The UPS man delivered The Last Package of Christmas today, and wished me a happy holiday as he left. So I did what all good Americans are supposed to do these days: I flew into a rage.
No, I didn’t. Anyone who visits here knows I’m part of the problem on this one, part of the liberal pinko conspiracy taking Christ out of Christmas and turning Jesus’ birthday party into an amorphous year-end observance of giving and spending, food and liquor. It’s true: I’m no longer Christian in any but a cultural sense, and the secular version works for me. Kate’s school party this year featured recreation stations devoted to the Big C, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. She came home with gelt and a black, red and green placemat, and this is fine with me. The world is different than when I was her age — this is to be expected — and if my public-school Christmas pageant was more religious than most you’d find in a parochial school, the time for that is past. It leads to crappier Christmas pageants, but it doesn’t feel like going backward.
I also smashed the shreds of my daughter’s Santa belief last year. It was time. This is what I said: “There is no man who lives at the North Pole and flies around the world with a reindeer sleigh. But there is a Santa. I am Santa, and this — this is important — you are Santa. Santa Claus is a symbol for the spirit of giving and care for others we all try to embody at this time of year.”
Maybe I didn’t say “embody.” But that was the gist.
She was disappointed. She knows the Reason for the Season, but this was a loss. Still, this year she took money to her school’s Secret Santa Shop and came home with something for everyone on her list, gifts that indicated she’d thought of those people, considered who they are and what they might want and need, and chose accordingly. Progress.
I said I was only culturally Christian, but if you’re into that sort of thing, it seems Amy gets it pretty close to exactly right here:
The really traditional Christian remembrance of the Nativity is not about sweetness. It is about awe, fear, and trembling, and it is shot through with hints of suffering to come.
Mary, with a scandalous pregnancy. Joseph, courageous enough to take her on despite it. A birth among farm animals. The threat of death, from the very start, necessitating flight. Mary, told by the prophet Simeon that because of her son, her soul will be pierced by a sword (Luke 2:35).
We view the elements of the story in a nostalgic haze @mdash; how sweet to be born with the goats. But is it? Is it sweet? Would you want to give birth among goats?
How charming that Mary and Joseph had to wander before and after the birth of the child. Charming until you remember the reasons why, the doors shut in the face of a heavily pregnant woman, the threat of death from a jealous king.
Look at it closely, with clear eyes. At every turn in this story of this baby there is threat and fear and powers circling, attempting to strike at the light.
This has always been the year-end holiday for me, religious or not, and maybe it’s because I tend toward gloom and pessimism — a single light in a sea of darkness. Concentrate on the light, whatever it is for you. It really is all we have.
Here’s one of my favorite Christmas stories: Years ago, in a newsroom far, far away, budget cuts were already taking their toll on the year-end party. The woman whose job it was to put the thing together was tasked with having a lunch and arranging entertainment with a criminally small budget. My first year at the paper, we’d had lunch catered by a semi-gourmet restaurant down the street. By just a few years later, the last year this woman did it, she opted for a mediocre caterer, who served chicken breasts that looked as though they were boiled in ditch water. The entertainment was a local elementary-school choir, brought in to perform musical selections from the school’s Christmas pageant.
There was no Noelling, nor Rudolph, nor even Jingle Bells. The music was entirely unfamiliar, something about a boy who doesn’t Believe, and at the end there was more, some oral interpretation by a young woman who was sweeping the state speech tournaments that year. Her showstopper was a dialogue between two women, both African American. (As was the girl. As was two-thirds of the choir. As was hardly anyone in the newsroom.) The younger one was a modern black woman, the older her grandmother, who persisted in believing most people were good and well-intended.
As the dialogue went on, it became clear the older woman was a fool, too ignorant to see evil and racism everywhere. Finally, the younger woman explodes: “But Grandma, they call us niggers behind our back!”
We looked at one another. If there was even a shred of hope that we could salvage some goodwill toward men from the wreckage of the day, it was gone now. The party was officially a failure. My friend David got up at the end, stretched and said, “Bad food, lousy music, tension between the races — ah, merry Christmas.”
The next year two of us wrestled the budget away from the woman whose heart was clearly no longer in it, and for about a few more years we spent it in a different way, in the bar next door. We had food and drinking in a cozy basement space, and drunken caroling in the men’s room — “three urinals flushing!” (swoosh!) — and it was fun again.
I’m not sure what the point of this story is, except that the holidays are a strange and funny and wonderful time of year, and also that if you have a choice in how to spend your money, it’s better to opt for Buffalo wings and cheese lumps and liquor after quitting time than bad chicken and racial accusations at midday. Make a note.
Posting will be intermittent, but not non-existent, for the next week or so. Back to full strength in 2006. Happy, happy holidays to one and all. I appreciate the gift you give me every day — your time and attention — and I thank you for it.