By Paul M. Lewis
Not everyone likes Christmas. Certainly not the way I do. And I’m not just talking about those who weren’t raised within the yuletide tradition. Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, atheist, et al. all have different feelings about the holiday. I get that, and of course, respect it. It even sometimes surprises me that I like the season as much as I do, given the fact that I no longer consider myself a Catholic, or even a Christian, or a member of any organized religion, for that matter.
Even so, I don’t deny that the memories are still there. Childhood in upstate New York with its snow swirling, cold biting, the wind howling. Inside was warm and cozy, or it was supposed to be anyway. And sometimes it was, except when my parents were consumed with worry about money, as they almost always were, or when Dad was drunk, as he was every night, or Mom had to work evenings, as she usually did, at the local department store over in Troy, selling undergarments to ladies much richer than she. Yet there was a tree, and somehow presents under the tree, and always turkey for dinner on the big day itself. So, things could have been much worse, and were for some.
I can also still see our parish church, St. Patrick’s, just across the street from the house: poinsettias, Midnight Mass, and a lovely manger scene set up just in front of the altar in honor of the Blessed Mother. She was, after all, the real star of the show. At least, that’s how the story came down to me back in those years. She and Joseph, who was pretty much a silent partner without a lot of clout, were the ones who had to go searching for a place to stay after Caesar Augustus came forth with his decree about paying taxes, and the two had to travel all the way to Bethlehem and wound up in a stable, when there were no rooms available in the inn. I always figured the stable couldn’t have been a very comfortable place, especially for Mary. But the infant Jesus didn’t know much at that point anyway, except we were always taught that He knew everything, so wouldn’t He have known how hard it was on his mother? And yet, he didn’t do anything about it; He didn’t find a nice warm room for her, even though He could have, being all-powerful and all. We were never told why He didn’t get a nicer room for her, but then I was a kid, and there were lots of things about the adult world that I didn’t get, and even feared I might never understand, so I just accepted things as a sort of given. The Church wasn’t big on being asked too many probing questions anyway, and the nuns could be pretty brutal, so best to keep you head down and your mouth shut. Silence was golden, as my 8th grade teacher, Sister Mary Barbara, was fond of reminding us, and the empty barrel makes the most noise. And who wants to be an empty barrel?
In those years, it seemed natural to believe everything I was told, and I did take things literally. In that, I was no exception. Pretty much everyone I knew did the same thing, and I’m not just talking about the kids. Most of the adults I knew did, too. Some people still do. Remember all of those Christmas cards people used to send with idealized scenes of the manger and the stable, ironically, contradictorily depicting it as simultaneously both ethereal and shoddy? Broken down, open to the weather. Usually a nighttime snowy scene with shepherds, and sheep, and lavishly berobed Magi in flowing garments, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, even though the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi actually were supposed to have arrived, didn’t take place until January 6th. Oddly, I thought, nobody ever looked cold, or uncomfortable, or particularly concerned that this young woman was giving birth surrounded by a bunch of farm animals. Not the most hygienic of places to give birth to the Savior of the world.
So, that was then. But what of now? I live in a different world at this point. It’s true that my partner and I still have a tree, one actually more elaborately decorated than any I ever knew as a kid. And there’s lots of good food, which I eat too much of, and try to burn the calories off at the gym each day. My partner is a terrific cook, so it’s hard to resist. We give gifts, and we make dinner for friends, some of whom we only get to visit with once a year, and we generally have a really nice time. Admittedly, there’s no snow here in Southern California, but we consider ourselves lucky if we have cool, rainy weather, which we’ve had a good amount of so far this season. And of course, there’s music. I love all the singing (well, except for some of the really inane songs that were so popular back in the 50’s and the 60’s that they still play: “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – really?). No, I’m much more attracted to the old standbys, by which I mostly mean the traditional carols.
But I don’t take them literally anymore. I don’t take much of anything related to spirituality literally. The point is it’s all symbolic, and to imagine a God-child born to an earthly mother (in a stable or not), who had conceived Him immaculately, which is to say, asexually, impregnated by the word of a visiting angel, all this seems a little much. Far better to think of it as referencing a kind of beginning, a new birth if you will, of higher consciousness within each person. The angels we have heard on high are our own higher power speaking to us, implanting notions of elevated awareness within ourselves. That’s the birth we ought to be celebrating, since it’s an actual possibility, one that each of us can work to bring about in our own lives.
It doesn’t matter who we are. Whatever our race may be, or our gender, our religious affiliation (if any), our sexual orientation, our nationality, our age, our looks, our degree of material wealth, our state of health, et cetera, we’re all capable of elevating our consciousness. I understand that this doesn’t accord very well what lots of religious teachers preach, but then I don’t listen to them anymore. The birth of our own higher consciousness ought to tell us that the rigidity of the do’s and don’ts of organized religions are too often excuses for manipulating people, making them feel guilty of transgressions (sins, so-called), with the ultimate goal of controlling both how people think and how they act. Glory to the newborn King! Yes, definitely. Except the king is our own elevated understanding of what it means to be both fully human, and more than human. As the Irish poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, says so beautifully: “Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best; but uncumberèd.”
And I’m not even saying I have anything against people taking these stories literally either, if they wish. Why not? If people find comfort in them, and if belief in the virgin birth of Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger puts joy in their hearts, who am I to say it shouldn’t be? I just wish that some of those people who believe these things in a literal way would give those of us who don’t a little room to make that all right, too
It’s true that not everyone celebrates Christmas. But whether we think of Chanukah, the birth of the Infant Jesus, the symbolic birth of Christ Consciousness, or just the turning of the year at the Winter Solstice, there really does seem to be an atmosphere of peace and joy around at this time. Longfellow once famously wrote: “The holiest of all holidays are those/Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;/The secret anniversaries of the heart.”
So, I say, it’s an excellent time for quiet reflection. Dare I even mention meditation? And if, for whatever reason, you still don’t feel some special presence this season, that’s fine, too. What’s maybe most important is that we act properly, treat others with respect, and would it kill any of us to smile a little more? Who knows? As actors discovered long ago, if you play the part right, it could well be you’ll begin to feel it, too. And in the end, that just may be the best holiday present any of us could give to those we love.