Archive for category Christmas

Happy Christmas!

charliebrown2

I want to wish everyone who stops by this site a wonderful Christmas.    But what is Christmas?   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 co-opt the traditional Winter Solstice holidays everyone else was celebrating.   Even traditions ranging from Christmas trees to mistletoe pre-exist the holiday’s Christian identity.

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

Values of love, peace, joy, and forgiveness are universal.   The magic of the season transcends theological dogma.   You can believe in Jesus, Muhammad, Hussein, Buddha, the Brahman of Hinduism, or the Hebrew God, I choose a personal sense of spirituality that defies organized belief.

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 temperament    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.

grinch

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 whose actions cannot bring satisfaction.

So Happy Christmas!  Feel the unity that connects us all, follow it and the world will become a better place, step by step.

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The Christmas Season Begins

Appropriately the traditional Thanksgiving Day parade is associated with Macy’s, a retailer.

Today Americans travel to be with family and/or friends to celebrate the most traditional of American holidays.   Most people will roast a turkey, enjoy potatoes, veggies, dinner rolls, pies, and various family delights.   Even the most secular of families will talk about giving thanks for what they have.   Many families will take out the Christmas decorations, ready to celebrate “the holiday season,” where the Christmas values of peace, love, and goodwill overcome greed and selfishness.

One need not be Christian to appreciate the Christmas spirit, expressed in everything from Ebeneezer Scrooge’s visit from the spirits of past, present and future to George Bailey’s journey in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Kids get it when they watch the Grinch’s heart expanding as he hears the Whos celebrate joyfully even after he stole their Christmas loot.    The Christmas spirit reflects a belief there is something more important than material possessions and the daily grind.   Love, connection to others, and a sense of the spiritual combine to point to a more joyful and meaningful mode of living.   The eternal trumps the temporal, values trump self-interest.

Target is one of many stores opening on Thanksgiving evening as work and shopping intrude on family

Yet today, even on Thanksgiving many “big box”  stores are opening, usually at around 8:00 or 9:00 PM.  Those not opening today will do so early tomorrow, sometimes at midnight or 2:00 AM, so that shoppers can get the best bargains of the year, so called Black Friday.   Stories of violence often accompany Black Friday — shoppers being trampled as they rush to get bargains, people fighting over the last of a specially priced item.

Then for the next month malls will be full, kids will be adding to Christmas wish lists and then feel deprived if they don’t get most of what they wanted.  Stress will grow as people churn out Christmas cards as an obligation, juggle party schedules, deal with shows and activities planned for the kids, and try to get that shopping done.   The music, lights and smells of the season will offer momentary distractions, but far too often the Christmas spirit gets defined by materialism and stress.

If stress gets too intense it feels like the evil Santa above is hounding us!

Peace on earth, good will to men. “Yeah, yeah, but I have to shop, get this package to the post office, and damn, we got a Christmas card from them?  Sigh.  I think I have one more I can send out.”     “Dad, why does he have five more presents than me, it’s not fair!” It’s the most wonderful time of the year.   Yeah, for the retailers!   For the small shops in the mall!

A savior is born in Bethlehem.   Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, Wiccans and others might smile and nod, but don’t get meaning from that.   Christians will, but many will quickly pivot “hey, that’s the true meaning of Christmas, but I have to go get supplies for our party…why’d we invite so many people…”

What irony!   The Holiday most focused on our better selves has become the most stressful and materialistic time of the year.  Instead of learning the value of sacrifice and sharing, children shout “me, me, me” and fantasize about the stuff they’ll get.   Starting Thanksgiving evening we embrace raw consumerism in the extreme — “you are what you own, and today you can get great deals!”

What if people decided to reject that and grab the true Christmas spirit instead?   For Christians the answer is right there — the teachings and traditions provide a guide of how to steer clear of crass consumerism and materialism.

One does not have to be Christian to celebrate and appreciate the joy inherent in the Christmas spirit: Love for others, good deeds, giving without needing to receive, forgiveness, family, friends, and connections.  The Christmas spirit appeals to the part of ourselves that rises above self-interest and sees meaning in core human values rather than the daily routine or material possessions.  After all, early Christians choose late December in order to mesh the holiday with already existing pagan traditions.   The holiday spirit belongs to all of us, not just Christians.

The holiday spirit is a sense that life has a meaning beyond our mundane material existence.   If one cannot bring oneself to believe in something specific, then imagine — imagine the best each of us can be and the best for humanity.    The boundary between faith and imagination is blurry and perhaps non-existent.

Allow the season to be filled with beautiful, natural, spiritual joy.

The Christmas spirit is truth, even if one rejects the story behind the holiday.   That spirit can be tapped to defy the stress, material excess and greed that too often subverts this time of the year.   That spirit is here, inside each of us, and in the songs, movies, and ideals expressed this time of year.  Grab the Christmas spirit!  Share it.   Make this a season of joy rather than greed.   Let love and human connections trump selfishness and consumerism.    A family snowball fight always beats a day roaming the malls.   And maybe, just maybe, we can enter 2013 renewed rather than spent, focused on values rather than stuff, and thankful for our family, friends, and the lives we’ve chosen to lead.

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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!

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Christmas Traditions

Growing up I always counted down the days to December 24th.  That was the day we’d open our Christmas gifts.   We’d start either after the church Christmas pageant (which we were in, at least through sixth grade), or sometime in early evening.   It was a party.  Friends would stop by, my mom would make her trade mark bar-bq’d beef, and the egg nog and drinks would be flowing (though us kids would be satisfied with root beer floats).

I usually was the one to hand out gifts, and we’d go one at a time, with numerous breaks.   That meant that gift sharing took a better part of the evening, and I tended to hoard a couple of gifts so that when everyone was done, I still had one or two to open.   I’d manage to skip my “turn” at opening by not having one ready or handing out a gift to the person after me, realizing that most people weren’t really keeping track of whose turn it was.  I liked being the last one to open a gift.

We’d get our “Santa gifts” the next day.  My parents were smart, they’d put out the gifts, unwrapped, and fill our stocking so when we woke up we could run and start playing with our toys.  Our most expensive and “special” gifts were the Santa gifts, and we’d often get up at 6:00 AM to go find them.   My parents could stay in bed, no doubt slightly hung over from the night before, as we kids would have fun.  Those were the days.  When I was very young we’d head to Madelia, Minnesota on Christmas to my great grandparents house.  After age 12 (when my Great Grandpa died and they sold the farm) we’d say home, with my Grandma from Mankato visiting.     Also up through age 12 we’d go to church Christmas day.  Then in a fight my mom would leave my dad’s Missouri Synod Lutheran home and join the American Luthern Church.   My dad stopped going to church out of embarrassment.  My mom and sisters went to the ALC church, and I stayed home.   At that point I still believed, but really didn’t like church.

One year we did go to Madelia on Christmas eve, and the celebration was huge.  All our cousins were there, someone dressed as Santa handed out gifts to the kids, and the party went most of the night.  I later asked why we usually came on Christmas day rather than celebrate Christmas eve there, and I was told that my family wanted to have our own Christmas eve tradition.   It was a good one.   One year, when I was 19 and my sisters were 17 and 11 I screwed it up.  I had volunteered to work Christmas eve at Village Inn Pizza, where I was a supervisor/night manager.   My boss Warren Andy told me to close at 7:00, and expected I wouldn’t be busy.  I had one helper in the kitchen, and one person busing/dishwashing.

My sisters were disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to start until 7:30, but I tended to volunteer to work all holidays (Easter one year, July 4th double shifts every year because people wanted that day off and I loved getting 18 hour days), and figured it would be easy.   At 7:00 people were lined out the door.  My instinct as night manager took over and I kept the place open until the line dwindled, finally closing at near 8:30.   My sisters were calling demanding I get home so they could open presents.  By 10:00 everyone had left and every table was dirty, and it was a disaster.  My sisters actually came in and helped clean and close the place.   We started opening gifts at near midnight!

The first year I missed Christmas eve at home was  when I spent a year in Bologna Italy, working on my MA.   But I traveled to the Christmas markets in Germany (Munich, Regensburg, Nuremberg, Ingolstadt — I think in total I hit about eight markets!) as well as enjoying the run up to Christmas in Italy.    By the time I was 25 my parents divorced, but the traditions continued.  My mom held Christmas eve with my sister’s family much like we did as kids – a party, my niece and nephew enjoying gifts, and my Grandma coming in from Mankato.  I’d pick her up en route from Minneapolis while working on my doctorate at the U. of Minnesota, and despite some icy roads we made it every year.   My dad would have turkey and we’d open his gifts Christmas day.

When I moved to Maine and got married, the traditions faded as we were so far from South Dakota.   We often opened gifts when they arrived rather than waiting for Christmas eve, and with only two people and families far away, it took awhile to have it really feel like Christmas.   We traveled to South Dakota a couple times, but it wasn’t until we had kids that we started our own traditions.   We still do gifts Christmas eve.  Unlike my parents, we have only one Santa gift Christmas day (my parents give us a bunch), and it’s wrapped.   We also stuff the stockings, of course.   We roast a turkey on Christmas day, and unlike my parents, we don’t have a lot of guests or a party atmosphere on Christmas eve.   Not only are family distant, but most friends work at the University and are scattered during  this time.

We look forward to going to South Dakota for Christmas sometime soon, and we have a plan to go to Christmas markets in Germany some not too distant year.   We don’t go to church, but the kids recognize it as a Christian holiday that we enjoy because we believe in the same values: peace, love, and goodwill to all.   We spend time talking about that, even as we indulge more than I’d like to in the consumer culture in buying remarkably cheap toys and gifts for the kids.    Christmas music fills the house (though as I write this Star Wars music dominates, as the kids are playing Wii lego Star Wars: the Complete Sage, a game they’ve been addicted to for about a month).   And, though I miss the magical feeling I had as a youth, starring at the Christmas tree lights, in awe of the beauty of the colors, tree, presents and decorations, it’s still a great time of the year.  We watch some Christmas movies, decorate the house (though we have yet to indulge in a real tree), and have good family time.

So everyone, have yourself a merry little Christmas, and for those who don’t celebrate it, peace, love and goodwill to you as well.  Those values are real, fundamental and unite humans, even if we choose too often to separate ourselves from them.   Muslim, Jew, Christian, atheist, agnostic and other (and believe me, it’s a struggle to raise kids and explain things when you’re an ‘other’ like I am — it’s harder without an already scripted storyline and set of rules!), love connects us all.    May the force be with you this holiday season!

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Grab the Christmas Spirit!

On Thursday Americans travel to be with family and/or friends to celebrate the most traditional of American holidays.   Most people will roast a turkey, have potatoes, veggies, pies, and various family delights.   The stores are closed, and even the most secular of families will talk about giving thanks for what they have.   Most families will take out the Christmas decorations, ready to celebrate “the holiday season,” where the Christmas values of peace, love, and goodwill overcome greed and selfishness.

One need not be Christian to appreciate the Christmas spirit, expressed in everything from Ebenezer Scrooge’s visit of the spirits of past, present and future to, George Bailey’s journey in It’s a Wonderful Life and even the Grinch’s heart expanding as he hears the Whos celebrate joyfully even after he stole their Christmas loot.    The Christmas spirit reflects a belief there is something more important than material possessions and the daily grind.   Love, connection to others, and a sense of the spiritual combine to point to a more joyful and meaningful mode of living.   The eternal trumps the temporal, ethical values trump self-interest.

Yet the day after Thanksgiving the stores open early — in major cities sometimes at Midnight, but even in moderate size towns often 4:00 AM or so — so that shoppers can get the best bargains of the year, so called Black Friday.   There are usually stories of violence — shoppers being trampled as they rush to get bargains, people fighting over the last of a specially priced item.

Then for the next month malls will be full, kids will be adding to Christmas wish lists, and likely feel deprived if they don’t get most of what they wanted.  Stress will grow as people try to churn out Christmas cards as an obligation, juggle Christmas party schedules, deal with the shows and activities planned for the kids, and try to get that shopping done.   The music, lights and smells of the season will distract from the stress, and provide moments of relaxation, but for too many people the next month will be devoted to chores associated with the holiday.

Peace on earth, good will to men. “Yeah, yeah, but I have to shop, get this package to the post office, and damn, we got a Christmas card from them?  Sigh.  I think I have one more I can send out.”    Kids will be talking about, counting, and focusing on their presents.  “Why does he have five more presents than me, it’s not fair!”  It’s the most wonderful time of the year.   Yeah, for the retailers!   For the small shops in the mall!

A savior is born in Bethlehem.   Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, Wiccans and others might smile and nod, but don’t get meaning from that.   Christians might, but many will simply nod, “hey, that’s the true meaning of Christmas, but I have to go get supplies for our party…why’d we invite so many people…”

Yet one does not have to be Christian do celebrate and appreciate the joy inherent in the Christmas spirit: Love for others, good deeds, giving without needing to receive, forgiveness, family, friends, and connections.  The Christmas spirit appeals to the part of ourselves that rises above self-interest, and sees meaning in core human values rather than the daily routine or material possessions.   What irony!   The Holiday most focused on our better selves has become the most stressful and materialistic time of the year.  Instead of learning the value of sacrifice and sharing, children shout “me, me, me” and fantasize about the stuff they’ll get.   The first day of this season, the day after Thanksgiving, we embrace raw consumerism in the extreme — “you are what you own, and today you can get great deals!”

What if people decided to reject that and grab the Christmas spirit instead?   For Christians the answer is right there — the teachings and traditions provide a guide of how to steer clear of crass consumerism and materialism.   For those of other faiths similar core principles apply — religions around the world grasp the core values underlying ethical human existence (even if extremists sometimes subvert that message).  And for the rest of us, the spirit applies too — peace, love, good will, and a faith that there is something more to existence than just electro-magnetic “weak” field energy, quarks, leptons, bosons, and gravity.   If not a God, that “something more” can be love, can be spirit, can be values.   If one cannot bring oneself to believe in something, then imagine — imagine the best each of us can be, and the best for humanity.    The boundary between faith and imagination is blurry, and perhaps non-existent.

The Christmas spirit is truth, even if one can doubt the story it is built around or the religion that gave us this holiday.   That spirit can be tapped to defy the stresses, material excesses and greed that too often subverts this time of the year.  And it’s here.  Inside of us, in the songs, movies, and ideals expressed this time of year.  Grab the Christmas spirit!  Share it.   Make this a season of joy rather than greed.   Let love and human connections trump selfishness and consumerism.    A family snowball fight always beats a day roaming the malls.   And maybe, just maybe, we can enter 2011 renewed rather than spent, focused on values rather than stuff, and thankful for our family, friends, and the life we’ve chosen to lead.

Yeah, we still have to shop, send out cards, and endure children demanding “add this to my Christmas list.”   At our weakest moments stress will be ready to pounce.   I nonetheless believe that a focus on the true spirit of Christmas can make this a season of joy rather than anxiety.  Happy Holidays!

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The War on Christmas

There is a war being waged against Christmas, but it’s not by those who prefer “Happy Holidays” and don’t like nativity scenes on government property.   The war on Christmas is being waged by capitalism, a force that at this point seems to have defeated Christmas, marginalized both the religious and philosophical ideals of the season, and has turned time with family and friends into pressured frenzied buying in the shopping malls.

Karl Polyani, who perhaps more brilliantly than any other economist or philosopher realized the true impact of capitalism on social life, recognized that unregulated markets would damage community and environment.   In capitalism, everything becomes a commodity.  People are “human resources,” nature is valuable only in terms of what it can produce or earn on the market, and unregulated, capitalism can consume societies whole.   Capitalism is soulless, and seeks to view all of reality as products to consume or sell.

Capitalism, to be sure, is different than markets.   Markets have been around for all of recorded history.   Markets do not represent the dark side of capitalism.  Markets regulated either by laws or the force of social norms and traditions serve the community.    Many who claim to be capitalists and defend capitalism as a system are really only defending markets.   Markets allow people to better exchange products, to produce what is wanted, and earn wealth for innovation and effort.   Markets help free communities from shortages and suffering, organizing productive life in a manner that allows for adaption to change with the dissemination of diffuse information.  So alluring are the virtues of the market that many leap to a conclusion that markets mean capitalism, and that the best markets are wholly unregulated.

Capitalism, however, is a system whereby the logic of the market becomes the religion of a society.   The market is not a tool to help buy and sell, it defines the very nature of human existence.    Everything is a commodity, the worth of anything is determined by its market value.   Why does an inner city teacher who tries to educate children and save the lives of students who are being tempted by gangs and drugs get paid little while a back up professional athlete gets millions?   The market says that’s the way it should be!   The worth of what the back up defensive back is much more than the inner city teacher.  A wall street trader probably offers less to society than that of an honest small town cop (given recent events, a lot less.)  But in our society, the wall street trader has the most value.

This has a profound impact on human societies and psychological states.  In a capitalist system, a sense of self-worth becomes problematic.    It tends to get defined by wealth and what we have, rather than a sense of value to family, friends or community.    For many, it leads to life as a cog in a machine.  Originally it was the sweat shops of Manchester, England, working most waking hours for enough pay to barely survive, putting children to work at age 11 with no chance of a real future.  Now we have worker protections, child labor laws, and get paid enough to buy televisions and computers, and take vacations now and then.

But for many this still is life as a cog.  Few can take meaningful vacations, and often people fall into routines where it’s work, watch TV, relax, go to work…life in a guilded cage.   Like Huxley’s Brave New World we treat our boredom with distractions.   For some it’s drugs — prozac, alcohol, and other legal and illegal drugs.   Even the super wealthy find themselves drawn to prescription pain killers and the need to numb that nagging recognition that material success does not provide a sense of meaning.   For others the distractions may take the form of entertainment, a voyeuristic following of celebrities and their problems, being a hard core sports fan, or addiction to porn or gambling.   It may be other life-dramas — affairs, conflicts, and personal situations that take over ones’ life to add excitement or a sense of danger and intrigue.   Anything to numb the boredom.   Others immerse themselves in religious belief, and churches can sometimes capture the sense of community capitalism has driven out of much of the western way of life.   Often modern religion is taken over by the same forces: the 700 Club (and who can forget the infamous PTL Club) play to the worst of both the deviant tendencies of capitalism and our need for spectacle and distraction.

This escape from the real seems a harmless tragedy, though it is one of the main causes of our current economic and political breakdown, the scope of which I think people still underestimate.    News about Tiger Woods is more important than the President’s Afghanistan plan.   People who aren’t gay through themselves deep into a fight against gay marriage — something which affects them not a wit — and downplay issues of foreign policy and the economy.  And people don’t notice the widening gap between rich and poor.  Yet nowhere are these problems more pronounced than the capitalist war on Christmas.

Consider: the three wise men come from afar to give gifts to the Christ child to acknowledge his divinity.   This becomes a tradition of exchanging gifts, originally small tokens to symbolize friendship and sharing.    With capitalism this becomes the driving force of the economy.   Charles Dickens, a very shrewd chronicler of the early days of capitalism, captures this in his famous Christmas Carol.   Scrooge the capitalist sees the poor teeming masses as “surplus population,” with no value as they produce no goods.    His cold disregard for others, but very staunch regard for good business and profit, symbolize the soul of capitalism.   Money is worshipped, humanity is a tool for the creation of wealth.    What gives life joy and meaning is derided as worthless sentiment, distracting one from the real business at hand — work to gain wealth.  The values embraced by Christians at Christmas time are subverted by capitalism.

Scrooge, of course, is saved when confronted with the lack of meaning in his hyper-materialist world view.   The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future make it clear that he has been wasting his life in a meaningless pursuit of transient trivialities, while what matters in life — love and connection to the humanity of others — got forgotten.   Awoken,  he gives to the poor, and saves himself by embracing the notion that wealth and markets mean less than community, friends and the real life conditions of other people.  Unfortunately, capitalism as a system is immune to such a salvation.    What now isn’t in the hands of some corporation?  Big money seeks to expand profits with whatever means necessary.  Ethics are embraced only to avoid a backlash — and even then appearance is reality.   Marketers will sell a message that a company is ‘ethical’ or ‘green’ — but who checks out the claims?   With the media in corporate hands, and the culture defined by a sense this  is the way things should be (communism failed, after all).  There is no restraint, everything is a commodity.   Only when the excesses and contradictions in this state of affairs leads to collapse will people wake up.

This is the real war on Christmas.   One half day with family to celebrate, weeks at the shopping mall, going through gift lists and the stress of having to get everything done.   Christmas cards sent with assembly line efficiency, children making lists of what they want, their behavior itself valuable as “good” only because it gets them more presents.   Santa commodifies “naughty or nice.”   The themes of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’ are hijacked by corporations trying to connect those values with their corporate image.    Christmas becomes the most materialist day of the year.

And yet, Christmas has not yet lost.   Some, like Helen at “Windows On the World,” hold on to religious values and the power of music, meditation and worship.   But you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize the universal appeal of the values put forth at Christmas: peace, love, caring, generosity, family, community and charity.   Besides Dickens, there are cultural artifacts, ranging from films like It’s a Wonderful Life to silly modern cartoons like Grandma Got Runover by a Raindeer that keep our imagination from losing the sense of Christmas completely.   As humans, we deep down sense that the hyper-materialism of capitalism and the commodification of all life into defining meaning as what something is worth on the market is wrong.   We deep know know that being is more important than having.

If you feel stressed by the holidays, worried about plans, gifts, lists and money, seeing this as  a series of chores to be accomplished, with the value ultimately in what you receive, or whether others like the gifts you gave, Christmas is losing.    If the highlights are “black Friday,” going to the mall, and thinking about all the gifts you’ll return, Christmas is losing.  If the movies seem too quaint or silly, and the messages of holiday cheer too corny, then at least on your private battlefield, Christmas is losing.   If you feel a sense of joy, community, and find that this time of the year reminds you of the human desire for peace, love and a sense of meaning in life, and can brush aside the stress and materialism as unnecessary distractions, then there is no battlefield.   If you hold on to a sense of what Christmas truly means, either in a religious sense or in the universal values affixed to the season, then you are not part of the war.   The only way for Christmas to win in each of souls is to be at peace.

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Thoughts on Christmas

If being a Christian were, say, the same as being a Freudian, Keynesian, Hegelian or Kantian, I could call myself a Christian.   In those cases it simply means ones basic outlook on the world in inspired by and close to that of a great thinker.  It doesn’t mean absolute agreement, nor does it mean one treats the words of the great thinker as infallible and sacred.

However, I do not believe Jesus was a unique son of God, nor do I believe one has to believe that he is in order to have eternal life.  Moreover, I find the idea that a loving God would require belief in a particular story line and person in order to judge to be self-contradictory.  That would not be a loving God.  So in a religious sense, I am not a Christian.  Jesus was for me a wise spiritual teacher, comparable to Gandhi and other spiritual thinkers, not supernatural.

Yet on Christmas, I wholeheartedly agree with this as a day to celebrate the birth and life of Jesus Christ.   First, Christianity is one of the world’s great religions, that should be honored.  Just as wishing a Jew “Happy Hanukkah” is not something one must avoid, wishing a Christian “Merry Christmas” is to show that person respect.  However, for me it goes beyond that — I really believe and respect the fundamental moral principles of Christianity as enunciated in the New Testament by Jesus and Paul.

So to me Christmas is to respect Christianity, show my belief in the fundamental moral principles put forth by the person of Jesus Christ, and to enjoy the spirit of the season: love, goodwill, a desire for peace, kindness to others, joy, and a sense of magic.  It is that time of the year we celebrate the best of humanity, and suspend our disbelief enough to know that there is a power to love and a sense of mystery about the world that we cannot know, but can open our hearts to feel.   And, somehow, I think that spirit transcends both the teacher and the faith he started, and can inspire people of all faiths or secular beliefs.

And so, despite the fact that in a religious sense I am not a Christian, I want to honor these teachings from the Sermon on the Mount which ring true to me, and are the spirit of the teachings of Jesus, a spirit that one can honor and grasp even if one doesn’t believe the story that Jesus is the one true and only son of  God.

Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”   But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.

Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.

Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”    But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.   But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

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The Anti-Christmas

There is a weird sort of anomaly in the US system of holidays.  Thanksgiving, a day where families are to come together and express thanks about the good in their lives, begins the season leading up to Christmas day.  On that day Christians celebrate the birth of their messiah, Jesus Christ, while non-Christians share in the joy by celebrating the values that underlie the teachings of Jesus — love for others, principles like the meek will be strong, love your enemy as yourself, give unto others, do not desire wealth but focus on the spirit, be in this world not of it, etc.  For many of us who do not consider ourselves Christian the teachings of Jesus are nonetheless powerful and worthy of honor.  I have no problem wishing people “merry Christmas” and focusing on the ideals of love, good will, and joy, even as Christians focus on the birth of their spiritual founder.

Yet on the very day after the Christmas season begins Americans celebrate Anti-Christmas.  That is the Friday after Thanksgiving which this year was appropriately referred to as “Black Friday” (perhaps that isn’t a new label, but I can’t recall hearing it before this year).  On that day Americans give in to lustful greed and crass materialism, descending on stores and shopping malls in the wee hours of the morning to try to get the best deal possible.   Not everyone who shops early is motivated by lustful greed to be sure; many are simply trying to get a good deal.  Still, the day has come to symbolize people being pushed and tussled as they fight for a few remaining Wii games or the latest craze.

Symbolic of this was the death of a 34 year old Walmart employee in New York state who had the unfortunate job of opening the doors to the store at 5:00 AM.   Over 2000 people had gathered, beginning at 9:00 PM the night before, in order to try to get the best deals.  When he started to open the door a stempede ensued, trampling the man and sending others, including a woman eight months pregnant, to the hospital.   The doors themselves were damaged.  The crowd, however, presumably got some good deals on toys and electronics.

While most of the country was fixated on the on going crisis in India, where terrorists took over some top class hotels, I couldn’t get the Walmart death out of my mind.  What does this say about our culture?  Every year there are stories like this, and even though one could argue that this was one isolated incident, the pushing, shoving and frantic consumerism it represents gets reported from all over.

I refuse to go shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but people who were at the local Walmart here report that while traffic was bumper to bumper entering the parking lot near 5:00 AM, it was pretty orderly and people were generally not pushy or unfriendly.  I heard of people grabbing items (e.g., one case where after a woman got an employee to open the door for a laptop computer, someone reached in and grabbed it before she could — but that was OK, there was another one) and the like, and I suspect that’s what it was like most places.    So I’m not saying the greed and crass materialism is universal on Anti-Christmas any more than true love, good will and generosity are universal on December 25th.  Rather the two holidays symbolize two aspects of our culture: the crass, greedy, selfish materialist side, and the loving, generous, joyful spiritual side.

The Anti-Christmas of “black Friday” represents that part of the Christmas season which makes it a season of high stress, as people feel compelled to go to various Christmas parties, have lists of gifts to buy, and worry about getting out Christmas cards and decorating their house to impress others.  It is that part of the Christmas season which leads to high post-Christmas suicide rates, as the fake excitement, color, and mystique of the holidays give way to the grudgery of the ordinary every day set of problems.  The closeness of family and friends gives way to the alienation of the individual in a materialist rat race.   The Anti-Christmas is a reverse mirror image the good will of Christmas; rather than the meek shall inherit the earth, the aggressive will get the best deals.  Rather than generosity to the poor and giving to those who are needy, it’s about profits and the bottom line.   We learn early that while the spirit of Christmas is nice, the presents are what matters.

This juxtaposition between Christmas and Anti-Christmas is symbolic of a kind of cultural schizophrenia, where we veer from wanting the virtuous but cannot resist the base.   Much like how we embrace the evil and destruction of warfare in the name of freedom and human rights, we end up at cross purposes with ourselves as a culture, promoting values rhetorically that we quietly undermine with our actions.   If these were starkly different we’d be able to see and manage the contradiction better.  But Anti-Christmas is tied with Christmas in an intricate and hard to untangle manner.   The same is true with our wars (always fought with an honorable cause, hiding the horror they unleash), our economics (promoting a supposed ‘free market’ that creates a massive gap between the rich and the poor), our faithful folk (believing strongly in a religion of love and tolerance while condemning and sometimes hating those whose morals, religious beliefs or lifestyles are different) and our secular folk (condemning and mocking religion without realizing that atheism and secular approaches to reality rely just as much on a leap of faith concerning things about this world we do not know).

Moreover, since the real world is not black and white but shades of grey, the issues get blurry.  War may be evil, the rhetoric of freedom may often be overstated, but sometimes war may be necessary, sometimes violence is required to defend.    The person in line on Black Friday to get a special 5:00 AM deal may be trying to buy her sick daughter a game she can only afford if she sacrifices her own goods, and is able to get the best deal possible.  Symbolically the extremes and contradictions are clear; practically they merge together with complexity and ambiguity.

Perhaps the only way to deal with all of this is a kind of balancing act.  We in the west like our dualisms, but there is no reason to think that things like “Christmas” and “Anti-Christmas” are really stark opposites.  In fact, it could be that attributes of human personality can express themselves in ways that look dualistic, but are actually far more complex.    Would a non-materialist purely spiritual Christmas, whether worshipping the birth of Jesus or for non-Christians the ideals of love, good will and generousity really work?  Would that really be superior?  Probably not.   Even concepts like “good” and “evil” represent a kind of artificial dualism. Selfishness, anger, and envy are not always misplaced emotions; sometimes they may be necessary in particular contexts.  I recall when I read First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, who survived the Cambodian genocide as a child, I was intrigued by how at times hate and anger helped her survive.  In those circumstances, they were necessary.  Just as self-love is necessary before one can truly love others, selfishness is necessary before one can truly be generous.

So Anti-Christmas may be a misnomer.  The ideals of Christmas are beautiful, but in the abstract they have no meaning.  They are possible only in so far as they reflect an ability to control our human nature and act ethically, not denying our material, selfish, and competitive side, but reigning it in with a sense of purpose and perspective.    There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the post-Thanksgiving sales, only in letting the desire for a bargain cause one to see others as mere obstacles in the way of that great deal, pushing, shoving, and even trampling other humans.  Keep perspective — the ideals of the season balance the desire for material comfort.   We don’t need to strive for perfection, only a workable balance.   Now, let’s enjoy the holiday season!

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