Merry Christmas is always difficult. I’ve been pondering the irony of this for perhaps 75 of my 77 Christmases. My earliest Christmas memory is of being shocked on Christmas morning when I stuck my finger in an electric socket that was running my new Lionel train. That Christmas needed help becoming merry again. Hugs did it, I distinctly remember.
Christmas number 25 for me was hard, too. Every tradition that anchored Christmas for me was replaced with something new as I lived Christmas in Thailand, thousands of miles away from home for the first time. It was difficult for me to comprehend that the things we were doing were traditions for most everyone but me. And there was a war going on, on every side of Thailand, getting closer.
Then came the Christmas when we scraped up just $10 for presents, the Christmas with a little baby, the Christmas somebody died, and the Christmas of the divorce. Every one of my 75 Christmases has involved compromise with an image of ideal Christmas. Sometimes the gap between the ideal and the real was glossed over by activities, sometimes bridged by family gatherings, and sometimes narrowed by carrying slices of merriment to others.
Christmas is complex. It is personal, communal, and universal, all at the same time.
Somewhere I acquired the idea that a couple of pieces ought to be given attention if I am to realize CHRISTMAS and it is to be authentically MERRY.
First is the concept that enough is enough. Adequacy and appropriateness are circumstantial. One can drop some elements of Christmas that have been important. This Christmas you can do it another way. Some people will just skip Christmas and be merry without it. But if I am to have a Merry Christmas I must be helping make people merry. Christmas will take some effort. Merry Christmas always takes effort on somebody’s part. My attention for many Christmases was on enabling great celebrations for churches and universities. Then for a few Christmases Pramote and I “brought Christmas” to children in our neighborhood school by having a Christmas party for them that included a Christmas tree, Christmas singing and games, and lunch with ice cream. The school was closed this year, so we’ll be passing out sacks of Christmas goodies at our front gate to kids on their way to school, it being Monday. Christmas has evolved this way.
The second piece of Christmas is celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. For decades that was my central focus, the reason for the season, and all that. The grand music, the candles and bells, and the festive liturgy were all about contemporizing an event that changed the way the world turns, ideally. Christmas meant, for me, transforming culture’s most familiar story into an element of that year’s main event. Now, that aspect of Christmas is no longer what it used to be. I come from a culture trying to wage war on those who do Christmas differently, as well as those who propose to do anything else this time of year. It’s hard in America to be merry and gay, or poor, or disabled. Threats to “merry” are multiplying but “Christmas” is also challenging for me. I live in a solidly Buddhist culture, in an overwhelmingly Buddhist family, and have to create whatever it is that constitutes a Nativity celebration. It is difficult and the results are uneven.
We can have “merry” without “Christmas” and “Christmas” without “merry”. But it takes effort to have both. It takes patience and lowered expectations. It always involves going outside the plan to redesign a piece of it. No merry Christmas will ever be what it’s ever been.
There has been progress on gay and human rights during this time leading up to Christmas 2017. We might need magnification to see it, but it’s there and it’s real.
Perhaps the biggest step was taken in Australia on December 7 when the government passed into law a marriage equality act that had been asked for in a popular referendum. The first full-fledged gay marriages should be taking place the week after New Years.
More recently, in the USA, the state of Alabama elected a Democrat to the US Senate rather than the Republican, Roy Moore. A news source said Moore “was twice removed from his post as Alabama’s chief justice for flouting federal law. He believes homosexuality should be illegal, Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress, the Constitution exists to foster Christianity and America was last great ‘at the time when families were united—even though we had slavery.’ Several women have accused him of offences ranging from sexual misconduct to assault; most were teenagers at the time of the alleged incidents.” The winner, Doug Jones, in addition to being noted for his prosecution of members of the Ku Klux Klan, is reported in the gay press to have a gay adult son. It was a special election, so only one political office was at stake. But this year it’s especially gratifying to end on a happier note than most US national news has been.
Britain’s bumpy road out of the European Union seems to this far-removed American, to be making progress toward finding whatever measure of sanity might be retained by moving extremely cautiously toward the goal of protecting the people of Britain from the “erosion of their independence” as well as to limit emigration. Prince Harry will marry a biracial American divorcee, to everyone’s apparent delight. Yesterday I enjoyed a gay-men’s choir from Cambridge singing Christmas music (I think they were King’s College ex-choirboys, but I could be wrong about that). Let’s hear it for GB.
It’s hard to find hopeful human rights news from Africa, but yesterday (as I type this) the President of Ghana was quoted as saying that marriage equality in that country “was only a matter of time.” It might be a long time, since opinion polls say only 3% of the people would give LGBT people equal rights. Still, President Akufo-Addo’s prediction is a huge improvement over his predecessor’s outrages and widespread round-ups of gays across the country.
Meanwhile, here in Thailand a friend came across an unexpected clue to progress. He found a Hindu shrine at a modern new mall that announced “menstruating women are prohibited.” What my friend did not understand is how remarkable that sign is. Hinduism is evolving. In Bali and in much of India it is not just menstruating women who are banned from the inner precincts of Hindu temples, but all women and girls. Clearly, upwards of 90% of the female population have gained the right to enter this shrine in the Maya Mall in Chiang Mai, and it is up to women to decide whether to enter or not. I take that as significant progress toward total inclusion by at least one Hindu shrine.
Also, I have recently heard of three Buddhist temples in Thailand where the saffron-robed head and clergy are women. That is a 200% increase in the number of temples where the clergy are women. This is in spite of official opposition from the Sangha hierarchy, and the express prohibition of such ordinations. The movement is spreading. This movement has rocked the very legal structure of Buddhism in Thailand. Its impact is profound. Progress toward inclusion and equality is being made, microscopic as it appears from the outside.
2017 has been tough on us, but steps have been made if we look hard enough.
December, month number 12 bearing the name 10, is possibly the best name for a month of deception, dissemblance and dishonesty. Most of it is presumably benign. Santa Claus, for example. Hidden Christmas presents we drop misleading hints about. Some other displays of good will are meant to signify unselfishness: bell ringing for charity, baskets for the poor, Christmas carol singing for those who are shut-in or locked-up.. These things fill the month and then we add things we simply cannot avoid, such as lunches, office parties, and trips to visit nearly forgotten relatives. There’s an element of prevarication in most of what we do in December. Gift giving in hopes of getting an enthusiastic response is probably our most honest action.
It’s all good fun.
Motives are almost always too complex to be easily analyzed. But the entire season is obfuscated. The darkest month of the year is spattered with glittering spectacles that do not bear intense investigation. We’ve attacked most of it, anyway, with our complaints about Christmas Muzak in shopping malls, fake Christmas trees, and even cone shaped light displays without any trees at all. We loathe the commercialization of the season and still spend more than we planned. Is it just primal gloom that we must try to put to flight with our strings of electric fire? Saturnalia was obliterated so we reinvented it.
There is a reason for the season and we have named it “Jesus”. Christ is the reason we are doing all this, but best not think too much about what exactly we are doing, much less why. The attachments and add-ons do not bear scrutiny. The customs of December are so mutated, in fact, that Christmas has been prohibited from time to time, only to come back re-clad in attractive garments to gladden hearts. St. Francis, it is said, to dispel the dark dangers of the late Middle Ages, assembled a Christmas tableaux that was so fetching it became a tradition. That fostered a whole Alpine woodcarving industry. One thing led to another until Christmas didn’t seem like a good idea any more. So the Puritans, famous for burning witches and beheading royalty, purified Christmas by banning it. But then came the wily Dutch with Sinterklaas, and Luther with his candle-lit evergreen trees.
Charles Dickens wrote the most famous Christmas story in English after King James authorized the second chapter of Luke. It was, in my view, a metaphor. The season, Dickens tells us, is beclouded with dark memories and portents that turn it into “humbug” where Scrooge is beset with obligations that enrage him. Hidden in shadows are other, brighter memories and possibilities. Happily, they are the ones that emerge to reclaim the day. Dickens was preaching. Industrial England, beclouded in soot and smoke, had the same choice as had confronted Ebenezer Scrooge, to shrivel in his chilly confines or to join the singing.
And behind it all is still more mystery.
Who were those people mentioned by Matthew and Luke, assembled by St. Francis to give three-dimensional presence to otherwise vague characters? What do we know of them, Mary and Joseph and the babe, lying in a manger? Shepherds, angels, wise men from the East bearing gifts? We know of them what we have chosen to know. We have provided narrative for missing words to satisfy our need for light to dispel darkness. And, lo, the darkness is not that hard to disperse. Words can do it. There is THE STORY and there are more stories. They multiply.
Mary, who are you? THE STORY says she is a handmaiden of the Lord. She is the mother of Jesus, and first-line witness to his birth events. And a century or so later she needed to be a virgin for in the stories of other incarnate deities were they not born of virgins? A verse in Isaiah would do, where “young woman” could be “virgin” if needed. And are not mothers of gods immaculate? How immaculate does the mother of God need to be? Then, should she not be our Mother, too? “Holy Mary … pray for us ….”
There is much darkness, so we will light a candle. We people dwelling in darkness are needy. We need, among our many needs, a season to be reminded to be grateful for starlight and candlelight.
[Appreciation to Gene Bourquin for the picture of him outside Maya Mall in Chiang Mai.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.