Rekindling our light

A Light to Warm Our Winter

First published in The Daily Tribune, December 24, 1998, this essay was assigned for the front page of the Christmas Eve edition. It is republished in Writing Home.

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Over the centuries, Christmas has been reinvented and repackaged, promoted and pummeled, like the cookie dough we cut into festive shapes and decorate every year in December.

Christmas is a mass of contradictions.

The day was chosen to honor the birth of a king in a lowly manger — a king who ultimately advocated a life of humility and charity. Yet today the holiday is celebrated more as a buying frenzy than as the birthday of a humble messiah.

Then again, Christmas is a mirror reflecting our culture.

As author Bill McKibben explains in Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for A More Joyful Christmas (Simon and Schuster), “Christmas has been, and always will be, a product of its time, shaped to fit the particular needs of people, society, and faith in particular moments of history. And nowhere is that clearer than at the very beginning.”

Historians cant certify the exact date of Christ’s birth. Ironically, Christians decreed in the fourth century that the Feast of the Nativity would be observed December 25 — originally a pagan holiday. The date was deliberately selected to replace the rowdy winter solstice festivals held in those days. On the old Julian calendar, December 25 was the longest night of the year, which partly explains why the torch-carrying pagans had chosen it to glorify the sun.

As church leaders hoped, Christianity eventually took root, and by the end of the thirteenth century, most Europeans celebrated the birth of Jesus. But the Druid-pagan aspects and symbols of Christmas never were completely snuffed out — including the Yule log, mistletoe, and the evergreen tree.

Today, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years Day serve as an extended invitation to indulge our national craving for activity and entertainment. Weve forgotten that the sentimental Christmas we long for, as McKibben explains in his book, evolved during the 1840s when Americans “were mostly poor, worked with their hands, and lived with large, extended families.” Today it would be impossible to re-create such a Christmas in suburban America.

“More and more, that old Christmas finally feels played out,” McKibben writes. If weve grown ambivalent about the holiday – or even disappointed in it — thats partly why.

Still, at its heart, Christmas remains a celebration of light’s triumph over darkness. A celebration of miracles.

Light is the enduring symbol of Hanukkah, the annual Jewish festival that coincides with the Christian holiday season. Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem and the ceremonial oil that burned miraculously for eight days. With the ritual lighting of the menorah at its core, Hanukkah prevails as a tribute to religious freedom.

Its sobering to remember, especially now, that many people still struggle for the right to worship as they choose. In Ireland, the Middle East, and other parts of the world, many have lost their lives in the names of conflicting gods or warring denominations. Even here, in our own community, were not totally free of violence, poverty, hunger or hypocrisy.

We know its never enough to donate last years coats to the poor, or to serve meals at a soup kitchen, but we still havent figured out how to solve the dilemma of our homeless and needy. And our personal difficulties pale in comparison.

Yet Christmas can be, to borrow from Luke 1:79, “a lamp to give light to those who sit in darkness.”

So tonight we rekindle the embers of our faith.

Like pagan revelers, we build fires and throw one last party before surrendering to winter’s chill. Like hopeful Magi, we track the glimmer of a distant star, trusting there is something wondrous and good at the end of our most difficult journey.

We plug in the lights on the Christmas tree and leave the porch light on for Santa. In church, we light the last candle of Advent to invoke the Divine. And we still believe in miracles. — Cindy La Ferle

Stealing Christmas?

And they’ll feast, feast, feast, feast. They’ll eat their Who-Pudding and rare Who-Roast Beast. But that’s something I just cannot stand in the least. — Dr. Seuss, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Earlier this week, there was a wee bit of dissent among Facebook friends when I replaced my profile photo with an image of Dr. Seuss’s irascible Grinch. I made the change after returning from a nerve-sizzling shopping expedition at one of my favorite grocery stores, which was insanely over-crowded with other crabby holiday shoppers. Climbing back into my car in the over-crowded parking lot, I’d encountered even more crabby shoppers jockeying for position. I wanted to roll down the window and yell: Why in the hell are we doing this?!?

Those who don’t know me personally were surprised to learn on Facebook that I don’t enjoy Christmas as much anymore — although one friend sent a private message to applaud my courage for admitting it.

After all, Christmas has become an official American holiday, so it would have been nicer, more politically correct, to keep my mouth shut. From outward appearances, Christmas is all about buying stuff, trying to digest rich foods we shouldn’t eat, spending money we should save, and reenacting Victorian family myths that don’t always work for our own families.

Bashing Christmas, I’m told, is an act of treason — at least to the most patriotic among us.

But there you have it. After years of studying and writing about the history of its varied (and admittedly bizarre) traditions, I’ve come to believe that Christmas is one of the most contradictory holidays anyone could dream up.

For starters, we all know that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25, and that mistletoe swags and Christmas trees originated with pre-Christian Celtic pagans. Being of Celtic descent, I’m secretly proud of all the trimmings brought to the feast by my ancient ancestors. But I also know that the holiday itself was manufactured by Roman Catholics who wanted to convert the boisterous pagans to Christianity, so, voila, the Winter Solstice festival known as Saturnalia suddenly became Christmas. And so did all the over-the-top feasting and partying that went with it.

Fundamentalist Christians still insist that “Jesus is the reason for the season” — but when you look at the origin of this “holiest of holy days,” you can see that the “season” was also about something else, just as it is today.

Religious faith is not in question here. And I’m not suggesting a return to Winter Solstice revelry, though I think it’s lovely to acknowledge Mother Nature’s changing seasons. I’m just saying that it’s important to consider the origins of all that we choose to celebrate. A few ancient history lessons help to explain the seemingly random blending of Christmas customs such as baking cakes in the shape of yule logs with the tradition of buying computer games and toys for kids.  If Christmas is a time of reflection, we need think on those things too — and what they mean to us.

While I don’t feel a need to explain my religious views or church affiliation here, I do want to add that I have deep respect for Jesus and his teachings.

Which is, partly, why I wonder what the messiah would think of American Christmas rituals and the weird things we do under the guise of celebrating his honorary birthday. If Jesus were to stop by for Christmas dinner, for instance, would he feast on Grandma’s honey baked ham — a meat that’s forbidden by the Scriptures he upheld? (One of my Jewish friends and I had a great conversation about this recently.)  What would he think of all the stuff we buy? Would he be touched or appalled by all those garish plastic nativity scenes imported from China (or the blow-up Frosty the Snowman) displayed on our neighbors’ lawns? Just imagine.

I know there are others like me out there — weary folks who’d prefer to restore some sanity to what is, in essence, a beautiful holiday. I believe it would help if we could unload the emotional baggage and release some of the pressures that arrive in Santa’s sleigh along with all the presents.

A Christmas essay I wrote last year for David Crumm’s “Read the Spirit” explores my conflicted feelings about the season on a much deeper, personal level. I wrote the piece because I wanted my son to understand why I’ve struggled with Christmas every year.  Some of you read it last year, but new readers may have missed it. Please click here if you’d like to read it.

Meanwhile, I really hope you have a great Christmas, however you celebrate. I hope you have some time to be still, reflect, and know your blessings. Wishing you peace. –– Cindy La Ferle