Yesterday, just as I was boarding the plane back to North Carolina, the rain over Michigan turned into wet snow. As if by magic I was transported back to past holiday seasons, when snow was the weather’s indication that it was time to start thinking about lights, greenery, and feasting.
Right-wing reactionaries, the fringe of the religious right, are convinced there’s a war on the whole holiday season, a concerted effort by vague yet menacing “liberal” agencies to take religion out of their Christmas celebrations. To, as Sarah Palin recently claimed, take the joy out of Christmas.
However, claiming that trying to celebrate a non-denominational holiday season, an inclusive and pluralistic holiday season, “steals joy” is an extremely narrow, self-centered view. Because do you know what threatens my holiday joy? Commercialism on the one hand, and insistence on a narrowly focused religious interpretation on the other.
The closest I ever came to losing my Christmas spirit was the year I worked at Wal-Mart. When you see Christmas decorations before the Halloween candy is even put away, and hear a nonstop stream of the same ten Christmas carols over and over from November 1st onward, when you only get Christmas Day off of work and your family is far away so you’re alone and end up eating pizza for Christmas dinner, when Christmas materialism is shoved in your face day in and day out because retail is your livelihood, it’s hard to find even a spark of joy when you look at a tree wrapped in twinkling lights.
But more dangerous to me now are those who insist you can only truly have the holiday spirit if you’re religious, and specifically, Christian. “If you don’t believe in the Christian God, who could you possibly be thankful to on Thanksgiving?? If you don’t believe in Jesus, what possible meaning could the Christmas season have for you?? If you’re not saved, what possible hope of a Happy New Year do you have??” Of course each of these questions is a fallacy, as I will explain in upcoming posts, but that doesn’t mean they’re imbued with any less righteous fury.
Holidays are a trigger minefield, replete with religious phrases that I could see as totally empty or which could set me off without warning, and with family demands which every grown child with a few strained family relationships understands are not as simple as they were ten years ago.
So, with all the commercialism, materialism, the hordes of people (including several of my own family members) who seize the opportunity of “the season” to bludgeon their loved ones and passing strangers with what to them is “good news” and to me is a horrific memory that entrapped me in a labyrinth of depression, despair, hatred, and backwards thinking for twenty years, why would I want to celebrate the holidays at all?
Because I love Christmas. I love the audacity of filling the world with light and greenery, joyful music and an abundance of food just when nature is at its coldest and darkest. This tradition from time immemorial has nothing to do with the Hallmark consumerism calendar or the Christian calendar. It’s an ancient celebration of the human spirit, of all the best we have to give even when times are darkest. We gather together to give thanks for a good harvest. We spend a month generously giving out of our own at times thin pockets. And we look forward to a brand new year, new possibilities, new dreams, a flight into the future with wings buoyed by the safety and warmth of love and abundance.
When I hear the familiar Christmas carols from my childhood, I feel safe. I feel happy. I feel that nothing can go terribly wrong as long as the same carols are sung each year, as long as the human family, each in their own way, celebrates with their loved ones the miracles of light, warmth, food, hope, joy, life.
Should I be excluded from these celebrations because I’m not of the Christian faith? No. And if there is a war, it’s only a fight to be inclusive of everyone. If we learn anything from schmaltzy Christmas movies, it’s that Christmas is a time to put aside our differences and love those we might otherwise leave out in the cold. Love cannot be only on our own terms. You can tell me what Christmas means to you, as long as you’ll listen when I tell you what it means to me.
So thank you, in advance, for listening as I begin to explain my own journey to find new meaning in holidays that I’m going to keep celebrating as long as I live.