Thoughts of Christmas

Christmas, in merry old England, used to be the day when bills were due.  There are vestiges of that still.  Just this past week, when my mind was on upcoming celebrations and family time, companies continue to email me their bills, reminding me that all celebrations are but temporary.  Money’s the real thing, and it takes no holidays.  While the holiday season may be subdued for some due to lack of travel, for me any day that I don’t need to leave the house is a good one.  We had a pretty nasty patch of weather on Christmas Eve, and one might be tempted to say that the atmospheric conditions outside are frightful.  There’s a coziness about staying indoors around the holidays.  Besides, there’s a pandemic out there too.

We’ve got a quiet day planned at home with our usual traditions.  We added a Yule log to our celebrations this year—much of what we now recognize as Christmas derived from the teutonic Yule.  Otherwise, we are quiet people with rather simple tastes.  Even if we can’t afford much, the holidays mean time off work.  Time for those close to us without constantly having to auto-correct back to earning money at work.  I frequently reflect on how distorted capitalism has made us.  Our European colleagues have far more time off work than Americans do.  They don’t seem to suffer for it.  There’s not much light outside anyway, so why not hunker down a while?  Reflect on what’s really important?

First thing this morning, after watering the tree, I fired up the computer to write a few words before the festivities began.  The first two emails in my inbox were, as if on cue, bills.  Computers have no idea this is a holiday, and our neighbor’s early morning car announcing its lock secured tells me that he’s just getting home from work.  The fiction that we all have today off, as time home with family, plays out every year.  Holidays are often the privilege of the affluent, which is why, I suppose, Saturnalia was marked by a reversal of roles for several days.  Rome wasn’t exactly a friendly empire, but it wasn’t a capitalist one either.  This Christmas I’m hoping that those who have to work today—healthcare workers, those who keep stores open for last-minute supplies, emergency workers of all kinds—will have adequate time for peace coming to them.  Even non-essential work can be wearying.  Let’s celebrate, thankful that we’ve survived these last few years at all.  The bills will wait until tomorrow.

Make Light

Despite the war on Christmas, it came. To be honest, I haven’t yet gone to the window this morning to see if smoky remains litter the street of my small town, but there is something decidedly positive inside me that tells me that it’s Christmas. Religious holiday or not, any celebration that can make people feel at peace for even just a day is worth it. Christmas has always been a time of sharing. Not to exclude our southern hemispheric and equatorial companions, but the darkest time of year requires something to lift the human spirits. I wonder if even the Romans back in their salubrious Mediterranean climate felt a bit of a pinch at this time of year as they planned the festivity that marked the shortest day of the year. Without precise timekeeping, it is difficult to know exactly when the solstice is—to me for about a fortnight is looks dark pretty much all the time. I catch the bus to work in the dark, arrive at work before sunrise, leave work in the dusk and by the time I’m on the bus home it is dark. These few days around the solstice I know that I could use a little break.


How like human nature to take such a wonderful concept and turn it into something to fight over. I don’t know the religious preferences of everyone at work. I suspect a large number might be Jewish, and some are likely Muslims. Many, I suspect, have no religious leanings at all. Yet today they all have a gift, tree or not. They are paid for not working. The gift might be extra sleep, or it might be the light that neighbors shed in the darkness with gaudy displays of Christmas lights, or holiday lights, or just colorful lights—what is the difference, really?

The whole concept of a war on Christmas has to do with feelings of superiority. Those who take up the war cry feel proprietary rights to a holiday their religion did not invent. We don’t know when Jesus was born. The best guess scholars have is that it was in April, around about the time we celebrate Easter, I suppose. Christmas was despised and scorned by many Christians until the nineteenth century, the very ancestors of the conservative factions that claim Christmas as their own banned the holiday for its papist trappings and pagan undertones. Now they wish to claim Christmas as uniquely theirs. Like the Grinch up on Mount Crumpit, I put a hand to my ear and learn something new. Christmas is for everyone. Any holiday that can bring peace to this troubled mind for a few hours is a day to be shared.

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?

Darkest Night

One of the more endearing of human weaknesses is our fear of the dark. For those who live north of the equator, we have just experienced our longest night. It is no coincidence that the religious holidays that occur in winter feature light. In our helplessness against the encroaching darkness, we light our Christmas trees and Hanukkah candles, adding just a bit more light to the world. Among the oldest of all holidays is the day that marks the birth of light’s resurrection. One need not be a pagan to appreciate the solstice and the inherent hope it bears for the return of the sun.

In this season we often see signs and hear laments about the absence of Christ from Christmas. Jesus was not born in winter, according to our best reckoning. One of the carols that drives me mad with distraction is “In the Bleak Midwinter” with its maudlin description of “snow on snow on snow”—clearly written by someone with limited experience of winters in Israel. Christmas falls near the solstice because people have from earliest memory recognized the sacredness of this season. When Jesus was born nobody knew he was to become so famous as to have one of the most popular Facebook pages ever, and so nobody thought to write it down. Even the Gospels the disciples never give a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” while on the dusty highway. What we’re celebrating is that night will not reign forever.

Having evolved to favor our eyesight, but lacking the standard mammalian nocturnal nature, we feel vulnerable in the dark. Even if Jesus hadn’t been born we’d be celebrating at this time of year. It might have been the re-living of the mythic Golden Age of humanity under Saturn that the Romans called Saturnalia, or it might have been the rejoicing over the resurrection of the beloved god Balder among the Norse. We might have had to wait until the days were noticeably longer to fete the goddess Brigid with the Celts at Imbolc, but we would have marked the occasion. Instead of cursing the pagan darkness, as the saying goes, we would light our feeble candles as a sign of hope. The reason for the season is the fact that the longest night is over and once more our days will slowly return light to our lives.

Here comes the sun

Solstice Now!

Who owns the solstice? Whoever it is, I wish we could just get it over with. The darkness falls before I step into my 5 p.m. class. It is dark when I drive home. The next morning, leaving for my 8:30 a.m. class, I drive to school in the dark. Back at Nashotah House a colleague once said his wife became “almost pagan” in her yearning to pass the winter solstice and head toward the time of year when light prevails over darkness. My wife pointed out a CNN story concerning a New Jersey billboard sponsored by American Atheists. The billboard, just on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel into New York, shows the star of Bethlehem, the manger and the wise men. The inscription reads: “You KNOW it’s a myth. This season celebrate REASON.” Naturally, motorists are up in arms. Who owns the solstice?

Before the Thanksgiving leftovers even hit the fridge, Christmas season has begun. Santa always ends the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, making it official. Since we are capitalists, we do what the red-suited captain of industry says: shop. As long ago as A Charlie Brown Christmas complaints of the commercialization of Christmas have reverberated through the media. Personal properties and billboards enjoin us to “keep Christ in Christmas” and remember “the reason for the season.” Economists tell us to spend more to assist the sluggish economy. Meanwhile the light continues to fade; the days grow darker. Why confuse the issue with religiosity? Why not just spend some money on others, feel the release of endorphins, and be thankful?

Nobody knows when Jesus was born. The church selected December to celebrate the event because the shortest day of the year, for those north of the equator, had long been a time of fervent wishes for the return of light. The first-century Christian rivals, the Gnostics, believed in the continual, literal struggle between light and darkness. When sidelined by Orthodox Christianity, the torch was taken up by those who celebrated Saturnalia, Lupercalia, Hogmanay, Yule, Sol Invictus or any number of other winter festivals. Christmas was a relative late-comer to the celebrations that welcome the resurrection of the sun. So drivers from New Jersey should take it easy. The solstice is everybody’s holiday. I just wish that whoever’s in charge would give us all a little more light.