Christmas has become the most difficult holiday. Like most of our holidays in post-Christian America, it has become detached from its religious origins. But moreso than our other holidays, it has become reattached to a free floating, rampant consumerism that is overlaid with a patina of economic patriotism (“Sales were up; a great Christmas for the economy; America is booming.”) And because it takes place in deep winter, it puts the hardship of life in high relief when we look just outside the edges of our own good fortune. And worst of all, in these times it puts the cruelty of our current social policies and political climate, and the moral hypocrisy that they demonstrate, on full naked display.
I envy those of you who remain strong Christians and can find in the Christmas story a real event that animates your faith. I applaud you and hope that your Christianity does not stop at the borders of that story while ignoring the suffering that is going on at other borders in the name of our supposedly Christian nation.
But the vast majority of us can no longer find an animating literal religious truth in the Biblical Christmas story. We may be able to expand it to metaphor or lean our moral grounding from “away in a manger” to “over the river and through the woods”, turning the celebration of the birth of the Christ child into a celebration of gathering and family, even though most of us travel over few rivers and through few woods, braving instead the difficulties of mall parking lots and on-line websites.
And therein to me lies the difficulty. Our fragile moral high ground on this holiday is found by setting the brightness of family gatherings against the darkness of the high winter season — a fair transition from the holiness of religious worship to the spiritual richness of familiality and the ritual of gathering and sharing. But in doing so, we have refused to give up the trappings of the origin story and have seen it completely coopted by the worst aspects of our American character — our rampant consumerism and jingoistic belief in our own exceptionalism. “Oh Come all ye Faithful” might still be heard, albeit with a surfeit of jingling bells and fake snow, but it has nothing to do with going to Bethlehem and adoring the King of Angels. Instead it is a sound track to accompany our going to Home Depot to buy dad a power saw or to take our incredibly wealthy white selves into a Lexus or Ford dealer to buy our beautiful white wife or George Clooney husband a new SUV or pickup truck complete with giant red bow. Or it is used to accompany military fly-overs as we prepare for the NFL pre-game show.
And if we move the myth one notch up, to Germanic Christmas trees and bells and decorations and snow-covered window panes, we find the same coopting, though of an even more pernicious, though less sacrilegeous, order. Santa, the the one legitimate piece of magic left to the children, is seen pulling down his beard and to reveal himself as dad, while winking from behind the Christmas tree with his gift of a diamond ring or a blender or a new Star Wars light saber. And he’s sitting in every mall in an overly festive cardboard gingerbread house selling pictures of Jenny and Johnny sitting on his lap for 15 dollars a pop.
So the manger is dead. Santa is dead. The Budweiser Clydesdales, as clever an aspirational ad campaign as was ever devised, have to be squeezed into the reality of driving to grandma’s Christmas eve in a cul-de-sac in the San Fernando Valley. What we are left with are presents and gathering, and if we blinker our eyes to the realities of the world, those are good enough.
Does this sound dyspeptic and curmudgeonly? Of course it does, because it is. Magic and belief are close siblings, and when you kill one you kill the other. And we will willingly kill them both in order to sell things, and that does not make me proud.
There is a layer of hope here, though. This is the only holiday predicated, at least in theory, on giving to others. It has at its core a charity and good heartedness. It’s just that we suck the soul out of every impulse toward goodness by tying it to legends we don’t believe in and rituals that have been overwhelmed by the desperate opportunism of the marketplace. Greed and frenzy scream loudly, while kindness and generosity whisper quietly with good hearts.
This is a good holiday. It may not be a “holy day” as the origins of the word would propose. But that’s only because of what we consider holy. There is no shame in the oft-repeated statement, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” Christmas is, sadly, no longer a religious holiday for most of us. But it can be and is a spiritual holiday. And that is holy in its own right if we abandon the sectarianism to which the notion of holiness is tied.
It may be naive, but I’d like to think that the gift of Jesus is to give us a holiday that we can detach from its origin story as needed, and attach to our better, broader spiritual impulses. What we need to do is detach from the venality and hypocrisy that have overwhelmed the season, and go back to the basic question of “What would Jesus do?” not “What would Jesus buy?” or “What would Jesus drive?” A special meal is not that different from a last supper, at least in its echoes. “Do this in remembrance of me”, though out of sequence in the Christian story, is not a false impulse in the breaking of bread and sharing of drink. Loaves and fishes is a fair metaphor for honest giving, and we echo the story of Lazarus when we raise in our hearts the memory of those who have passed and with whom we’ve shared Christmases past.
Does this distort? Yes. But it also affirms. And affirmation may be the most we can hope for at this odd time in the course of civilization. Christmas is based in our human goodness. We cannot let it be debased by our more venal impulses. Hold the family close, weep for those who come to mind who are no longer with us, and to the extent possible turn the hands and heart to acts of charity. And, in the best way of which you are capable, teach the children well.
I hope that your Christmas is a good one, and that in the feast of your togetherness you will find a way to drop a crumb of goodness to someone who is living more in the darkness than the light. We are all in this together. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
12 thoughts on “SALVAGING CHRISTMAS — SOME THOUGHTS ON THE SEASON”
Thankyou Kent, your observations are spot on…I hold on to my spirituality with the hope it continues within my family and community forever.
Thank you for your insight and passion. It gets harder to find authenticity in a world that becomes more disconnected even as virtual connectivity increases. Be well.
Dan and Grover would be pleased, Jumbo would smile his toothless grin.
Thank you for sharing your insights and provoking contemplation. Your writings have touched my soul.
My heart goes out to the unsung heroes of the Christmas shopping season – retail employees! Long hours and few breaks, always forced to smile and take the abuse dished out by many impatient and often rude customers. Their stress level is often unbearable and lingers until shift end. Tomorrow, the ungrateful gift receivers will return presents, which had been selected with great care, often without a receipt, demanding full price.
I long for the simple, yet magical Christmases of my German youth. Actually, I miss the Advent time even more. We sisters would sit around the kitchen table, making presents, we knitted, crocheted, embroidered and sewed, hammered and painted, our mother assisting and guiding. I miss the two Christmas holidays (called Boxing Day in England).
I refuse to celebrate “Christmas,” as long as, at our southern border and all over the county, children and adults are kept in cages under deplorable conditions. The same country that rescued Germany from itself, for the unspeakable cruelty during the Nazi regime, is now incarcerating innocent people, the same way. Maybe worth, this time it is done for profit by investors, many may not even realize it is part of their portfolios.
Well, Mr. Nerburn,
Once again you’ve nailed it – in articulate writing that
condenses so much of the inanity and hypocrisy that
pervade the behavior of this season. At the same time,
you redeem it and ask something of us all – surely the
essence of the Christmas message – to be better humans.
Thanks. And – Merry Christmas.
Kent, I found myself asking some of those same questions this Christmas. I resolved it somewhat with this short story:
A Christmas Story:
When you get my age, you start thinking back to all the things you should have done. I remember one time, about thirty some years ago when a young native couple came by our place. She was pregnant and they had lost their home because they didn’t have money to pay their taxes. The IRS was foreclosing on them and they were working their way across Oklahoma trying to pay off the debt. I heard some farmer ended up letting them stay in a shed of some kind on his property and that’s where their baby was born.
It must have been hard to find work cause I guess they never did make up that debt and they lost everything. They ended up in Mexico for a while and spent a good deal of time going back and forth across the border trying to make it. The boy that was born lost his dad sometime later. I never did hear what happened to him. I heard his son though, was quite a guy. He wandered a lot, taking odd jobs, trying to support his mother. They said he had a heart of gold. Said he helped a lot of people. Did a lot of organizing against corruption in the Government and in the Church. Of course, siding with the poor and disenfranchised will make you a lot of enemies.
Not that long ago he tried to cross back into the States to get more work and help organize the people being detained and imprisoned at the border. Our Government took it on themselves to shut him up and he was arrested, given a mockery of a trail because he couldn’t afford a good attorney. He was put on death row and unfortunately, he was eventually executed. I feel bad about it but what could I do?
I could have help pay them and tried to reform the tax system so it works equally for everyone.
I could have found a Dr. for them and I could have reformed the Health Care system so it is a right not a privilege.
I could have allowed them to stay with me and I could have insisted on the right of every human being to live in affordable housing.
I guess I could have tried to be sure everyone was paid the same and at a rate they could afford to live.
I could have employed him and repealed the US trade agreements that don’t allow Mexican workers to organize and get paid what they are worth.
I could have helped the helpless at the border and protested the detainment and caging of men, women and children at the border and lobbied for humane treatment of detainees.
I could have attended the trial and shown support publically and I could have publicized the inequality of the justice System.
With at least 1 of every 10 people executed being innocent, I should have done everything in my power to do away with the death penalty.
It just seems like I could have done more. Maybe whatever I do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, I did it unto this poor man.
I wonder if there is still time to do more?
“Made in the image of God”- myth, legend or reality, we are all connected at a fundamental level; we are all trying to make sense of this life. We often get lost down cul de sacs often of our own making. Thanks for reminding us of that during this season. I find peace in the idea that God has rescued us from our own confusion by becoming one of us.
I have no need to salvage Christmas. Once an ordained minister, I renounced my vows when it became clear there would never be any dancing at the heart of the Church. This is not just the fact of dancing, but the deepest mystery of the incarnation, the tree of life, the whole organism as a revelation. Few people know that the word carol means to dance, the word rejoice means to leap and that the Hebrew word for festival hagag, means circle dance.
Dance, as indigenous holds, aligns us to live and feel the connection to the cosmos in the most eucharistic way possible. Perhaps this is why in the apocryphal Acts of John, the last supper is actually a circle dance and song. It’s called the Hymn of Jesus. Jesus’ words ring better than any church bell. “Who does not dance, does not know what comes to pass.”
I had to stop singing Christmas carols when my rage at the King dumb, after Hurrican Katrina, wouldn’t stop. The lords, ladies, kings, and queen still reign in our hearts and liturgical patterning. Though I uphold the mysteries in the liturgy, I rarely experience them in my faith tradition.
Your books fed me this year. I have no need to borrow the sacred from the first peoples. I continue to feel the pain at all we’ve disinherited and tried to kill. Thankfully, I am led to honor them with gratitude as I enter the stream of love, truth, and life in the little hidden monastery of my community practices.
When I went to Christmas eve service with my family, I was bored and tired, even in the most progressive church I know. I am never bored when I dance.
Once again, Mr. Nerburn you have touched my soul. Thank you for putting pen to paper and speaking the truth.
To me, Christmas asks for the best in us. Generosity, kindness, good will, love, and forgiveness. Our culture is loosing sight of this more than it used to back in the 60’s and 70’s–in my opinion anyway. It seem that now self satisfaction and self absorbtion rule the roost as the way we ought to be. Christmas doesn’t seem so “Christmasy” any more. I believe we are indeed all in this life together, but that doesn’t seem to even receive lip service anymore, even at Christmas time. I am not too religious, but the life, teachings and birth of Jesus were always beautifully intertwined with the spirit of Christmas and it never mattered much to me whether one was a true believer or not to find inspiration and beauty there. It does seem to me that there has to be more to Christmas than a family get together for it to hold up. It has to be bigger than us as individuals and address the big things in life, not the least of which are love and goodness.
Thank you for your thoughtful post.
This Christmas I do find some hope in Minneapolis as volunteers continue to rally behind the efforts of the local Red Cross in assisting 200 homeless residents of the low income residential Francis Drake Hotel who lost their homes to fire on Christmas Day. (I recall you father may have led similar efforts some years ago.)
I worked for a number of years right by the hotel and found myself thinking when I saw TV footage of the event ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’
At least for now Minneapolitans are following your lead in realizing “we are all in this together” as they continue to put in their time and donate to help get the displaced back on their feet this holiday season.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Love heals all.