there was a Black Friday last week. I also know that money has a strange way of funneling upward, a kind of osmosis of Mammon. On my quiet strolls I wonder what we, as a country, truly value. On the highway stuck in traffic with thousands of others returning home, I try to think that in these metal shells are living, breathing, loving human beings. Many of them only trying to get ahead. We’re all in a rush since there’s so much to do before we allow ourselves another holiday. Wouldn’t life be better with more days for reflection? I’d rather not politicize the holiday. Keeping Christ in Christmas seems to be asking for one not to forget the offering plate. I’m wondering about those sleeping in the street not far from Trump Tower. I’m wondering what ever became of conscience.


Won’t Someone Think of the Gods?

The annual holiday tradition of fighting over peace on earth has begun. It’s difficult to attribute blame since the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd do have a certain historical parsimony about them. Still, it was with tongue frozen in cheek that the Freedom From Religion Foundation put up a billboard in Pitman, New Jersey, with the message “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia.” Won’t someone think of the gods? In just the short span of my lifetime (well, half-a-century is really not that long) many assumptions about American religiosity have come to be questioned. There are those who seriously believe the Greco-Roman gods exist and they do have a right not to have their religion belittled. Those who find all religions laughable, I suppose, have the right to belittle. Some are devoted to Saturn. Others take seriously the Norse gods. Belief is like that—rationality is not a huge part of it.

Megyn Kelly, an anchor on Fox News, boldly declared this past week that Santa is, by dint of historical fact, white. I suspect she wasn’t thinking of Nicholas of Myra, but rather the jolly (white) man with glandular problems and the magical ability to visit every house in the world in a single night. The historical Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey. Kelly also made an unequivocal claim for Jesus’ whiteness, although he was clearly Semitic and historical records about him are extremely dicey. Conservatism, it seems, can only be pushed so far. I tend to think the problem is with making people into gods. Once a person becomes divine, in a monotheistic system—apart from all the theological casuistry than ensues—the nature of godhood is irrevocably associated with one race only. Of course Kelly, and many Fox News fans, have co-opted Christ from Judaism and suppose he was rather Nordic, as an article on CNN’s Belief Blog notes. Kind of like Thor, for what carpenter doesn’t know how to use a hammer?

To keep (white) Christ in (white) Christmas does betray a lack of familiarity with the Christmas story. Apart from angels appearing to some shepherds, the event was obscure—in the part of town across the tracks. Even the wisest men in the world had to stop and ask directions because they couldn’t find the place. The first Christmas, in as far as we can reconstruct it, was a silent affair with only the sounds of birth and the quiet desperation of a working class family far from home. No malls stayed open late that night.

The solstice is literally the darkest day of the year, the time when the slow return to light begins its weary trek over the next six months. We think of the cold, the dark, and hope for peace. No matter the holiday tradition, you’d think that peace would be one thing we could all agree upon. But gods are jealous beings, and, technically, they belong to no human race at all.

O holy night?

O holy night?


Chrismahanukwanzadan

Happy holidays from a pluralistic world! Whenever I see the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs that crop up this time of year, I think of the wonderful profusion of holidays that people from most faiths can share without being territorial about it. After all, the Pagans got there first—the Christian Christmas predates Jesus by centuries, it turns out. So when my daughter wished me a happy Chrismahanukwanzadan—from a mix of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan—I had to smile. Seems like some in the younger generation are really starting to get it. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but a holiday that celebrates people getting along is worth the effort. Being possessive of our holidays rings of hollow triumphalism—I feel happy because I have something that you don’t. Is this really the spirit of this secular season of giving wrapped in many confessional names? I’m sure shepherds and Magi didn’t exactly share a Weltanschuung.

Those who despair the lack of Christmas have not spent much time with history. As a cultural holiday the celebration of Christmas is younger than the United States, at least in this context. From the beginning Christmas was a pastiche of traditions from different religions celebrating aspects of Odin, Sol Invictus, Jesus, and Zarathustra, at the very least. Bringing these religious figures together into a season that represents the human need for light amid a dark and cold time of year, who would want to exclude others from their own holiday traditions? Having stood in the bleak fields of the Orkney Islands in a massive stone circle aligned to the winter solstice and constructed over a millennium before the birth of Christianity, I have to believe Christmas is one of the earliest expressions of human desire and certainly not limited to Christians.

What makes a holiday holy? Is it exclusive rights like those slapped on every movie you pop into the DVD player? The trademarking of an idea someone else thought of? Religions have a long history of forsaking the spirit of the law for the letter—its most familiar name is dogma. No matter who came up with the idea of doing what we can to bring a little light back into the dreary world around the time when night seems unending, it is a cause that any person of any religion, or none at all, can fully appreciate. Instead of marking territory, should not those who claim Christmas as their own be glad to share it with all? If the one who’s birth the church proclaims at this time of year in no way improves our outlook to others we might wonder if there should be cause to celebrate at all. My answer, such as it is, is Happy Chrismahanukwanzadan!

A holiday in anyone's book

A holiday in anyone’s book


The Last December

December 2012—it is supposedly the last month in the world. Yesterday did dawn with the date being 1212012, but since the local tree farm opened its gates yesterday, my family set out to select a tree anyway. As we wandered amid the pines it was clear that for many the iconic sign of Christmas is the tree. We learned on our first year in New Jersey that you’d better not wait until reasonably close to Christmas to pick out a tree—we visited this very lot then only to discover that precut trees were all that were available (and they were from Pennsylvania) and we had established a tradition of picking our own. Getting to know the tree first. Walking around and looking from all angles, trying to learn if it was healthy or too dry. Were there any gaping gaps that would be an obvious problem? Hard to tell when the tree is wrapped up in fishnet plastic and tucked into a corner like an old umbrella. Here, so close to the Big Apple, you need to claim your tree early. If you don’t want to cut it down right away, you can tag it—claim it as your own and come back later to chop it down. We weren’t the only ones taking great care in selecting.

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Tree farming is a business with a long view. Trees don’t mature overnight. When it’s the last month of the world, one must take these weighty things into consideration. Even before this terminal date, you would need to make an awful lot of money in just one month of the year to keep the business going. Maybe they need a green Christmas. Of course, greenery in winter symbolizes life in the midst of death. The germanic originators of the tradition were keeping a very appropriate pagan idea alive when they dedicated their trees to Christmas. Last year when we couldn’t have a real tree, it felt like we’d lost a friend. Our tree farming friends know that feeling very well.

The “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs and bumper stickers have begun sprouting up in yards and on bumpers in their annual exuberance. Funny thing is, Christmas has its base in ancient pagan customs. To hear the Bible tell it, Jesus’ birth was an understated event. The only people who had an angelic concert were some shepherds (we don’t know how many) on the hills outside of a small town. And, as far was we can tell, it would have probably been in April. As the days grow wearily short, however, we need a little light to keep us going. That was the pagan wisdom behind the Yule Log and various festivals of light to encourage nature to bring some brightness back. These short days can be difficult enough even in the age of artificial light and constantly glowing electronic screens. And knowing this is the last month of the world, we want to festoon our trees with tiny pinpoints of expectation and hope that nature somehow gets the message that we’ve had enough of darkness and wish for a 2013 redolent with light. But we’ll just have to wait and see.


‘Tis the Season

A news story last week related how a traditional park area in Santa Monica, California had been “taken over” by atheists who wanted equal time with traditional Christmas displays. The park, which houses 21 display areas generally populated by nativity scenes of one sort or another, had so many requests for space this year that a lottery was instituted—a lottery that the atheist groups won. Claiming 18 of the spaces, the atheists groups have vastly reduced the visibility of traditional Bethlehem mythology. Does anybody else feel a culture war coming on?

The whole “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign that has been fermenting over the past decade or so has made many Christians paranoid. Society has forgotten, they claim, whose birthday we’re celebrating. A plain view of the facts, however, calls this assertion into question. No one bothered to record the date of Jesus’ birth. The stories about it, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, were written after a lifetime of reflection by people who were not eyewitnesses to any of the events. Historians of the era mention no celestial anomalies and there are no records of crazy old Herod killing babies among his own people. (His domestic affairs, however, may be quite another story.) What is absolutely clear is that the stories have grown with the telling. Many a child can tell you the names of the three wise men. Luke doesn’t even place them at the first Christmas, does not name them, and does not say there were three. No records of Zoroastrian migrations to Israel verify this story either.

The true loss is the loss of story. We live in a society that abuses the words “just” and “only.” That’s just a myth. That’s only a story. Ancient people—from the time of Jesus—appreciated the truths a story conveys. Consider the parables of Jesus. They cite not sources neither do they seek verification. They are only stories. They are also cited as the basis of many church teachings. Even atheists can be taught to appreciate the value of stories. Who could object to a myth advocating peace, harmony, and goodwill? Even if it’s just a myth.

Santa Claus might come to Santa Monica’s rescue. Yes, diehard fans of historical veracity will say there was a saint called Nicholas. We all agree that he didn’t wear red velvet trimmed in white and that he didn’t possess magical, northern latitude cervid stock. Even before the days of forced air heat he didn’t slither down every chimney in the world in one night. Few would dispute, however, the value of giving gifts of good will. Just ask any member of the Salvation Army who appear at this season every year. Instead of arguing about whom to exclude, why don’t we invite everyone to our celebration? Jesus, angels, Santa, Jack Frost, Heat Miser, and Christopher Hitchens—what a party this could turn out to be!

Is there no room in the manger?