Happy Christmas!

Today there is snow on the ground.   Normally that would be a matter of course statement in the foothills of western Maine this late in December.   The local ski slope would be gearing up for winter break skiers and we’d pity all those in the south who don’t enjoy a white Christmas.   Alas, yesterday the ground was still dry, a small dash of snow over Thanksgiving weekend long forgotten.   But now it is looking like Christmas!  It won’t be enough for skiing, but it’s a start.

I want to wish everyone who stops by this site a wonderful Christmas.    Yet as we settle in to celebrate, there is a nagging question of what Christmas is really about.   The easy answer is that it is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.   That’s partially true.   Early Christians choose this as their holiday in order to coopt the traditional Winter Solstice holidays everyone else was celebrating.   Even traditions ranging from Christmas trees to mistletoe pre-existed the holiday’s Christian identity.

Therefore, while Christians are on solid ground proclaiming Jesus is the “reason for the season” in their eyes, non-Christians don’t have to wash their hands of the holiday, or even phrases like “Merry Christmas.”   This time of the year remains a kind of universal holiday, celebrating as days start to grow longer and humans find joy in the depths of winter.

Moreover, the Christian/Christmas values of love, peace, joy, forgiveness are universal.   The magic of the season transcends theological dogma and even whether or not one believes in Jesus, Muhammad, Hussein, Buddha, the Brahman of Hinduism, or a personal sense of spirituality that defies organized belief.

I put myself in that last category.   I’ve long believed that human religions tell more about the cultural state of a society than about God and the meaning of life.   Individual beliefs about God usually reflect that person’s temperment.   Humans create God in their own image, a strict stern man sees a judgmental, harsh God.   A loving caring man sees God as being primarily about forgiveness and inclusivity.    A woman focused on the material world sees God helping those who help themselves.   A woman immersed in charity work sees God as wanting us to care for the least in disregard of material success.

That doesn’t mean religion is meaningless.   There are reasons why books like the Koran, the Bible, the sayings of Buddha, and the Upanishads are compelling across time.   The same is true for philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, or great poets such as Petrarch and Dante.   In various ways ideas that cut to the core of who and what we are as humans have staying power.  They touch something inside our souls and remind us that we are part of a world far more mysterious and meaningful than our senses and minds can comprehend.

As we trudge through our daily routine who cannot help but be inspired by the parables of Jesus Christ, the wisdom of the Buddha, and the power of ideas of love, faith and joy?   Anyone who has chosen to forgive rather than hold a grudge, or show friendship rather than disdain to an adversary, cannot help but attest to the power of forgiveness.   One even pities a person locked in negative, mean spirited behavior.  The co-worker that stabbed you in the back becomes less someone whose actions arouse anger and drive you to revenge than a poor pathetic fool sacrificing principle for short term temporary gain.

Moreover, the longer I live the more I believe in some form of karma.   What comes around seems to go around, though in ways that aren’t materially obvious.   Someone who steals $100 may not lose $100 later, but at some level the spiritual cost of the act is extracted.    I also am a firm believer in the power and ubiquity of coincidence.  Often small, sometimes dramatic, I do not believe they are random.   There is a greater force at work in our lives than material cause and effect or quantum probability.

And this brings me back to Christmas.   If “Christian” was something one could be by believing the basic principles of ethical behavior, I could be called one.   If it means someone who believes that Jesus was the son of God who died for my sins and by believing in him I’d be saved, I’m not one.   But I still claim the right to regard Christmas as my holiday too, including religious carols, long standing traditions, and the core values of peace, joy, love, tranquility, forgiveness, and a sense of awe at the majesty of a world whose true depth and meaning I cannot more than slightly glimpse.

In so doing I respect Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who celebrate their holidays with religious reverence.    I say “Merry Christmas” to a Christian with knowledge of what it means to them, just as saying “Happy Hanukkah” has particular meaning to a Jew.   But I also recognize that Christmas has become more than just a religious holiday, but a part of our culture, with values that transcend religion.

To the business woman it may be a secular holiday where as much as 90% of a year’s profits are earned in some businesses.   To the  atheist it might be a time to fight organized religion, battling nativity scenes on public property and religious songs in schools.  I disagree with each; this isn’t a time to either fight against or be threatened by religion.   One can acknowledge the role of Christianity in our history and culture even if one doesn’t believe.   The nativity scene is still beautiful and powerful.

And yes, this is an important season for the economy and for material prosperity.   But to the extent that drowns out the values being celebrated, as shoppers fight each other for the last of an item or keep lists of who and what they received in order to reward the generous and punish the stingy, it cheapens the holiday.   People getting up in arms over the innocuous greeting of “happy holidays” should focus on how materialism undercuts the spirit of the season.

So Merry Christmas!  I wish everyone love, peace, joy, and happiness this week and beyond!

  1. #1 by modestypress on December 23, 2011 - 18:13

    The closest I can get to your interpretation of religious belief is that we, as self-aware mortal mammals finding ourselves in an apparently meaningless and purposeless universe, created gods of various sorts to console and inspire ourselves. Our earliest efforts along this line were rather clumsy, oppressive, and violent, but we are trying to evolve our creation to be kinder, gentler, and more inclusive. Even so, we still find ourselves wandering lost in the woods most of the time. In my case, literally, as we live in the woods on an island. Merry whatever makes you merry to you and all of your fellow kinsmen, women, and animal companions.

  2. #2 by Ron Byrnes on December 27, 2011 - 03:08

    Your multicultural-social scientific (for lack of a better phrase) spirituality resonates with me Scott. I’m intrigued by how elderly mainline denominations are today, the Lutheran church my family attends as one example. Membership is declining. I wonder, how will they slow or reverse the decline without adjusting to the more skeptical, informal, culturally liberal, and multicultural orientation of younger people today?

    • #3 by Scott Erb on December 27, 2011 - 21:23

      Hi Ron – thanks. I grew up in a Lutheran family, my grandfather was a Lutheran Minister who still gave German sermons (the last to do so in South Dakota, I believe). One of the most vibrant churches in town where I live has a very spiritual/multicultural orientation and is socially active. It attracts a lot of academics and young families. Perhaps that’s the wave of the future. (I’ve so far not joined a church).

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