Those of you who have read this blog for some time already know that I was raised in a home without Christmas.
Yes, my parents were Christian. But their sect observed none of the religious holidays.
Why? Well as it was explained to me (many times over, this was hard for me to accept) the traditions observed as part of Christian holidays were actually borrowed from pagan rites. And we most emphatically were not to be performing anything that bore even the faintest resemblance to a pagan rite.
Besides, they added, a true Christian celebrates the events and the spirit of these holidays every day, not just on days designated by some random person or persons.
I have, since then, celebrated many traditions that I’m sure were derived from pagan rites. I’ve celebrated new moons and full moons, lit incense and chanted “om” and lit candles and sat in silent awareness holding spirit space for one I love.
I’ve held sacred the passing of seasons, each solstice and equinox marking ticks on the illusionary wheel of time. I’ve celebrated births and birthdays, and even my mourning rituals have been a celebration of life as it passed from material to pure spirit.
What I’ve celebrated, really, is meaning.
All else, the traditions and symbols, are only anchors for the meaning we attach to them. It’s as real as we allow it to be.
I was perhaps 11 years old, and my nieces only four and five years younger, when I broke the news that Santa wasn’t real.
Not in the sense THEY thought of as real. Which, to me, raised with perennial friends like Heidi and the March sisters, The Boxcar Children and little Mary in her Secret Garden, didn’t mean “not real.” It just meant he wasn’t someone you were going to meet on the street, or coming down your chimney. You wouldn’t even find him, I insisted, if you COULD get to the North Pole.
I didn’t see my announcement as bad news. After all, I was saving us a trip to the North Pole. Why do that, I said, when you could visit Santa quite easily in books, and in your imagination? Just like I visited my friends by reading their stories over and over and talking with them while perched in trees or riding horseback alone down a dirt road. But going looking for him just wasn’t on.
All kinds of havoc ensured.
Even my parents, who were adamant about my not having any illusions about Mr. Claus, were more than a little peeved with me for breaking the news so abruptly.
I was, eventually, forgiven. Sooner by my nieces than their parents, as I remember, but it all blew over before the next Christmas and the girls’ faith in Santa was restored for a few more years.
Perhaps ironically, Santa Claus is one Christmas tradition that did begin as a Christian legend. It seems the original Saint Nick was actually a Greek saint. Not a very jolly fellow according to this National Geographic article. But at least the white beard seems an authentic detail.
Since then he’s been a symbol of punitive justice (I might even say abuse, since he ran more to whippings and kidnappings than lumps of coal) and he’s come a long way in terms of wardrobe and hygiene as well as getting more open-minded about “naughty and nice.” (And, when he became known as the deliverer of candy and gifts to the “nice” little boys and girls, a character called Krampus was invented to deliver the beatings to the naughty folks.)
It wasn’t until some fanciful storytelling in the early 1800’s that we meet the benevolent grandfather character we know today.
In other words, the symbol was molded to suit the meaning folks needed it to have.
If you research the origins of most traditions you’ll find similar transformations – as the cultural needs shift, the spiritual rituals and symbols shift too.
For some folks that is about as welcome as “Santa isn’t a real person” was to my nieces.
But for some of us it’s a glorious liberation to celebrate the spirit of the thing, rather than the thing.
I’m not celebrating the full moon – I’m celebrating the wholeness, the fruition, the power and clarity of mind, and the pregnant possibilities that the full moon symbolizes for me.
I’m not celebrating the new moon – I’m celebrating the new beginnings, the hidden treasures, the empty slate that the dark of the moon gives us, to write whatever we will.
I’m not celebrating the Winter Solstice – I’m celebrating the extra moments of light that come after the longest night of the year, the infinitesimal shifting of roots and seeds in their dark beds of earth as they sense that the time is coming to awake from their rest under blankets of leaves and snow and push their sap and the tips of their stems and leaves toward the sun again.
And I’m not celebrating Christmas.
But I am celebrating a time of gatherings, a time when quarrels can be laid aside between lambs and lions and friends and enemies. I’m celebrating the possibility of peace on earth – even if it’s only in little pockets like the corner store and the airline terminal.
I’m celebrating the cycle of giving and receiving – whether the gifts are wrapped in glitzy paper and bows, served on plates steaming with goodness, or worn on faces in the smiles and tears of people who for hours, minutes or days on end will give and receive love more freely, easily, and joyfully than they might if they didn’t have these symbols, these traditions, these anchors for all that love can do.
Growing up I dreaded Christmas. It was, for me, a time of being kept apart, left out. I sat in the school library while my classmates rehearsed for a pageant that I would not be allowed to attend. I fielded “what did you get for Christmas” with “we don’t celebrate” and felt flat and empty – not from a lack of gifts, but from a lack of celebration.
As an adult, I have celebrated Christmas and all the traditions. But it was still empty. Now I choose to celebrate, not with symbols that hold no meaning for me, but with meaning that requires no symbols.
I try to celebrate every day, for certainly my parents had that part right. But we need anchors and reminders, and, as with the seasons of the moon, of the planet, of life and of death, this season is an anchor for the spirit of love, of peace, and of goodwill to all.
I celebrate that spirit, in this season when so many others are celebrating the symbols that they have chosen to represent that spirit, with a whole and full heart. Knowing that we are, all of us, one in spirit.
And that no matter what we call the season, the holiday, the jolly gift bringer or any other thing, it is the spirit of the thing that matters.