I’ve been a bit of a Scrooge this year. I announced to my family and friends that I was bowing out of the whole present obligation thing. One brother said, “Tough, I’m sending you a present anyway.” The other said, “Thank God, I’m not doing presents either.” If it weren’t for credit card miles, my son wouldn’t even be getting a present. I’ve planned no humongous dinners, no holiday get-togethers, no eggnog, no Christmas cookies, no red and green candles. But I did do one thing: I got a tree.
It killed me to drop $70, but I had to have it. I can’t explain it, but I love a real Christmas tree. I love the little white lights — the more, the merrier. I love the glass icicles I carefully position in front of the lights. They remind me of the beauty of the real thing back in Wisconsin. Most of all, I love reliving the history — my history — as I take out each ornament: the hand-painted porcelain German bell my acting friend Alice gave me in 1976 when I left Los Angeles and my acting life behind, the delicate Dansk animals I bought in 1984 for our first Christmas in Florida, the ridiculous elf with “baby’s first Christmas” painted on his belly, the 1992 Waterford crystal stocking commemorating the year my father died, the ornate red ball with my son’s name in gold glitter marking the year I was confident that life could only get better and better, the mercury glass moon I bought the first Christmas on my own, and my favorites — the ones my son made in nursery school. I love them all, but the heartbreaker is the piece of green burlap with his tiny hand stamped in red paint. I cry every time I put it on the tree. When I’m finished, I cap everything off with the weathered, red and white striped bows that I’ve tied on the tree for over 20 years. Each year I tell myself, “You know, you really should get new ribbons,” and each year I stand back, look at the finished product, smile, and think it’s perfect just the way it is.
But this year I couldn’t bring myself to decorate the tree. For ten days, the 7-foot fir stood forlorn and naked in its stand, challenging me to get off my duff. Finally, on Sunday, I put down The New York Times and said, “OK. This is it, Janet. Just get it done.” I didn’t put on any carols or pour myself a libation. I just circled the tree in my bathrobe, cursing the knots in the lights and fuming about the whole stupid Christmas thing.
This is so fake, I thought. Dec. 25, as everyone knows by now, is not anywhere near the date Jesus was born. Spring, most scholars think. And the tree itself, for heaven’s sake, has nothing to do with the religion of Christianity. It’s an ancient pagan symbol for the mysterious continuation of life while the earth looks dead and cold. I felt dishonest. By decorating it and calling it a “Christmas” tree, wasn’t I just another cog in the commercial event labeled Christmas, a date that has nothing to do with Jesus’ or any other spiritual teacher’s life or message? Christmas at this point seems to be more about spending money and salvaging the stock exchanges from global doom. (Sorry, boys, but aside from the tree and a few bottles of wine, you’ll have to save the markets without me.)
If you’d peeked in the window last Sunday, you’d have seen a middle-aged woman who was singularly not in the Christmas spirit. When I finished, I didn’t step back and admire my work. I just dragged the empty boxes back into the garage and figured that’s one more thing I can check off my to-do list. But when I came back in the living room and saw my precious memory-filled tree sparkling brighter than the Florida sun coming through the windows, I smiled. I plopped back down in my reading chair, but instead of picking up the book review section, I sat and stared at my tree. “You are beautiful,” I said. “I love you.”
I was happy, but I refused to label this good feeling “Christmas.” What’s the matter with me, I wondered. Why can everyone else say “Merry Christmas” with a genuine smile on their face, but I choke on the words? Because, I thought, Christmas has been hijacked.
It’s been hijacked by the world of commerce. That’s painfully obvious. But it’s also been hijacked by the fundamental Christians who think they have the right to shove Jesus down the throats of the non-Christians in America, despite our essential foundation as the one country in the world where religion does not dictate or supposedly even influence government. Our predecessors fought a revolution for that principle. Where did that promise to one another go? The original Americans, the Native Americans, obviously didn’t know or care about Jesus or Christmas. And the early Pilgrim settlers looked down their dour noses at any foolish frippery like Christmas. When Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” Christmas Eve was just another workday. This whole Currier and Ives image of the happy family at Christmas is a Victorian creation, introduced not so very long ago.
I decided to dig into this whole Christmas thing. Just what is Dec. 25, I wanted to know. Well, in Roman times it was the culmination of a week of revelry honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture and sowing. Romans would have a wild time during Saturnalia, allowing slaves to debase their masters, eating and drinking to excess, and hitting the temples to honor Saturn. Scroll ahead a few years, and the Zoroastrians are honoring Mithra on this date. Mithra was the enemy of darkness. He protected souls on earth and, when they died, accompanied them to paradise. Mithra, like Saturn, was a god of prosperity. Dec. 25 was also “The Nativity of the Sun,” a celebration of Sol Invicta, the invincible god of the sun. Before any of these, of course, late December was the ancient celebration of Solstice, honoring the miraculous continuation of life despite the apparent death of the earth.
Given all the delightful pagan fun happenings on and around Dec. 25, it should come as no surprise that the early church fathers hijacked that date and turned it into Jesus’ birthday. Why not? They had a church to build, and they were building it on the idea of Jesus as the son of God, the “light of the world.” How better to reinforce that idea than to commandeer all the celebrations of the light of the sun? Jesus wasn’t too keen on people honoring or worshiping him. He kept saying he was the “son of man,” not a god. But he did enjoy a good time. It seems that in every other story in the Bible Jesus is with friends, and often eating. And we know he went to a wedding and, when necessary, fed a few thousand people.
So, I’ve decided Jesus would approve of my idea: I am going to celebrate all the Dec. 25 holidays. At my house it’s Solstice and Sol Invicta and The Nativity of the Sun and Christmas. Plus, let’s not forget Hanukkah, the festival of lights, which just ended; Kwanzaa, a smart new holiday; and Eid ul-Adha, which begins on Dec. 20.
Why not? The message of all these celebrations is the same: We humans are connected to and protected by an all-powerful, all-loving, all-giving God — a God of light and life. Whether you see that light as the Sun or the Son, or any other name, doesn’t really matter. Late December has a rich history of humanity’s desire to touch the unfathomable. I ask you to join me in this spirit and honor the light — all the light.
(This blog post was first posted on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality site in 2008. People gravitated to it immediately, copied it and began posting it on their blogs. Every Christmas it shows up on a few dozen blogs. If you’d like to copy and paste this onto your blog or share it with your friends any other way, be my guest. Just please add my name, Janet Conner, and website, www.writingdownyoursoul.com. THANKS!)