WHAT WE WANT FOR THE HOLIDAYS

By Paul M. Lewis

I have always felt that the holidays tend to amplify and magnify both what is good and what is bad in life. The good things seem that much nicer: spending time with family and friends, eating wonderful food, or just enjoying the warmth of a season when people, sometimes at least, really do try to treat each other a little better. And the bad things are that much more hurtful: the continued wars in the world, the violence and killing, all the horrors that people perpetrate on each other, from casual caustic remarks to curses to racial or ethnic slurs. All this when what we’re most longing for is some basic human respect, and maybe even a little bit of kindness.

I have, for a long time now, particularly had mixed feelings about the month of November. That’s because both of my parents died during this month, and now my partner’s father and his sister have, as well. In addition, his mother and brother passed away, one in late October just this year, and the other in mid-December a few years ago. Even so, we make the best effort we can to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with an open heart and mind.

What exactly is it about the holidays that makes us all the more long for those feelings of warmth and closeness or, to put it more simply, the desire to be loved? Because isn’t it a truism that, always and forever, what everyone wants is to be loved? Even the gruffest among us, those who do not make a habit of freely giving their own love to others, nonetheless somehow want love in return. We may do our utmost sometimes to make that wish sound more adult, more mature, more grown up. We call it things like acceptance, or a kind of welcoming or even, minimally, a tolerance of who and what we are. But dig down deep enough, and we see that what’s really meant is simply that we want to be loved.

The other day, my partner and I were going into our local grocery store to do the weekly shopping, and there, next to the door, sat a beggar. There is no other word to use, no other term to soften, mollify or sugarcoat it. He was dressed in the filthiest of rags, his hair was unwashed, and he had a long beard that hung down in tatters. I looked at him and smiled, if for no other reason than that most people were quickly turning away. It was clear that he was about to ask for money (another reason why people were probably avoiding his gaze), even though he had not quite gotten around to it with me yet. So, I walked over to him.

It’s a strange experience to encounter a total stranger who, in a sense, stands naked before you. I don’t mean he was without clothing, of course. His nakedness was psychic, psychological, if you prefer. He sat there with no pretense whatsoever, no attempt to hide who and what he was. Through his unkempt hair and his rumpled and disheveled appearance, he looked up at me and smiled, and he said to me in, I swear to you, the sweetest and most loving way: “I’m an alcoholic.” That’s it, no other words, just a simple declaration of how he thought of himself. Now, I am no stranger to alcoholics. My father was one, as was my brother, and several of my uncles. In a way, I guess, it’s kind of a family trait. My partner’s mother was also, albeit one who was able to achieve a wonderful twenty-eight years of sobriety, and we have other close friends who are recovering alcoholics. I answered him and said, “Yes, I know you are,” and I gave him a dollar. Then, mostly for my own comfort, not his—I do get that—I added, “I hope you spend it on food, not on booze.” We both knew what he would probably do, but by now there was a sense whereby that no longer mattered as much. What felt more important to me was that we’d had at least a moment’s worth of honest human interaction. In that instant, he became no longer just another bum by the market door, not just a piece of human flotsam, washed up on so-called civilized shores to be seen for an instant and avoided by upright and respectable citizens. Instead, he had showed himself in the fullness of his humanity, to be sure, with glaring flaws that were uncomfortable to look at, but still, a magnificent child of the Universe.

Walt Whitman has something interesting to say about how the good people of the polis ought to act toward those who do not follow paths accepted and acceptable to society. In the prelude to his great work, “Leaves Of Grass,” he exhorts us with these words: “Give alms to every one that asks, (and) stand up for the stupid and crazy.”

What does any of this have to do with the holiday season? I wondered about that, mulling over both the unbearable sadnesses I’ve come to associate with the time of year, as well as the multiplicity of its astonishing, sometimes even its staggering sense of happiness, joy and fulfillment. Then, I recalled that the man by the door of the market that day was also singing. As my partner and I walked up to the building, we could hear him intoning some kind of a song, maybe—or so, at least, it was my wish—from a happier time in his life, from a youth perhaps when he had greater hope and, who knows, a plan for his life, someone to love and for whom he longed, whom he wanted more than anything always to be with.

Isn’t that what each of us wants? Doesn’t that get us back to the desire, the need, the awful (awe-filled) longing to be loved, not for our position in life, or what we can give, but just for who we are? Just for being children of the Divine Spirit, who deserve all the love and consideration, and yes, respect, that each of us can muster to give to the other? Here was a man with a song on his lips, who was smiling at people, at passersby who ignored and probably even feared him. What kind of a man can sing his song, all the while being snubbed and disregarded by everyone around him?

If he was crazy, as Whitman says, so what? Maybe it’s a craziness we all should long for: the ability to sing a song, while the world ignores and passes us by. Which one of us has not been hurt, terribly damaged, by the lack of love we see all around us, whether in the form of an angry, selfish, or distracted parent, or spouse, or brother, or sister, or friend—someone whom we think, or hope, should know better—or merely from some passerby, a stranger we rub shoulders with for an instant and who’s gone in the flash of a moment?

Whitman goes on to say, in that same prelude: “Here is what you shall do, love the earth and sun and all the animals.” More good advice and, I think, a good way to end one year and begin another. Because even the earth and the sun and the animals want to be loved. Because that’s part of what it means to be in the physical world. Because it’s what makes us human, and also divine. And what greater joy can any of us have than to be a part of all that?

It could be we’re prone to thinking about such things at the holidays because, for whatever reason, we hope for love more now than at other times of the year. If that’s so, then this longing—and especially this giving—is maybe what they call the holiday spirit, whether we celebrate Christmas, or Chanukah, or Kwanza, or the magnificence of the Winter Solstice. It’s a time when we light candles, so as to epitomize life and hope in the darkness. It’s a time when we should all sing a song, wherever we may be and whatever is in our hearts, as we sit in the warmth of our comfortable homes, or alone, in the cold, by the doorway of the corner market.

CHRISTMAS — THEN AND NOW

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.

YULETIDE AND YOU

By Paul

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing about the supposed “war on Christmas.”  Almost as tired as I am of hearing about the “war on drugs,” or even, frankly, the “war on terrorism.”  I don’t mean to get too far afield right off the bat, but I’ve always thought that the use of the word “war” as a metaphor in any of these instances was over extended, overblown, and over used.  War truly is a form of hell on earth, and while addiction to drugs and the lunacy of political terrorism each is its own form of horror-filled misery and suffering, it usually does not rise to the utter demonic psychosis and insanity of war.  And the word has no place being used in any way as a supposed reference to a derisive disdaining of Christmas.

But getting back more directly to talking about the Season, I have a confession to make:  I am a great fan of Christmas.  I love the lights, the decorations, the food, and especially the music.  Yes, I know, there are those who find it all too much, and it is true that stores sneak those Christmas decorations onto the shelves earlier and earlier each year.  I mean, who wants to be, in a sense, pre-celebrating Christmas before Thanksgiving, or even in some instances before Halloween?  It does surely take away our enjoyment of these other holidays, and frankly it also over accustoms and inures us to what should be special about Christmas.

Then there are those who don’t celebrate the holiday at all, either because they profess a religion other than Christianity, or because they eschew religion altogether.  Of course, that’s fine.  Personally, I don’t consider myself a Christian either, at least not in the sense of belonging to a church or denomination of any kind.  Still, I have no problem with who Christ was, or what he stood for.  And therefore I see no problem with Christmas, seen as the celebration of the birth of a great avatar of love and compassion.  Naturally, the whole story of the manger and the lowing cattle and the wise men and the angels on high are obviously elements of a mythological story, not unlike the recounting of the birth of any number of other “Gods” in countless other stories that are told in one culture after another.  But this is the myth that millions of people, especially in the West, are familiar with and buy into, so why not go with it?  The truth of it is that, in a deeper sense, what we are actually talking about is the hoped-for “birth” of our own higher consciousness, that is, the ability of each of us to live in a god-like way, as one whose thinking and actions are informed by love and mercy, and by such qualities as goodness and kindness.  What’s wrong with striving for that?  But neither should this necessarily take away from us the essential, old familiar elements of the Christmas story, either.  Why not enjoy them as a way of living in the cultural moment?

And neither do I have any problem with referring to the whole shebang as the Holidays.  We are, after all, talking about a number of holiday celebrations that take place more or less between the end of November and on into the beginning of January.  This obviously includes, at least for all Americans, Thanksgiving, as well as Chanukah for all those in the Jewish tradition, the great pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice on the 21st of December, Christmas itself, of course, along with its attendant Christmas Eve, the more modern celebrating of Kwanzaa, followed ultimately by New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and in some Christian orthodox traditions the Feast of the Epiphany (i.e. the arrival of the Magi) on January 6th.  These are all “holidays,” and so wishing someone Happy Holidays seems more than appropriate to me.  You can surely pick and choose one or more, no matter what your tradition or beliefs may be.

So, where does this whole Yuletide thing come from?  For anyone not interested in etymology, it’s probably something of a mystery.  And even etymologists are not fully in agreement on its origins.  However, the consensus of opinion seems to center around the fact that the term comes originally from the Old English “geol” (pronounced “yeol”), which applied more to a time of the year than to a specific holiday.  That time of year clustered around the Winter Solstice, and so took place in December-January, when the sun was lowest in the sky.  Germanic, Norse, Slavic, and Celtic peoples all hoped to encourage the sun to rise once again in the sky, providing warmth and life-giving vigor to plants and animals, so they celebrated various rites of sympathetic magic in order to make this happen, including lighting fires (note the Yule log), and bringing green boughs (i.e., evergreens) into the home to help everyone remember, and even to ultimately bring about, the greener time of the year.

Later on, as was usual with Christianity (and a few other religions), those who took over militarily and politically imposed their own brand of mythology (i.e. religion) on subjugated peoples, and the Yuletide got suddenly transformed into the Twelve Days of Christmas.   For those modern people unfamiliar with what that means, we are talking here about the time between the celebration of “Christ’s Mass” (or Christmas) on the 25th of December and that of the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January.

But what of those in the society who are either atheist or agnostic?  I have always thought that one of the greatest things about this country is our ability to celebrate diversity, or at least to tolerate it.  Personally, I am not even against so-called religious displays related to Christmas (the crèche scene, for example) in public places, so long as everyone else is afforded exactly the same rights whenever appropriate to their celebrations.  And let’s face it, for the most part the great majority of displays related to the Season are pretty much secular in nature anyway, anything from Santa and his elves, to generic stars and angels, to gifts wrapped in pretty paper, to ubiquitous Christmas trees and snow scenes (even in Southern California).  Nothing too offensive to anyone in these things, it seems to me.  Mostly, it’s an excuse anyway to sell stuff, and that ought to warm the cockles of any good capitalist’s heart.

So, I say, let’s relax and enjoy the Yuletide Season.  And if you don’t want to wish someone a Merry Christmas, you can always fall back on Happy Holidays (since there are so many – pick whichever one you like!). And if even that’s too much, why not just give someone a kind look and a warm smile?  No matter how you celebrate, or don’t celebrate, in the end, and not unlike the old pagans, I for one am for lighting up this time of the year as much as possible, since it’s dark and cold out there.  As such, it gives me great pleasure to wish everyone a very happy, light-filled, and most creative New Year.

I will look forward to seeing, hearing from, and being in touch with you – in good health and good spirits, I very much hope – in 2014.  May it be a year that brings all that is best for you.