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December 2, 2007: “Believing What You Know Ain’t So”

A mother tells a story of Xmas stress. Preparing for a large Christmas Eve family gathering, she had been giving orders like a drill sergeant: ‘pick up your things! Don’t get your clothes dirty! Put away those toys.’

Her four year old daughter had been underfoot, so she sent her to the next room to play with the Nativity set. As she scurried around setting the table she overheard her daughter’s make- believe conversation in an all-too-familiar tone of voice: ‘I don’t care who you are , get those camels out of my living room!’

-From Catherine J. Halverson

Why do Unitarian Universalists celebrate Christmas? How Do UU’s celebrate Xmas? Do We believe in the Virgin Birth? In Jesus being the Christ, the Messiah fully human and fully divine, part of the Trinity? Son of God? A sacrifice for our sins? And do we believe in Santa Claus, or more importantly, do we teach the story of Santa Claus to our children?

The answer to all of these is basically-“it all depends….” Mark Twain defined “faith” as “believing what you know ain’t so.” He meant traditional Christianity, of course. Religion, all religion, is a blend of myth, legend, cultural accumulation, commerce, and institutionalization. No culture in recorded history that I am aware of has lacked some sort of religion, some sort of common myth, some sort of way to bind people together as a community, as well as some sort of deities who protect all those under their wing. I will argue that all religion is ‘made up as we go along;’ except that may have e been thousands of years ago. Yet today we have Mormonism, for instance, built on Christianity, and if it had lasted, the American religion of Shakerism. There is a need for religion, still, do not doubt that; there is an even greater need for religious tolerance as well! What God worth His (her, it’s) worship would divide up humanity into competing even killing religions? What did Mohammed say about the difference between sunni and Shia, say nothing about Sufi?

Aldous Huxley, the great English Novelist was fascinated with religion, sounds like a UU, especially his take on Eastern Mysticism and shares this Buddhist story by Wu Ch’eng-en in his wonderful book , The Perennial Philosophy .

‘Listen to this!’ Shouted the monkey.’ After all the trouble we had getting here from China, and after you specially ordered that we were to be given the scriptures, Ananda and Kasyapa made a fraudulent delivery of goods. They gave us blank copies to take away; I ask you, what is the good of that to us?’

‘You needn’t shout,’ said the Buddha smiling. ‘As a matter of fact, it is such blank scrolls as these that are the true scriptures. But I see that the people of China are too foolish and ignorant to believe this, so there is nothing for it but to give them copies with some writing on.’

Around this mythical time of JEsus’ birth 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.

The winter solstice is history while at the very same time is myth and magic, fairy tale, and an evolution of traditions gathered from around the world over the history of time. Who are we to argue with the ancients of all times who tell us down through the eons that this season is sacred, and we had better not forget!

An article entitled “The Incredible Healing Power of Family Rituals,” by Jennifer Allen in the February 1993, issue of MCCALLS, said that studies of alcoholic families show that children whose families have managed to maintain some rituals–family dinners, regular bedtime routines, celebrations –are less likely to become alcoholics themselves or to marry alcoholics. Steven Wolin, a psychiatrist who has written a book on this subject says these conclusions apply to families troubled in other ways as well–by divorce, a parent’s mental illness or the dispiriting effects of poverty. “Rituals can be protective, even in families with severe problems,” he explains.

When our children were young, Cathie and I were un-churched, 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, 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 cold 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 San ta 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.

We Unitarian Universalists believe that we need to learn about all religions, all celebrations, to make our lives and our religious journey more meaningful. 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 know that this season is chock full of myth, from the Bible to the shopping mall. Even when we finally discovered and became members of a lay-led Unitarian Universalist fellowship, we all tap-danced around Xmas, using only alternative words for Carols, calling it only a winter holiday service, making sure that every other holiday we could think of got equal billing.

I tell this because it think it represents a spiritual evolution for many of us, and because I think our approach to religion as a denomination is moving away from an orthodox humanism to a more universal and theologically diverse understanding which is more spiritual and even liturgical. Many Jews are finding a similar experience in their celebration of their religious holidays. For those Jews who have become UUs, many continue to explore their feelings around these holidays, remembering that Hanukkah is not a major Jewish Holiday but more a reaction to Christmas. Perhaps as we assimilate members from other faiths, they too will add to our diversity around these winter holy days. We will continue to find our own meaning, especially in the midst of commercialism and fundamentalism.

One of the great educators of our clergy, especially in the area of Religious Education, the old Universalist seminary St. Lawrence Divinity School Professor, Angus McClean, wrote : ‘We are not merely the bellhops of history, passing the baggage of one generation on to another. Yet culture makes it possible for human relations to bridge the grave, for individuals who are so short of days to live with a wisdom derived from the dawn of time. Our job, however, is not to worship history and culture like fetishes, but to feed them into our living, creative stream of personal life for spiritual and intellectual reprocessing.’

That is a powerful idea for me- to feed wisdom from the past- in the Bible, or in the Bagavad Gita, in myth, in tradition, in Christianity or any other religion, but whatever it is which has given meaning in the past. Imagine. Religion as feeding and being fed, you see. Feeding our interpretation of religion, of God, of Jesus, of Xmas-“into our living, creative stream of personal life for spiritual and intellectual reprocessing.” It is not that we make up religion as we go along out of thin air, but that we must “reprocess,” and that it must be in both the head heart and the head, both intellectually and spiritually. We are not of one theological approach or belief, but an amalgamation. a plurality.

Many of us enjoyed the works and videotapes of Joseph Campbell and his approach to looking at universal myths of humankind. 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 re 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.

This is what I mean by using Twain’s statement of ” believing what we know ain’t so.” Was Jesus born of virgin? That’s not the important question, though most of us would answer no, not literally. Was Jesus born in a stable? The Bible never actually says that, and the birth story itself is only mentioned briefly in only two of the four gospels, and not at all in the writings of Paul. Yet the Xmas story continues to give us new meaning, century after century, year after year, child after child, Xmas pageant after Xmas pageant.

Season of Fall-Winter Change

It is more than meets the eye,
the ear, the heart, the mind-
More than seasonal disorders
of limited light and cold winter
More than Santa, Rudolf, Frosty,
yea even more than the Christ child.
Perhaps it the Potential of Universal Salvation
the saving of the very earth herself
that every birth brings to this time of barren winter;
perhaps it is the power that is unleashed
every year, right around this time-
advent/Hanukkah/posada/Xmas (always with the X),
Ramadan, Depvali, Saturnalia, Merry Mithra day
Yule Log burning, Wassail Drinking, Three Kings Day
and the Epiphany (of all sizes, shapes, colors, and countries-
no, even beyond boundaries to the stars!)
Merry Mythmas and Happy Harmonica
Believing makes it so
Doubting Thomas’s get coal in their stocking.
When we worry about Santa’s List and somehow connect us back
to Yom Kippur and the book of life onto which is written all our sins!

This time of the mystical season changing affects us all,
Our bodies put on more weight, the newspaper said,
as if we once hibernated (in that case I will have a long sleep!)
O spirit of past, present, and future,
Sacred and universal spirit
within us and around us.
It is more mythmas than Xmas,
and Hanukkah is not the Jewish equivalent,
(though it sure helps)
It is more memory than reality,
more belief in the spirit of Xmas,
from Jesus humble origins
to the sacred lights of Temple Judaism,
to Santa Claus’s devotion and generosity,
to good children everywhere
to even to old Mr. Rogers,
gone from our neighborhood but not forgotten,
and lastly
to those whom we so loved
who are also gone, living in our lives and Xmas memories
of love and time gone by.
short or tall, big or small, eBay or Mall, Bless us all! A. Severance

Perhaps we need to celebrate Xmas in pageants, in caroling, in Xmas Eve Services, because every year we are another year older and don’t feel wiser yet; indeed we may feel just the opposite. Because every year we need to find new meanings to a life that has just kept getting stranger, more stressful, more full of problems and sorrows which threaten to outweigh the joys and weigh down our spirit. Perhaps for those of us who celebrated Xmas as a child we need to make sense of our memories, our families, of who we were, are, and may yet be. We need to somehow mystically reconnect ourselves to the past and singing those familiar Xmas carols is one way of opening some interior gates which we keep tightly closed every other time of the year.

When Kathleen Norris wrote a wonderful a book called Dakota: A spiritual Geography, about inheriting the old family farm in South Dakota and moving from southern California, she hinted that she and her husband were cool and sophisticated and rejected religion. Sound familiar? But she returned and eventually started attending the Lutheran church which she used to attend with her aunt. Oh, if only we’d had A UU church there, it might have been different. She wrote and she describes the experience this way, reminding me of my love for hymn singing, even when I disagree with the words:

“And this is who I am: a complete Protestant with a decidedly ecumenical bent… I still value music and story over systematic theology -an understatement, given the fact that I was so dreamy as a child that I learned not from Sunday school but from a movie on Television that Jesus dies. Either my Sunday school teachers had been too nice to tell me (this was the 1950s), or, as usual. I wasn’t paying attention. I am just now beginning to recognize the truth of my original vision: we go to church in order to sing, and the theology is secondary.”

Maybe, you see, the theology is the singing and the devil is in the details. Maybe Xmas is about story-telling with purpose, about reassessing, rediscovering, or even discovering for the first time that religion is not what we give up when we no longer believe a certain way or a certain set of doctrines. We only give up an institutionalizing, or a denominationalizing of religion. The message of Jesus does not, or at least it shouldn’t, depend on our believing in a virgin birth or even a resurrection, just as our participation in religious search for meaning and comfort, and justice for all, have nothing to do with whether we belong to a church. If we ask whether the Xmas story is true, we can only respond that that is the wrong question, just like when someone asks us if we believe in God. The Xmas story is not about theology as such; it’s not about God or miraculous births. The Xmas story is about us. It is not proof that God exists, but is proof that we exist! And that we matter to the world. And that further more, we are each one of us in the Xmas story; each one of us was born with the potential to change the world or at least our corner of the world, or at least ourselves!

What happened at Christmas?
The Wise Men saw a star.
The Shepherds heard the angels sing.
The Father was rejected at a crowded inn.
The King was troubled.
The mother felt a baby’s need.

What will happen to you?
May you find yourself
Rejected at the inn of busyness,
Troubled by the birth of hope,
See a star of promise,
Hear the heavenly song,
Feel the human need for you,
And find God revealed in all-author unknown

Perhaps we Unitarian Universalists need Xmas even more than folks in traditional religions who already may believe in a variety of miraculous powers of their divinity, because we need to hold on to some myths from our past, some rituals from long ago, that can still bring us meaning if we can be open to it. Some folks in our churches stay home for Xmas services and that’s OK too, because they may find meaning elsewhere and not be able to participate in our search for the true meaning of Xmas. No, not the only meaning, but meaning for us-here, now, today. Perhaps it will stay with us all year long; perhaps this year the Xmas story, the Xmas myths from Scripture, from family, and/or church tradition, will illuminate for us a brand new meaning. Each year is different; we grow older and change is inevitable in our fast-paced world, in ourselves, our loved ones, even our church.

May we find our lives full of the Xmas spirit all year through, may we sing the carols and pretend that the words are in Latin, may we give of ourselves to each other, to the world, and to the mystery and mythology of religion. May we be changed, this year, for the better, by our wholehearted participation in our religious search; may we be challenged to grow, both as individuals and as a church; and may we be inspired to help make the world a better place. May we find beauty, meaning, comfort, and challenge in this special, sacred time. Peace, Shalom, Salaam, happy holidays!