For some reason, a recent post by Fred Clark at slacktivist reminded me of this essay that I wrote just before Christmas, 2009.
I'm writing this on the eve of a Christian high holy day that has become a near universal winter solstice celebration. It seems to upset some of the faithful that Christmas has become secularized, but frankly there was never much hope that it could be morphed into a uniquely Christian holiday. Our pagan ancestors understood something we have forgotten: a winter solstice celebration is a good way to remind body and soul (and the reptilian remnants of our brains) that winter is temporary, that from this point forward the days will become longer and food more plentiful for all.
The human soul regardless of religious preference craves such a celebration. It heralds the beginning of fecund, plentiful Spring in the midst of dead winter. It calls forth sharing in the form of feasting and gift giving during a cold, harsh season of relative famine and want. Even in our relatively well-endowed western world (and we are still, most of us, well-endowed despite the economic downturn), it forces us to turn outward, if only briefly, and consider what small token might cheer or benefit Uncle Mort and Aunt Shirley. Boot warmers for his hunting boots, slippers for her aging, bony feet? You're morally opposed to hunting? Doesn't matter. The warmers will please Uncle Mort, who taught you to identify 40 different animal tracks before you were six. So you ignore your moral qualms, buy the boot warmers, wrap them, and give them to him.
In northern climes where the winter sun's distance from the earth is more noticeable, a solstice celebration is especially important. The act of turning outward when the impulse is to hibernate can be transformative, especially among those of us whose interior landscapes tend to follow the sun. It is a perfect example of the collective will and consciousness knowing and providing better, that which is needed, despite individual resistance.
No wonder early Christians were forced to accommodate the winter solstice. Had they not aligned the celebration of Jesus' birth with it, they would have been doomed to celebrate a minor, tribal holiday like the other major world religions. Sure it's commercialized and superficial. It's also the one time of the year when people of all faiths, and people who lack faith, almost without fail become Christ-like, focusing on giving rather than receiving, bantering with strangers at the meat counter, helping someone carry their tree or their groceries, holding doors, and even (in a diner in Philadelphia) paying it forward for hours.
As the eve of the Christian High Holy Day approaches, I find myself contemplating past Christmas eves, remembering the ones that were less secular and more in keeping with the spiritual aspects of the holiday. There aren't many that fit that description even among the Christmas Eves I've spent in church. Only one particularly memorable Christmas Eve at an Episcopal cathedral comes to mind. The choir was superlative, the music director a gifted composer and musician, and the oboe (of all things) transported me directly to heaven.
Oddly, perhaps, my most memorable Christmas Eve was not spent in church. It was a cold evening in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. The western sky above Albuquerque was alight with a fading winter sunset. The full moon hung suspended in the deep blue eastern sky just above the crest of the mountains. The sere, stark desert seemed to glow with a radiance that originated from within rather than from above. In that moment, gazing at boulders, rugged mountain tops, and brown grasses in the faint glow of sunset and moonrise, I realized that this was what the wise men and shepherds had seen. No land of plenty. No cup running over.
The child, or the Idea of the child, must have seemed like a particularly clear, sweet well in that long-ago desert. The faint illuminated glow from an unknown Source that might, in time, transform all of us in ways that might or might not benefit GDP growth, that might or might not benefit commercial interests, and that almost certainly would not benefit moneylenders or concentrated political power.
What would that transformed world look like? And where would the average human in this world find the will, the courage, to follow such a child? The incentives are all wrong. Maybe the temporary collective goodwill of a winter solstice celebration is the best we can hope for.
As I walked in the desert that evening, the air seemed to vibrate. A sense of excitement and exhilaration began to fill me. I had touched, for a moment, the promise of a child born to shake things up among the comfortable and the powerful; a child born to bring solace to the last and least. A sword bearer to some. A bringer of Peace to others.
And I wept.