At a church-related boys school, a group of first graders were assigned to put the Bible Xmas story in their own words. Of course they had the familiar characters like Joseph, shepherds, the three wise men, even an angel propped up in the background. But Mary was nowhere to be seen. Evidently, the 1st grade boys had to be creative with the character of Mary since none of them would play a “girl’s” part. So at the staging of this new 1st grade version of the Nativity story, there were some bales of hay from behind which came the sound of moans and groans, like someone in labor, but she was not seen. Soon, a doctor arrived, dressed in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. Joseph, with an obvious look of relief took the doctor to where Mary is supposed to be, then Joseph comes back out and starts pacing back and forth like a nervous father. After a little while the doctor emerges with a big smile on his face. “Congratulations, Joseph,” he says, “It’s a God!”
Well, Merry Mythmas and a Satisfactory Solstice, and many more. Before Xmas was on December 25, the ancient holiday of Solstice was on that day; the reason we celebrate it earlier, now is because of that strange changing of the calendar that happened centuries ago, which I never fully understood. Even the concept of splitting the years of BC, before Christ and AD, Anno Domini (in the Year of our Lord in Latin- why didn’t they just say AC After Christ?) as somehow measuring modern time from the birth of Jesus. In academic circles, they are now using different designations that are not religious ones called BCE, Before the Common Era, and CE for Common Era. to replace BC and AD. One reason is that historically, no one knows when Jesus was born, and the Bible doesn’t tell us. One would think that if we are going to measure history by a birth, we should all agree when it happened!
Much of life since ancient times, of course, was measured by the sun, the moon, and the turning of the seasons; religious holidays grew up around those and still do, one layered upon another until it becomes almost impossible to find the origins of them all. Sometimes one culture and their religion would conquer another culture and their religion and the dominate religion would then replace the conquered one in public rituals, though privately and in the countryside, the old ways were often kept and sometimes still are to this day in some parts of the world where time has not seemed to change the people much.
We think Christmas is an ancient holiday, but it is relatively recent, especially in America. The early Puritans in early Massachusetts, from which we evolved along with the Pilgrims, outlawed any celebration of Xmas as being pagan! It was not until the 1800’s that it slowly started being celebrated, and the first Xmas trees didn’t appear in great numbers until the end of the 1800’s! Imagine!
Yet most of us brought up in a Christian culture remember Christmas, whether our parents were particularly religious or not, because Santa Claus had become as important, though also not mentioned in the Bible. Indeed, in the small NH town I grew up we were all Protestants, until, and I remember when it happened, the only Catholic family moved in. There was no separation of church and state in the 1950’s when I was growing up; indeed, it was when the country added “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance! Xmas Pageants and parties, and carols were common in school and no one objected in my small town. But imagine if you were Jewish, or any other religion other than Christian, or of course, if you no longer believed in any of it, nor wanted your children to participate.
Yet I will argue that in many ways we were celebrating a form of the turning of the solstice, a time and a place when one prayed for longer and warmer days and the salvation of springtime and rebirth. We certainly would not have said that it was just that our myths were different, but if you use the term defining story than perhaps we might take it easier, for the Bible stories did define our culture for so many of us, and still do in art, literature, and music to this day.
I still love the Xmas season though view it entirely different than I did as a child, partly because as an adult I am now partly responsible for the Xmas season become realized! I have also begun to see the various metaphors and myths that make up this time and give it meaning and depth, beauty and yes, love.
When our children were young, Cathie and I were unchurched, having been turned off by traditional Christianity, we were both agnostics and had not yet discovered Unitarian Universalism. Yet we taught our children about Santa Claus and celebrated Xmas in a secular way. We always had a Xmas tree and always exchanged gifts. We kept it a family time. Yet we did not attend any Xmas church services because we did not believe literally in the Xmas story and would have felt like hypocrites. We believed in something, though, something like the spirit of Xmas, in love, family, something that made us continue to tell the myths and the stories of this time, something that still urged us to sing those Xmas carols despite not believing a word of them, something that made us wish for some kind of Xmas service that we could feel comfortable attending. Though we didn’t consider ourselves Christians, we still felt the cultural need, perhaps even the psychological need for holiday traditions, even rituals.
Since most of us no longer believe in these myths, perhaps it is enough to participate in them, maybe the reason why we do participate in the more secular Santa Claus and honor the magic of Winter Solstice-time, of Hanukkah, of Christmas, so we won’t lose touch with the child within us all, regardless of our age. Think back to Christmas past. As a Scrooge, this has always been effective for getting myself into the Christmas spirit. Close your eyes and roll the Christmas memory tape in your mind. One of my favorite Christmas memories is when I was eight, I think. I had lost my faith in Santa Claus. One of the older kids, had somehow convinced me that there was no Santa, there was no magic. And I, heartbroken, believed no longer that Santa would come and fill my stocking. My parents were reassuring, and didn’t try to talk me out of my loss of faith. We hung up our stockings on the mantle of the fireplace just the same, my family and I, on a Christmas Eve close to 50 years ago. I went to bed that night and didn’t have any trouble falling asleep, because I no longer waited for the sound of sleigh bells in the air or reindeer hooves on the roof. I did have a feeling that something was missing, some feeling of magic that went with Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, and even dancing snowmen and snowwomen.
In the morning when my sister and I went to get our stockings with my parents, I was first, but my sister spotted it before I did, since my eyes were only on what loot I had gotten in the stocking. “Look in the fireplace,” she shouted at me. I stopped; I looked; and the magic had been restored. There in the ashes of the fireplace, just as if he had placed one foot before going up the chimney, was a large and unmistakable boot print! The spirit of love and magic, the spirits of Christmas had known that I, perhaps already a Unitarian Universalist skeptic at eight, needed evidence that Santa Claus did indeed exist. And like an evangelist on Television I exclaimed in my mind, “I believe!” Christmas again became a magical time for me. For those of you who know about the true spirit of Christmas, (Wink, Wink!) and about the many forms it takes, perhaps you will remember that magic continues to be essential for Christmas, especially after it is harder to find, harder to believe.
I submit that the forms may change but the spirit remains the same, whether or not we ever see the bootprint. The child within us all needs sometimes to be awakened out of dormancy for Christmas time, because it is that child within part of us that brings us joy. When Jesus said that we must be like children to enter heaven, it made people think. What did he mean? Jesus, like a Zen Master, often talked in riddles. The child within, the divine within, are at the heart of almost all religious mysticism. The adult part of us has to make rules in the home, in life, in religion. Sometimes the rules become more important than the ruled. Witness Eastern Europe. But always rules must be for life enhancement, religious or secular, and when they become life-denying, they must be reexamined.
Well known Psychiatrist and author, Rollo May, says in his book, The Cry For Myth: “A myth is way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence…myths are our way of finding…meaning and significance. Language abandons myth only at the price of the loss of human warmth, color, intimate meaning, values-these things that give personal meaning to life….There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our contemporary culture than the popular-though profoundly mistaken- definition of myth as falsehood…. These are questions we continually ask and never can answer. But in the asking is the catharsis.” In other words, the searching for the meaning of the myths, or perhaps we should say the many different levels of meaning, can be cathartic; it can close up the would and heal us.
What is the story you carry in your heart/In your winter solstice memories?/What is the meaning of your life?/We must each answer our own questions,/it is all relative/and we ARE all relatives! Jesus and Buddha/Mohammed,Lao Tzu/Holy Moses and Zarathustra, too./At certain times of the year, of our lives,/a holy portal opens, a sacred and spiritual opportunity,/a birth of potential salvation of the world/an epiphany of the new born babe/another layer of talk over experience/ of an awe so deep and wide,/one has to both laugh and cry./Light for the night, warmth from the cold,/ meaning for the uncertainty, / lessons for the learned to unlearn./For me, it is the spirit of Xmas, even Dickens’s many ghosts;/it is the birth of true generosity when we give/not only gifts, but ourselves to the holy./For me, it is the magic of the music,/the candles, the beloveds,/and oh, the bittersweet memories/ of those long ago Xmases,/as if each year/were seen/ in a kind of telescoping memory.
Thank you Mom, Dad,/and all the family/gone and remaining. The True Spirit of Santa/of the Christ Child/of the God is Love – The real reason for the season… A. Severance
So light just one candle to chase away the darkness, for warmth, for romance, for friendship, for community, for the holy, for the solstice, for xmas, for Hanukkah.
It matters what we believe and it matters that we believe in the transforming power of love and justice and those purposes and principles which we talk about, study, and see in our order of service every Sunday. It DOESN’T matter to me whether you say you believe in God if you behave religiously with compassion and justice in all that you do. I believe that the Xmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, season is an opportunity for true peace on earth and true good will to all if we believe it. And I believe that love never ends, so that when we love one anther we and one of us moves away that love continues on in our hearts and memories. May love be born this season anew in all of us.
Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. “Vaya con Dios” is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is “Go with God,” So I adapted it to say “Vaya Con Su Dios,” “Go with your idea or interpretation of God.”