This has been sitting in my “draft” box for awhile. Since I haven’t written much to you of late, I thought I’d shoot it out.
I hope the holiday season went well for all of you. It is such a knife edge to walk — there is the excitement and anticipation, the feelings of inadequacy, the desire to give meaningful gifts, and the sad (and, I would say, “real”) recognition that what was once “over the river and through the woods” has become “over the internet and through the mall.”
This last reality weighs on me. The childhood magic is gone, the religious significance is gone — partly because of the irreligious consumerism of our culture and partly due to our own loss of spiritual simplicity (some would say, “clarity”) — and we are made to look directly at the tawdry underbelly of a culture that has as its primary goal the selling of stuff.
So, the hawkers line up, kill the magic of Santa Claus for children by using him to sell iphones and Toyotas and seasonal brews of beer. It wouldn’t be so bad if those sales pitches didn’t traffic in the images of nostalgia (Can you say, “Budweiser Clydesdales”?). It seems more than a little disingenuous to show us families shaking off the snowflakes and listening to sleighbells only to end up in a Westchester driveway looking at a Lexus with a bow around it.
Do you live in Westchester? Did you get a Lexus? Did you give one?
I may sound jaundiced, and perhaps I am. But I admit to having a deep nostalgia for a time when we had less, did less, and were more able to establish sacred time and space in our families. I think we all make great efforts to create this magic around Christmas, and, by and large, we find ways to do so. But it is not easy.
I think the key is creating new rituals that retain the spirit of giving, and finding ways to bring the story of Christmas back into those rituals. One thing that always strikes me in dealing with Native cultures is how continuous their cultural and spiritual practices are. They may be diluted, but they are continuous. Our cultural practices are discontinuous: baby Jesus in a manger and wise men and a star are anachronistic to most modern Americans, and reduced to myth in order to be kept alive at all.
There are ways to transcend this — to say that God has appointed times and events to reveal the spiritual mystery of the universe, and Jesus is one of them; to say that Jesus and Christmas are alive and embedded in the spirit of giving. But these are not easy for everyone, and for those who do not even acknowledge the spiritual dimension of life beyond ethical norms of human kindness and fellowship, they are as impossible or, at least as uncomfortable, as the actual belief in Jesus as the only Son of God.
So we are left with establishing new rituals around the act of giving and doing lip service to the religious origins of performing these acts at this time of year. Choosing a family to help, visiting the lonely, feeding the homeless — these are fair gestures that draw our hearts back to the act of giving, and, in some measure, counteract the insufferable sense of obligation and pressure that come from pushing our way through a Best Buy to find an electronic gadget to give to someone who probably would remain more humane and connected to humanity without it.
But life is what it is, and we live in the times we were given. Ours is not the first generation to fight against a loss of spiritual clarity and innocence, and we won’t be the last.
As we move into the new year and begin the long slow march toward spring, I hope we keep an eye toward authenticity in our lives. Our culture promotes too many false values, and the best way to stand against these is to live the true values that we hold most dear. Care for the young, bring peace to the old, eschew cynicism and irony to the extent possible, keep anger to a minimum, and have the courage to be kind. These are some of the values that I am trying to keep alive in my life as we slowly move out of the winter darkness. It’s always a struggle; it’s always a slog. But now is the time to lean toward the light. The earth is doing it. Why shouldn’t we?