The Christmas Season is upon us.
Many have the tree up, Christmas melodies streaming from Pandora. Chestnuts are roasting on an open fire — and I hear that the American Chestnut is even making a comeback in MN — so go plant one. Jack Frost is nipping at your nose… the sleigh bells are jingling — twinkling lights, and MN houses look like sugar cubes covered with snow…
In the tropics, for a few weeks now I’ve been reading Santa letters from third grade children. Privileged — I get to read children’s hearts’ and learn their grammar [oooh, two possessive plurals in a row?]. Their great desire for stuff; to read how they think. For the second year as Santa, I’m writing with a response to each question/inquiry and including a message. I take this little job a bit too seriously. They just want an up or down vote.
As well as pondering the letters, I’ve also been wondering about the Christmas movies that they usually show on TV around the Christmastime too. You know the kind — where one person or another either has to fall in love, remind someone of the true meaning of Christmas, or realize that hoarding money isn’t all there is to life before Xmas Eve. Where are our Scrooges today with a love of hoarding? In Washington? I think a funny one in this era of expanding government would be an aging U.S. president that is visited by ghosts of entitlements past, present and future on “holiday” eve.
But, I do LOVE the atmosphere and songs and carols that take me back to a paradoxically vague AND concrete vision of times not so long ago that seem so very much just like It’s a Wonderful Life when most folks were poor and a little meant a LOT. Times when a child’s Christmas was made by just getting a Christmas tree or one doll or a bag of apples. I desire the house smelling of needles and sap and much of the other Holiday cargo I bring out that help take me to that place. The ‘spirit’ is everywhere & I’ll be sure to drink up some of the ‘other’ spirits to toast the season.
PREPARING YOUR HEARTS AND POCKETS
Despite all these lovely feelings; the reality is that if I give my neighbor that looks after my house, a bag of apples, he may think I’m a bit miserly. Or if I give my child’s fifth-grade teacher a Christmas tree, he may accuse me of melting polar ice caps. And thus, we are somewhat caught in a Christmas present that may indeed be heading toward my memories of a Christmas past; and yet not as of yet. The spending cliff within our own head has not been reached and our own giving is about as controlled as that in Washington. I know some are anticipating the debt hangover because of the ingrained gift-giving tendencies. Getting caught up in the merchandise mania, among others things in the name of the Holiday Spirit. We layer these expectations on ourselves and it sets us up for a guilt and disappointment. Just the other day, at the fourth grade “Secret Santa” where all gifts were limited to ~$5, one girl was disappointed that all she got was a box of 20 “fine” chocolates!
What are we lovers of? Christmas, Self, Love, inner-child selfishness, being bloated with presents? Yeah, yeah, you played with the kid’s LEGOs, you’ve rocked in the armchair in front of the fire so much that your Eustachian tubes are begging you to give it up; you’ve prepared the favorite foods your kids won’t eat, you upped the ante on the sister-in-law by purchasing her a book on how to be better organized (slob!!).
And yet, instead, the Yuletide customs have left some of us worried and let down? Does your heart yearn for something you can’t really define? What is the Grand Old Story of Life that our generation fails to tell clearly? What would be your letter to Santa, or to God? Or if atheist, your letter to the empty meaningless void? Dear Void, you don’t exist!
Despite the love of your family, sometimes it doesn’t seem enough, something in life is missing. So many questions come to mind. And, one question is bothering me.
If I took away all of these sensual, sentimental, sweet, traditional aspects of Christmas that I love — would I embrace it as zealously as I normally do? A Christmas with all Billy Graham and no Deano Martin? Hard to fathom.
That sweetness and beauty of Christmas is reality, right? YES, of course!! No! … Not really. To the true Christian the real meaning of Christmas is offering hope; but only through the confrontation and struggle of accepting a paradoxical image of a messiah!
Christmas, at its core, is not exclusively about trees and decorations, as most of us faintly recall. It’s not about silver bells and sleigh rides in the snow. I don’t suppose the local Palestinians, today, would fathom, in Bethlehem, rigging a sleigh to a donkey. No, Christmas, spiritually speaking, is much, much darker! The darkest or longest night of all. Christmas is a challenge! Christmas is about an inner war! Christmas is a rescue mission! That helpless child in the manger is a warrior king for your heart, breaking human time and existence to fight for us. We humans, ever concrete, believe bigger is better and want a messiah to rescue us, in the form of a Macedonian warlord with a S on his chest and red cape swirling in the wind. But we get a baby born into poverty that will die an ignominious death after living the same age as an Alexander.
Original Christian thinking was not like algebra with A + 4A = 25 to do the detective work… It was hard work understanding “power” in God terms vs. human terms. What does “selfless servant” mean truly? What would a savior from an invisible God BE? The more we simplified, the further from its origins we arrived. My own children reckon that Jesus and Santa are both “magical” in that Jesus healed people and Santa can be virtually omnipresent. When I mentioned that Jesus could often only heal when the stricken believed, that didn’t seem to jibe with “magic” but did seem to jibe with Santa. Maybe we have a connection after all?
Eventually only vaguely being able to connect a Nikolaos of Myra to our Christmas heritage but then positing him in a polar netherworld that exists only through faith? I suppose it IS sensible to simplify things for children… true. But what about the adults that have lost touch and cannot connect ANY dots to say, “THIS is who we are and what we believe?”
It had occurred to me occasionally when I was not as caught up in the ‘sweetness’ of Christmas… of that little manger/crèche where the baby Jesus lays. Where the straw is clean; there are soft sounds from the cows; heavenly angels surround this precious place. The stars shining like a beacon, an impossible star that figuratively points to a new era. Some manger scenes have become so pristine, it is easy to forget that perhaps…
Could that manger have the smell of afterbirth in the air? Could have it been dirty? Was the young girl Mary, frightened? Back then, maternal death ratio from giving birth was 1 in 40 at best. Was it full of cow dung? I didn’t have an easy time delivering naturally, but I did have some kind nurses holding my arms and a loving husband that was even willing to miss a Viking’s game! I do like the smell of silage for a short period of time, but stable urine? Knowing the time of that period in history, was there worry in Joseph’s heart & mind? How would he be able to keep the young family safe? What would people say back then when unwed mothers were actually a thing that would bring about shame? Yes, my hunch is that, if told today; it would be like being born in a pay-by-the-hour hotel, 2 doors down from the Fourth Street Saloon in Mpls.
I’m still gonna make those Christmas cakes, but for a fleeting moment the thought did enter my head if my true love of the season has anything to do with Jesus, the Christ. Is there anything else more important than finding meaning to your soul? Meaning is found in a fruitcake within 2 hours and re-gifted about as many times as Jesus had disciples. Our reason for being, is only seen through frosted windows; outside a blizzard – and we dare not step out into the cold. We choose a different path. Cozy.
The true story of Christmas is not Santa Claus coming to town. True Christians will say that we’ve been sold a bill of goods that says as long as we’re nicer than naughty we’ll get goodies. Even devout Christians have a vague notion that says, what little ones think, “be good and get stuff.” Live a good life and play the harp in heaven for eternity. Really?! If we, as Christians, are to ever have a hope at thwarting any real or seemingly growing, smug, nihilistic attack upon Christmas, we have to better define what we celebrate or we’ll all too willingly give up the farm in hopes of some politically correct solstice soiree.
TO LOVE OUTSIDE OF OURSELVES GIVES TRUE MEANING
Seeing a Star of David the other day on his neck, I inquired with the guard at the Puerto Rican school gate [this is a Dept. of Defense School] – my intent was to wish him a happy Hanukah. Explaining he was not a Jew but a believer in Jesus Christ, he said he wears the Star of David daily to remind himself of the persecution of Jews throughout history to present day. He admitted he receives criticism over wearing it. As a good citizen, exercising freedom, and desiring to be a good Christian; this he felt was a small reminder in choosing Love & Hope of man and gently making small changes daily. To me this encounter showed me the true spirit in any sect, faith, religion.
In our history of civilization, we have seen people willing to die over what now appear as subtleties of religion [ie. was Jesus created by God / Father or did Jesus exist from the beginning with the Father?]. But now, most Americans wouldn’t give a hoot and could care less about defining / clarifying such beliefs. And are we better for it? Perhaps. And yet many are faithlessly, rudderless, for the most part. Having no defining inner life, we are open to most ANYTHING and most ANY changes to our Auld Lang Syne. Take down the manger scene? Surrrrrrrre. Take down the cross? Why not? Start the French Revolution all over again. Might work out different this time! And if we’re living in an age of intolerance, WHO is the most intolerant? Certainly not the Christians – most of them are off with Rudolph gettin’ sauced.
As some hand-wring about intolerance and lack of rights; is there really a credible threat to take rights away from women, minorities, the elderly? Would today truly size up to the gulag, Dachau, or soup lines of the depression? Sometimes the overblown rhetoric is almost comical, if not an insult to those who truly DO labor under real tyranny in poor countries.
But many, around this time of year, say that Christians are over-reacting and there is NO “war on Christmas”. Well, judge for your-self as one governor here acquiesces to calling it a “holiday tree” and one judge there agrees to ban putting up all Christmas related décor in public spaces. Next year, perhaps, your front lawn.
But, behind it all, this may actually be getting Christians BACK to the point where Jesus started. Not from some truistic stratum of power – but as a baby with one’s back against the wall, fumbling for meaning in the shadows, seeking one’s ABBA through selfless love [which isn’t easy – but in the end… comforting like a warm fire, coming in from the cold].
TASTE THE FULL, PURE FORCE OF BELIEF…
Sometimes when we listen, we’re the only one talking. The candle in a window is such a fitting light on the longest night of the year [or close enough – the 21st]. Feeble, weak and kept alive upon a razor’s edge. But shining all the same. THIS is Christmas – to offer hope. Sometime before this Christmas, walk all alone one wintry night -- and if your church still leaves its doors open, go on in; sit a spell, and watch the eternal flame at the altar, and warm up to the lonely comfort that comes from following the far off twinkling hope of… Christmas.