We fight hard to retain a sense of the sacred in our contemporary lives. What was once belief is reduced to myth and passed on as story, holy awe comes in only through the occasional cracks in our busy, practical lives, and the embarrassing desperation of capitalism is laid bare in all its tawdry venality on the very occasions where we should be bending a knee to mystery.
Christmas may be the worst of all in this regard. We’ve killed the magic of Santa in order to sell cars and dish soap, and if we had just a smidgen more courage we’d see Jesus in robes sitting in the front seat of a Lexus or some toothy salesperson hawking the new deluxe manger model of the tempur-pedic mattress. Coming soon to a holiday near you.
This angers me for its crassness, but, more than anything, it saddens me for what it steals from the children. What once was entrance into a magical time is now just a blip in the ordinary centered around the acquisition of more stuff. We do what we can to keep traditions alive or to manufacture new ones, but we know it is an uphill battle. The sheer brute force of commercialism is an almost invincible adversary.
I remember the struggle with belief around the reality of Santa, where the older kids, having learned the “truth,” tried to shove that truth down the throats of their wide-eyed younger siblings, and how parents struggled with “the conversation” about Santa much as they would struggle with “the conversation” about sex a few years later. You can say that the removal of this story is just a worthy demythologizing, but, in fact, it is the also the killing of magic. And all of us, especially the children, need a little magic in our lives.
The one place where the magic remains is around the gathering of family. We can tell it has magic because it has an air of anticipation about it – even though it does not always go the way we wish — and we feel, in some corner of our hearts, a pain for the loneliness of those who have no one else and are left sitting alone during the holidays. When you are aware of the pain that the absence of something causes, you know that its presence represents something special.
We can kill Santa, we can reduce the crucifixion and the resurrection to the hunt for Easter eggs, and we can turn our backs on buckle-shoe Pilgrims as colonizing marauders — and all can be seen as inevitable, if not legitimate, evolutions of our awareness and understanding. But the baby is sliding out with the bathwater. When the myths are all drained, the magic is gone.
We need to find a way to up our awareness of the sacredness of family. No, it’s not Leave it to Beaver any more. It’s not the Waltons or the Brady Bunch or any of the more current sit-com realities about which I am blessedly ignorant. It is tensions, it is political disagreements, it is gender configurations that boggle the mind; it is out of control kids, it is some disgruntled relative sitting alone in a corner; it is a drunk uncle holding court. But it is also people thrown together by blood and circumstance for a short time on this planet, and the memory of those who are no longer with us and the thoughts of those from whom we are separated by distance. In short, it is family.
You can sense the whiff of magic by what lodges in memory as a moment in time. The holidays, denuded of myth and belief as they are, still have the magic of family. Somehow elevating and consecrating this may be the challenge of our generation. The institution of small rituals, the larger and more willing embrace of intractable differences, the shining of light on the children in a way that celebrates who they are rather than what they are getting — these are the things we can do. Indeed, the things we must do.
We owe it to the children, and that is the greatest responsibility of all.