Sunday, December 17, 2006

Bah, Ho Ho Ho: or, Christmas by any other name….

Walhydra wonders if she would be mistaken for one of those people waging the mythical "War against Christmas" dreamed up by Bill O'Reilly and his fellow culture terrorists, but when every store or restaurant she walks into is playing Christmas music, she really wants to scream, "Just BE QUIET!!!"

The issue is a simple one—and not the one you might expect for a grouchy old Pagan. The true grace of the season is so important to Walhydra that she doesn't want anyone, from any side, telling her what Christmas should mean to her.

To some extent, this is just Walhydra's usual rant against mistaking the pointing finger for the moon.

"For goodness sake," she complains. "Every human tribe has some sort of lore and ritual about the rebirth of the winter solstice sun! Our minds might be able to read the calendar, but our guts fear the earth is dying. And our mammalian brainstems are shouting, 'Get fat and hibernate till spring!' "

She shakes her head. "All this fuss, sanctifying animal reactions to the seasons!"

But, of course, there's more to it than that. There is, for example, the whole matter of inspiring—and enforcing—blind loyalty to the tribe.

"I hate it that someone can push my sentimental buttons with just a song or an image or a smell. I don't know how we got from 'In the Bleak Midwinter' to 'Oh, by Gosh, by Golly,' but either one of them sets off a flood of culture-specific feelings, memories and expectations for me—whether I want them or not.

"And pine boughs, red-and-green, gingerbread…. Jeez! It's like I have no control if someone wants to make me react—or to feel guilty or resentful for not doing so."

Walhydra remembers well the words of Anne Rice's ancient Taltos character, Ashlar: that all war is tribal, and that all war is about extermination.

"Huh?" you ask. "Christmas is about war?"

"No," Walhydra replies in her best deconstructionist voice. "The christmasization of secular culture is about enforcing the dominant ideology upon all who want access to the benefits and protections of the post-modern, debt-based, consumption-driven christianist hegemony."


Or, as Robert J. Elisberg put it in a comment appending his War on Christmas spoof: “I thought the Chamber of Commerce won the war on Christmas long ago when they turned it into a holiday based on shopping rather than spirituality.”

Walhydra’s concern is that modern holidays are all about appearances, about presentation. About so arranging things in the outer world that one can have a certain feeling—and a feeling of certainty—regarding one’s participation in the tribe’s “dominant ideology.”

“It doesn’t go to the core,” she says with regret. “It’s about fitting in pleasantly, not about being.”

Walhydra remembers an old friend, Nell, a solidly-built, snappishly comical “birthright” Quaker from North Carolina. Nell steadfastly refused to sing carols or exchange cards and gifts. When asked why, she would reply in a tone which was at once a parody of the Quaker elders of her childhood and a heartfelt statement of faith.

“Quakers aren’t supposed to observe Christmas. If Jesus isn’t reborn in your life every single day, it just doesn’t matter!”

This is the faith Walhydra strives to practice, in her own begrudging way. Just waking up each day, each minute, to the marvelous awareness that this life—not some imagined afterlife, but this life—is the Kingdom of God.

Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner captures it well in his retelling of the shepherd’s story in Luke 2:8-18:

Night was coming on, and it was cold,...and I was terribly hungry. I had finished all the bread I had in my sack, and my gut still ached for more.

Then I noticed my friend...about to throw away a crust he didn’t want. So I said, “Throw the crust to me, friend!” and he did throw it to me, but it landed between us in the mud where the sheep had mucked it up. But I grabbed it anyway and stuffed it, mud and all, into my mouth.

And as I was eating it, I suddenly saw—myself. It was as if I was not only a man eating but a man watching the man eating. And I thought, “This is who I am. I am a man who eats muddy bread.” And I thought, “The bread is very good.” And I thought, “Ah, and the mud is very good too.”

So I opened my muddy man’s mouth full of bread, and I yelled to my friends, “By God, it’s good, brothers!” And they thought I was a terrible fool, but they saw what I meant. We saw everything that night, everything. Everything!

Can I make you understand, I wonder? Have you ever had this happen to you? You have been working hard all day.... You slump down under a tree or against a rock or something and just sit there in a daze for half an hour or a million years, I don’t know, and all this time your eyes are wide open looking straight ahead someplace.... You could be dead for all you notice.

Then, little by little, you begin to come to, then your eyes begin to come to, and all of a sudden you find out you’ve been looking at something the whole time except it’s only now you really see it—one of the ewe lambs maybe..., or the moon scorching a hole through the clouds. It was there all the time, and you were looking at it all the time, but you didn’t see it till just now.

That’s how it was this night, anyway. Like finally coming to—not things coming out of nowhere that had never been there before, but things just coming into focus that had been there always.

And such things! The air wasn’t just emptiness anymore. It was alive. Brightness everywhere.... And what you always thought was silence stopped being silent and turned into the beating of wings.... Only not just wings, as you came to more, but voices—high, wild, like trumpets.

The words I could never remember later, but something like what I’d yelled with my mouth full of bread. “By, God, it’s good, brothers! The crust. The mud. Everything. Everything!“ (pp.13-14)
Note: Friends who are born to Quaker families and decide to stay with it are called "birthright" Friends, those who join later are "convinced"; the term "converted" is rarely if ever used.

1 comment:

DragonflyCai said...

Walhydra touches me again, finding the compassion and beauty in this holiday time that some of us struggle with.

I've taken to calling this season: International Consumerism Holiday. ICH for short.

But I feel the resistance and anger in myself toward it, so this year I've tried embracing it as best as I can. I'm even working retail and liking it. (Surrounded by beautiful things and people I enjoy.) Maybe by embracing it I'll find a peace with it, and be able to strike a healthy balance, at least in my response. The jury's still out.

*rant alert*
But to my friends I still call it ICH. Ick. or Itch. or with a nice German gutteral Iccchhh... Regardless of religion or which gods they're celebrating, most of the "modern" cultures on this small globe celebrate it. That time of year when everyone thinks about what they're going to get. For themselves or for others. BUY buy buy! the culture screams in our ears. Or feel horribly guilty for letting your loved ones down. The expectations weigh on people, and so many push through the days, dutifully stressing their lives and bank accounts.