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December 14, 2008: “Merry Mythmas: The Real Meaning Is In Your Heart”

This guy goes into a restaurant for a Xmas breakfast while in the old hometown for the holidays. After looking over the menu he says, I’ll just have the Eggs Benedict. His order comes a while later and its served on a big, shiny, hubcap. He asks the waiter, what’s with the hubcap? The waiter sings: Oh there’s no plate like chrome for the hollandaise!

There is s the story of a Jesuit missionary who visited a western tribe. After sharing a meal, the priest stood and regaled the people with a long account of the Christian Gospel--virgin birth, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection, etc.  He sat, and the tribes Storyteller then stood and began to tell stories of Spider Woman and her sisters, of Wakan Tanka, and some of the creation stories.  The priest sat and fumed and finally stood, sputtering, shouting at them about their heresy, pagans, barbarians, etc. etc.  The chief interrupted saying, "We listened politely to your stories. Why cannot you listen to ours?"

Do you remember the anti-religious jokes that went around when we were younger like- "Did you hear, they canceled Xmas this year?  Yeah, Mary confessed."

All religion is based on ancient writings, teachings, cultures, and beliefs from thousands of years ago. The most recent world religion, Islam, based on the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed from the 7th century of the Common Era, the new way of saying A.D. is considered to be based on the earlier writings of the Jewish and Christina Bible.  It is often said that other people's religion is called mythology, our religion is the truth, but the truth is its all myth, if we define myth as the stories of the heart and the soul of religion. not as lies or falsehoods. Myths may be better understood as metaphors, symbolic stories, ancient humanity's way of saying what couldn't be fully understood yet. Where did we come from? Where did the first person evolve from? How was the world created? Where do we go when we die? Who makes the the thunder? Who protects us from harm when it lightenings?   Is there a Great Spirit?   Who can heal the sick? What is happening to my body as I get older?  If I do something special to the ground will it grow better crops? Indeed, the Lets make a deal mythology of religion must have grown up very early with primitive humans, because it seems so prevalent still! How many of us still find ourselves still playing, even if we don't believe in God when we are confronted with a crisis?

But you and I are the meaning-makers! We inherit the myths, magic, and metaphors, but we decide what is true, what is meaningful, what is reality! We add our meaning to the myths and that changes them; indeed it changes our very reality, perhaps even how we live our lives and how we deal with the conflicts and insecurities of life.

 Imagine, if you can, a life without holiday of any kind, because all holidays, religious or secular or nationalistic, have myths related to them somehow.  Try to imagine how you would feel without being able to celebrate anything, without having anything to look forward to in the coming cold, dark, days of winter especially. And especially if you have grown up, like I did, in a culture of Xmas, for instance, imagine being forbidden to celebrate it in any way. What profound loss that would be, even though my theological beliefs have changed dramatically; indeed, I have often described my theological beliefs as similar to my evolving understanding of Santa Claus from the literal red-suited white-bearded sleigh-driving -list-keeping-gift-giving guy of my childhood to the loving, spirit of Xmas and love of my adulthood where I have become part of Santa Claus, and not just because I have come to resemble him! So my literal God of my childhood has evolved into a metaphor as well into a spirit of love which I am also a part of!

I believe that a little part of us would die in winter without a celebration of some kind.  Perhaps if Christianity had not merged a number of winter feasts/holidays/celebrations into Xmas, some psychotherapist might have come up with a secular alternative. Even those who don't go to church like the holiday lights, maybe even need the festivity of those colors to cheer them up. The history of humanity seems to show that seasonal celebrations have been around since recorded time.  We modern rationalists continue the long tradition erecting sacred symbols even if we no longer believe what the symbols stood for. So why do we, in this scientific age, continue to celebrate Xmas in symbol and in song? Why do we continually search for new meanings for the old words? I confess that I often wish there were an alternative to Xmas that we could get as much meaning from. But Xmas was part of my childhood, and a very meaningful part. It was more than just a Xian holiday, it went beyond the myths and legends to something deep inside which seemed to light a spark within.

I've often told the children's story about how Unitarians and Universalists invented Xmas, and lest that sound like typical UU name-dropping, or illusions of Grandeur or even adequacy, a historical book that was nominated for Pulitzer prize finalist by Stephen Nissenbaum, called The Battle for Xmas, writes: With the turn of the 19th century, the reappropriation of Xmas took on a concerted form -a move to hold church services on Dec 25... In the forefront were the Universalists. Largely a rural sect, Universalists openly celebrated X Xmas from their earliest stages in New England. The Universalist community in Boston held a special Xmas day service in 1789, even before the congregation was officially organized, and in the early 19th century, it was this denomination that proselytized for Xmas more actively than any other. The Unitarians were close behind. Compared to the Universalists, Unitarians were more genteel and (for all their theological liberalism) more socially conservative....Unitarians were calling for the public observance of Xmas by 1800. They did so in full knowledge that it was not a biblically sanctioned holiday, and that December 25 was probably not the day on which Jesus was born. They wished to celebrate the holiday not because God had ordered them to but because they themselves wished to. And they celebrated it in the hope that their own observance might help to purge the holiday of its seasonal excess and disorder. Believe it or not we were influential in getting business to close on Xmas day so that people could make Xmas day a festive and holy holiday from what had evolved into a secular orgy of drinking and partying.

It is the Xmas tree, for me, which more than any other symbol, evokes the feeling of Xmas; yet it is a relatively new Xmas symbol in this country, having been here for only about a century and a half, supposedly introduced in, of all places, Wooster, Ohio, by a German immigrant  1820. Actually, like so many things which have been around for a long time, the origins of the Xmas tree are obscure, laden with legends and myths, like Xmas itself.

Though it was a Unitarian minister, Charles Follen in Lexington, Mass, a German Immigrant himself, who popularized the Xmas tree in New England, and is usually credited with being the one who started the American tradition! It may be that the Xmas tree comes from the ancient Norse “World Tree” called “Yggdrsil,” the symbol for life itself. The decorations may represent the fruits of the tree and were probably intended to symbolize the endless variety of the gifts of life.

The ancient Roman festival, which most scholars feel was the real antecedent to Xmas, was the Saturnalia, which made extensive use of evergreen decorations and was dedicated to the great sun God.

The actual origin of the evergreen tree as a Xmas symbol was probably Germanic, and again was related to the life-giving powers of the sun. The only well-known Xmas carol dedicated solely to the Xmas tree is “O Tannenbaum”; in German the word for tree is “baum” which also means, “Father Sun”. Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, is often credited with starting the custom of decorating the evergreen, ancient pagan symbol, as part of a Xmas celebration. And it was supposed to have been a German Governess of Queen Victoria who introduced the Xmas tree to England.

The early Puritans in this country forbade Xmas trees, because they were viewed as pagan, and very unbiblical. Indeed, in Massachusetts it was actually illegal to celebrate Xmas. The General Court of Mass. passed a law which stated: “…anybody who is found observing, by abstinence from labour, feasting or any other way, any such days as Xmas Day, shall pay for every such offence five-shillings.”

  Christmas itself was not a holiday that Jesus taught, of course, nor did the early Christians celebrate it, or for that fact, even know about it. The first actual writings of the Christian Bible were by Paul and then not until about 15 to 20 years after Jesus died, and he never mentions the virgin birth! Neither does the first Gospel written, Mark, about 40 years after Jesus died around 70 of the Common Era. Imagine the first two major writings of the New Testament and neither mention Christmas!

This sacred season has been so for thousands of years, long before Xmas, long before Hanukkah, long before anything we remember. On the old Julian calendar, the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, was on December 25th. Just a coincidence, I'm sure, for those were pagan days! December 25 was the birthday of Mithra, an ancient pre-Christian God of war. It was also the birth date of the son, of "Sol Invictus" the unconquerable sun. So Jesus became known as the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire and eventually all in the empire were automatically converted to Christianity, which became the state religion. At least 105 countries celebrate some form of Xmas. In fact, you might like to know that Plato was also believed to have born of a virgin!     Around this time was also the reported birthday of Apollo, Dionysius, Odin, Opalia, wife of Saturn, and the Phrygian god, Attis. The pre-Christian Romans also celebrated Saturnalia, and gave gifts to loved ones at this time. The Anglo-Saxons and the Teutonic tribes of Germany had winter holidays with things like the Druids sacred symbol of mistletoe and the German symbol of the evergreen, and even the Norse had ancient symbols of gods in sleighs.

In a wonderful old book entitled English Country Life, written in 1858 about country life and seasons does not mention Xmas in its table of contents, but instead lists: Dark December, Mid-winter, when it lists An old Saxon winter-Frost Robin-Woods in Winter-Snowdrop-Winter night-Twelfth Night-snow-rosemary-plough Monday. The four seasons are represented on cover by three maidens with seasonal headdress and a man as the fourth looks suspiciously like Santa Claus, or Father Christmas crowned with holly and ivy; describing the frigid December-…Nothing stirs amid the wild solitude of the wintry scene, save the ever-falling snow.

Still there are a few evergreens, which mock the rigour of the season, and preserve their foliage in all the pride of summer greenery, as if refusing to be conquored; and which altogether less in fashion than they were formerly, have not altogether disappeared from among the simple ornaments with which we decorate jolly old Xmas...

But of all the green things that bring Summer to the sunshine of our hearths at this season, there are none so dearly prized as the mistletoe-bough-the hanging branch, as an old writer says that looks down upon the roof upon the gentle thieves beneath, and catch a kiss upon every leaf as it comes smacking up ward on the wings of either a sigh or a blush.

But that pales  beside this headline that caught my eye in my recent  Xmas research:, sounding like something from a Supermarket tabloid- BEHIND SANTA'S GENIAL SMILE LIES A 70,000 YEAR OLD ANIMIST TRADITION OF A BEAST MAN,  PHYLLIS SIEFKER UNMASKS THE ULTIMATE BEDROOM INVADER. in her book, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years.  That's right, forget going back to St. Nicholas or Kris Kringle, let's go back a little further and make it really interesting!  Siefker traces the Santa back to a variety of figures including the Holly King and other pagan figures and finally says Our Santa is one of the last descendants of a long line of dark, sooty, hair-covered men, the remnant of a pre-Christian god of awesome power. . . The Wild Man was . . . a godhead so strong, so universally worshipped by pagans, that Christianity found him the major impediment to its goal of European salvation. In Europe, Christianity and the old god clashed in anger and violence. To undermine his grip on the people, Christianity labeled his worship evil, and called his followers devilish. . . The fact is that Santa and Satan are alter egos, brothers; they have the same origin. . . The old god traveled two paths into the twentieth century. On one path, he came to personify evil for the growing Christian church. On the other, he became the symbol of holiday, carnival, and new hope.     That may be stretching it a bit, but it is also attaching meaning to mythology and what the great psychological thinker Jung called the universal archetype. Surely we can see in the Santa figure both a kind of saintliness and godliness but what about that threat of punishment for bad boys and girls, the lump of coal, or in the old myths, he had a partner called, Black Pete, who carried a stick to actually beat bad boys and girls! But he is also the figure of the wizard, the shaman, the medicine man, the magician the magus,, the wise man, the king, the grand father, Zeus, and so on.

The figure of Santa Claus, for instance, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Germanic God, Thor, who in ancient mythology was the main God of peasants and common people. He was described as old, jovial, and had a long white beard; the color he is associated with is red, and fire is his symbolic element. He drove a chariot (which was thought to cause the thunder) and was considered to be a helping and protective god for people. Especially sacred to him were fireplaces, and he was known to come down the chimney into the fire.

We have made Santa less abusive, of course, and I don't know if you have noticed, but he's also stopped smoking his pipe, and has lost weight! I've also heard it said that its faux fur that he now wears as well!  Even the story of Hanukah and the oil last for eight days so that the temple could remain open seems pale compared to other myths, until one realizes that it again is a story about light and a miracle from God pointing to divine favor and if we fast forward it to the miracle of the Jews finally reestablishing Israel 2000 years later in our lifetime in 1948, one can bring even the ancient into today!

The holidays are here again,
To lift the darkning year
And celebrate the feast of lights
Mid glow of Christmas cheer.
For not alone was Jesus sought
By wisemen from afar,
The joy of other hallowed births
Shines with the wondrous star.
And Hanukkah is freedoms shrine
To all neath tyranny.
The lamps shine new within our hearts
For faith to make all free.
Joy to the world, these festive days!
Nowhere may hope be dim.
And as the gladsome season glows
Sing carol, song and hymn!
Rev. John Daniel

All of this comes down to the real reason for the season, which I want to argue is not about  Christmas or Hanukah  or any other holiday but is about the human heart, and I mean that metaphorically of course, not medically! It is about the bringing of love, the love that brings peace on earth, good will to all, that feeds the hungry, houses, the homeless, and gives a room to those who can't find one at the inn. It is the love that Jesus taught, that the Torah brought.  It is about giving from the heart without measure or cost or thought of reward. It is about the  letting the Messiah be born in your heart, as if your heart were the stable and every night a child were born was holy night, because of course it is. The heart knows these things if we will only listen to it, and sometimes it takes a child to remind us.

Oh, in these difficult economic times it is not easy to get into the holiday spirit perhaps, and that salvation army bell may get on our last nerve, though it should be remembered it is our conscience after all, reminding us that even in our hardship there are others who have even less. May we find meanings in the myths to warm our hearts and encourage our generosity of spirit. My we find, live, and share he true holiday spirit in our hearts.

Peace on earth, good will to all, Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), God is Love Go with Love in your heart

Opening Words

Continuing the current trend of large-scale mergers and acquisitions, it was announced today at a press conference that Christmas and Chanukah will merge. An industry source said that the deal had been in the works for about 1300 years, ever since the rise of the Muslim Empire. While details were not available at press time, it is believed that the overhead cost of having twelve days of Christmas and eight days of Chanukah was becoming prohibitive for both sides. By combining forces, we’re told, the world will be able to enjoy consistently high-quality service during the Fifteen Days of Christmukah, as the new holiday is being called. Massive layoffs are expected, with lords a-leaping and maids a-milking being the hardest hit. As part of the conditions of the agreement, the letters on the dreydl, currently in Hebrew, will be replaced by Latin, thus becoming unintelligible to a wider audience. Also, instead of translating to “A great miracle happened there,” the message on the dreydl will be the more generic “Miraculous stuff happens.” In exchange, it is believed that Jews will be allowed to use Santa Claus and his vast merchandising resources for buying and delivering their gifts. In fact, one of the sticking points holding up the agreement for at least three hundred years was the question of whether Jewish children could leave milk and cookies for Santa even after having eaten meat for dinner. A breakthrough came last year, when Oreos were finally declared to be Kosher.

 All sides appeared happy about this. A spokesman for Christmas, Inc., declined to say whether a takeover of Kwanzaa might not be in the works as well. He merely pointed out that, were it not for the independent existence of Kwanzaa, the merger between Christmas and Chanukah might indeed be seen as an unfair cornering of the holiday market. Fortunately for all concerned, he said, Kwanzaa will help to maintain the competitive balance.  He then closed the press conference by leading all present in a rousing rendition of "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful."

Please join us in a search for religious meaning. Happy holidays from all the worlds countless ways of expressing the need for a sacred celebration around this time of year, around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Some celebrated Hanukah and others may have celebrated the Hindu holiday festival of lights devali, or the Moslem Eid al Adha, The Festival of Sacrifice, or maybe the solstice. That's why I've come to call it Merry Mythmus! and Happy harmonica! But I would guess that many of us were shaped by the culture of this holiday called Xmas which has grown out of the boundaries of just one religion or just one way of interpreting the mystery of life and death, of giving and receiving, more than one way of thinking, feeling, believing about God.  The word Christ means messiah, the one who is to come to save the world; Jesus the Messiah is one way of thinking, feeling, believing. Jesus is the same as God, some say, but I believe so are we. We are all messiahs, all have God within us, all of us  are needed to save the world, not from the sin of not believing something that we just don't find understandable, or not believing certain doctrines of ancient time, but to save the world from poverty, injustice, hatred, prejudice, pollution, sickness, violence, ignorance, selfish-ism. The teachings of Jesus, like many of the world's great prophets, are still important for us and the world.

Let our hearts be open wide by the religious part of this holiday that has been evolving for 5000 years or more. We may call it Xmas, but most of us know there are many sacred days from many religious ways of describing the spirit of life and love. Just as my mother taught me as a child about Santa Claus being the spirit of Xmas, the spirit of giving, of loving, of celebrating, of Jesus.  I believe that God is one word which we can use for the spirit of life and love, the spirit of good that can inspire us to live better lives, to love more, give more.

Let us then claim this cultural holiday called Christmas for our own as well if we want, but we are not required! Feel Free to find our own meanings. Free to sing the songs that we might remember that bring us back sweet and loving memories of Xmas past with loved ones no longer with us, and free to translate them into our language.

Let me start with a fractured Xmas carol, written by Unitarian Universalist minister, Christopher Raible, from his collection of Hymns for the Cerebration of Strife”:

(to be sung to the tune of GOD REST YOU MERRY, GENTLEMEN)

God rest you Unitarians, let nothing you dismay.
Remember there’s no evidence there was a Christmas day.
When Christ was born just is not known,
no matter what they say.
Glad tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

There was no star of Bethlehem, there was no angel song;
There could have been no wise men
for the journey was too long.
The stories in the Bible are historically wrong.
Glad tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

Much of our Christmas custom
comes from Persia and from Greece.
From solstice celebrations of the ancient middle East.
We know our so-called holiday is but a pagan feast.
Glad tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

Joseph Campbell Professor of Religious Studies and Mythology at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College–Campbell became something of a folk hero, , thanks to a Public Broadcasting Series program he did with Bill Moyers called “The Power of Myth.” At the core of Campbell’s thought is his theory that myths are metaphors about human life. There is a universal theme like the creation story- of the world by a God or gods; a birth (virgin or otherwise) that comes from the union of a divine and earthly parent; a death followed by a resurrection; the hero or heroine who is also the Savior of humanity. And that these are really stories about something that is going on within us as well as part of Jung’s universal archetype- how we are all connected interdependent webbed, if you will. “Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance… We all need help in our passages from birth to life and then to death. We need…to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are…Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of life.”

My colleague Stephen D. Edington, December 14, 1997 in a Sermon titled Myth, Magic, and Mystery: A Mix for Religious Liberals? Talked about Campbell and then mentioned the minister of hi church from the 1940s who had also talked about the Xmas myths and Rev. . Sommerfeld and the words just resonated with me:

“We believe in songs which are born in the hearts and minds of people. We believe that some stories deserve to live forever because of what they tell us about ourselves. The angels singing an anthem of peace and goodwill deserve to be heard forever because they are the angels (which are found) in human hearts…The wise men, so faithfully seeking the way of a star, deserve to go in search again each year as long as years shall be, for they are the story of the quest for ourselves.”