catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 21 :: 2004.12.17 — 2004.12.30


Christmas interruptus

Through my front window, I can see my Vietnamese neighbors putting up their Christmas lights. There are two families living in the three-bedroom split level (the grandparents and another family live up the street), and this weekend both fathers are home from jobs and college to help wrap strings of multi-colored lights around the ornamental cherry tree, over their delicate rose plants and their small brass bird bath, and then up and along the typically Midwestern triangular roof. The fathers hunch against the cold in their thin coats, but they smile and call out to each other in a language whose rhythm is both staccato and sustained.

I cannot help but wonder what all this means to them?the lights, the smell of turkey dinners from neighbors? houses, the stores full of candies and colors. Are they, too, participating in Christmas with the same motivation that I see in most adults? For it seems to me that many of us are intent on the magic of Christmas?not ?magic? in its sweet syrupy meaning, but the more primal meaning of the word. If we perform these rituals?decorating, baking, singing, lighting candles, wrapping presents?if we do them, and if our intent and our desire are pure enough, we will change our reality, we will gain something. That was the purpose of early magic, of invoking the names of the gods.

And what do we wish to gain? Perhaps we are trying to recapture those amazing moments of our pasts, the times from our childhoods when it all came together?the decorated tree hovering over a sea of presents, the smells of cookies followed by meat followed by more cookies, cousins to play with, lots of smiling adults, a roomful of people who loved you, would feed you, would give you presents and watch for your reaction. The quiet moment when you turned on the Christmas tree lights and the dark wasn?t scary for once?instead, it held you and your family in its palm, softly, safely, knitted together with something so beautiful and divine.

Of course, that experience rocked us off of our feet as children because we weren?t expecting it?or even if we were, children hang on to their expectations loosely, and there was still room to surprise us. As opposed to now, the 38th time I?ve been through this month-long ritual of Advent followed by the Eve followed by the Day that begets Twelve More Days and then Epiphany, and don?t forget New Year?s thrown in with its rather demanding expectation of incredible resolve.

I?m discovering that repeated rituals and traditions, with their inherent expectations, are not my favorite things. I find the expectations most difficult.

The first few times of any ritual are new and exciting, overflowing with meaning?I remember when, as an adult, I started attending a Lutheran church that served communion every week. When the novelty wears off, it?s work to fill the moment with the appropriate meaning. Communion isn?t just a walk to the front of the church, a change of scenery met by the taste of bread and the feel of the cup, and Christmas isn?t just decorations and evergreens and presents. I exhaust myself with reminders: this is about the WORLD, the WORLD being SAVED and a very serious GOD who sent his ONLY SON.

No pressure.


I?ve read that there are adaptive reasons for most religious and cultural taboos. The sacred cow in India, for instance. It seems a terrible waste in a country plagued by starvation, but anthropologist Marvin Harris says that the sacred cow actually serves the population quite well: the cows sustain themselves mostly by eating rubbish that would otherwise pollute the city; their milk provides much-needed protein for those that live on subsistence diets; their dung fuels cooking fires for the poor. In addition, when an aged cow finally dies, relatively peacefully, we can be assured that the lowest caste in India, the untouchables, does eat its meat and use its hide.

Harris states a similarly adaptive reason for the Jewish taboo against eating pork. Put simply, the rich, succulent and highly desired meat of pork comes from pigs; pigs grow best with shade, mud, and forests in which to root; and the Jews lived in the desert, notable for its scarcity of forests, shade, or mud. Harris hypothesizes that a religious ban on pork developed in part to avoid a situation in which precious resources were used to fill a demand for a popular but inefficient source of meat.

With the holidays coming, it occurs to me that I?m violating a lesser taboo of our culture. Faced with the work necessary to infuse myself with the holiday spirit, the love and joy of Christmas, the sweet-baby-Jesus feeling, I don?t know if I?m up to the job. But I don?t want to end up like Scrooge almost did, like Marley most certainly did, alone in a cold cemetery with only my own gravestone and chains for company. And that is the taboo I refer to. The belief that, though the darkness and cold and quiet snow of the newborn winter, we must reach out to others with bright gifts and heavy meals, dust off the shiny gold filament that links us to heaven, and sing in raucous joy. For if we don?t, there is something of the grave about us, something of the miser, of cold gray chains. No matter that Creation itself is wearing its seasonal white death-shroud?we are not to join that reality, we must work hard and harder, especially now, to create that separate, sacred reality that is the right and the gift of humanity.

There must be an adaptive reason for this taboo, I tell myself, though I don?t know what it is. There?s something here that helps our culture thrive, that ensures our very survival. I laugh to think that it might be about the economy, especially since a common theme among people of faith is that Christmas is too commercial. With retailers counting on Christmas sales for up to 75% of their annual figures, it does seem that life as we know it does in some part depend on the commercialism that so many feel plagues this season.

So why am I so tempted to risk the Scrooge taboo? Why does the tradition that excites others tire me so? A possible answer occurred to me as I was watching our church gear up for Advent?or gear down, as may be more appropriate. There?s a lot going on in our church this year?some people suffer depression, quite a few family members and church members have died, a young father was recently diagnosed with epilepsy, and an active middle-aged woman with multiple sclerosis. Our Just Peace task force struggles to make a difference while the war in Iraq rages on, our whole congregation searches for meaning as our country seems to turn towards fundamentalism with its puritanical, punishing view of morality?a view that we don?t share. And do the liturgy, the colors, and the music reflect the emotion and struggle of this moment, this poignant slice of time, the turning, the passion among this particular group of people? I am sure that to many the familiar words of expectation, the built-in anticipation, the heavy fall of purple, the mournful tones of ?Emmanuel? sum it up perfectly. It doesn?t for me.

To me this season throws a blind purple cloak over the personalities and inner circles within this group of people that I have come to love. The season sets the expectation: this is how we should feel, to this we turn our hope. In other words, we are to stop mucking about in our own personal stories. There is little respect for our own process, our personal grief, and our own creative solutions, worked out with God as we understand Him or Her or It.

No, says Advent, then Christmas. Here is the program. It?s the Virgin, the Baptist, the Baby, the Wise Men, the Angels. Again and again, just like last year, and like next year will be. That?s your meaning. Make it fit.

Many people do so, and find joy in it. I respect them. But, speaking as someone who can be overrun by expectations and repetition, I have to believe that God will excuse me. He knows I gather hope in the quiet, personal rituals that are dictated by no earthly authority?the moonlit walks over a deep, inconvenient, slushy snow, where I laugh at the variety that the Creation can throw at us, at our busy lives. He sees my smile as I enjoy the dark and its large-sky lessons.

Our neighbors have finished putting up their lights?the men are clapping their hands, forcing the blood back into their fingers. The string of lights we bought for the outside will stay in the basement this year. There is a tree, very simply decorated, and my toddler delights in unplugging the lights and throwing the few ornaments to the ground. As I am expected to, I will attend the dinners and the gatherings, will try to enjoy my family, will set the stage for my children to remember this in whatever way they will. In January I will pay my Christmas bills with a lit candle on the table next to me, to remind me that these bills mean abundance. When it comes to the holidays, I will get by.

I turn back to the free flow of my life with two children at home?playing Pokemon one minute, cleaning crayon off the wallpaper the next. I want only what bubbles up naturally, what grows organically, and I will not try to fill the moments with more. This is my practice, made up on the spot by myself and those who intimately share my life, made holy only by my awareness and wonder and the ubiquitous presence of that which we call God.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus