Monday, December 5, 2011

The Holidays, Liberally

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 Increasingly, we Unitarian Universalists speak of the Holidays rather than using the culturally traditional word Christmas.  The Holidays embrace all Mid-Winter festivals–ancient and modern.  Christmas is one element in a season of diverse celebrations, and observances, a confusion of cultural appropriations.  We honor Hanukkah, working its themes of freedom and light.  We honor the Winter Solstice, reveling in its natural imagery and proclaiming the goodness of the cycles of life.  We honor the African American intentional festival of Kwanza, with its contemporary values and intentions.  Ours is a deliberately inclusive vision, celebrating religious and cultural pluralism, resulting in an easy eclecticism.  Yet we find harmony and common meaning summarized as light, life, and love.

If any religious way can do justice to the many moods and purposes of Christmas/Holiday Season, it is our liberal Unitarian Universalist tradition.  It is elastic enough and encompassing enough to allow each of us the latitude to observe the December Holidays as the spirit moves us to observe them–a little or a lot, with secular joy or spiritual meaning, with excess or responsible consumption, in grand public performances or intimate family circles. [46]

Cosmic Drama

Sunlight grows thinner.
Trees are mostly bare.
Flakes of snow float
            from gray clouds.
Early mornings,
Without calling birds,
Are silent,
Except for sounding wind.

Our houses take on the odors
            of warmth, the pungency
            of domesticity.
In them, throughout the dark nights,
We gather in pools of electric brightness.

So, winter approaches.
And we, creatures of the earth,
Protagonists in the cosmic drama
            of life/not life,
Steel our wills,
Feeling the warmth of our bodies
            against the seeping cold.
And we lift our voices,
Lamenting all form of oblivion,
As we feel the fragility,
            as well as the tenacity of being.

We lift our voices
For our own life,
For all Life,
In return
We are strengthened
            by Life’s undeniable tenacity. [25]


A Christmas Card to You From Us

We live, not by things, but by the meaning of things.
Antoine de St. Exupery

            Ellie maintains the quality of the Christmas card matters.  “We shouldn’t send a cheap card,” she insists.

            I confess.  I found this card in a 99¢ Store in Orange County, California–and that’s not 99¢ a card but 30 cards for 99¢.  (But you knew this wasn’t a 99¢ card the moment you opened the envelope.)

With a little distance from the purchase and the perspective that distance allows, I suspect I was drawn to this card by sentiment, because the design, especially the cheesy gold embossed foil, reminded me of my Grandmother Searl’s decorations from the 1950s–how she garlanded her bungalow with similar cheap cards strung above doorways and windows.  (And there’s nothing wrong with sentiment during the Holidays.)

            In the fever of the biggest shopping day of the year, I thought this card was more than okay and brought two boxes of them home.  That’s when Ellie immediately pronounced them cheap.  “Look at the printing.  It’s off-center.  That’s why they were discounted.”  She paused and added, “But that’s not the only reason.  They’d be cheap with perfect printing.”  She paused again, then asked, “What will we do with 60 of these cheap cards?”  But I’m getting ahead of the story.

            I bought the cards on the Friday after Thanksgiving, when I was out and about for the day with our daughter Katie who lives in Brea, California.  Katie’s quite a shopper, and the 99¢ store where I bought this card is one of her favorite bargain haunts.  (It’s near the Vietnamese sandwich shop Katie had to introduce me to, Lee’s Sandwiches.  By the way, the vegetarian sandwich I had on French bread at Lee’s was outstanding and quite the bargain at $1.49; and the iced Vietnamese coffee was a perfect complement!) 

Following lunch, at the 99¢ store, Katie and I poured over boxes of cards tossed in a bin at the entrance.  Back and forth, we showed each other various designs.  It was like old times when Katie was 10 and not 35–which is a little ironic, because Katie’s making a big transition. 

            Did you know Katie’s pregnant?  She’s going to birth to a boy in January–Brett Michael Bodnar, he’s already named.  (The Dad is Mike Bodnar.)  Ellie and I were in California for Katie’s Saturday-after-Thanksgiving baby shower.

            Back at the Bodnar house, after Ellie “dissed” my Christmas card purchase, and Katie and Mike joined in to tease me about my chronic love of bargains, I surreptitiously began to place the cards around the house: on the entertainment center, on the fire-place mantle, among the photos and notes on the fridge. When Katie or Mike or Ellie found a card, they groaned and removed it.  I managed to stay a card or two ahead of them the whole weekend.  I hid one card a little more deceptively as my parting carte de visite.  Mike and Katie will find it one day.

            So you see, our Holiday greeting, though it comes via a truly cheap (3.3¢) card, featuring two geese (why geese?) surrounded by a gold embossed foil border, with printing that is definitely off center, in faded red ink, is nevertheless rich in meaning. 


Ellie and I share this meaning with you this Holiday Season.  So this card carries our wishes to you and yours:

May your Holidays also be full of meaning–old and new meaning–
And lots of Love, too,
Particularly the satisfying, intimate Love of family
And those friends
Who are like family. 
We count you as such a friend.

Along with the usual blessings of health and prosperity,
May your New Year bring freshness and hope.

Most of all:
Now and throughout the year
May you discover and revel in the meaning
That holds our world together–
The meaning of things, yes,
But even more the meaning of those
Who love us
As we love them. [13-14]


A Unitarian Universalist Christmas

A Progressing Doctrine of Incarnation

When it comes to Christmas, we Unitarians have long been of two minds.  True to our Puritan heritage, we demand the truth and meaning of it all.  But we also want to feel IT–to be possessed by the Spirit of the Season.  We want to expose falsehoods; but we don’t want to strip the season bare.

As I view it, throughout the 20th Century, Unitarians developed a consistent way to talk about and experience the meaning of Christmas–the Christian festival.  It was a serious way, because it surveyed the traditional Christian story, interpreting and re-interpreting it in light of world religions.  It involved the Incarnation of the divine and the symbolism of the child.

First, Unitarians and Universalists recognized that the Incarnation of God in Jesus has parallels in the Incarnation of Krishna in Hinduism and the birth of Buddha (and subsequent buddhas), events that recur whenever the world is in need of an infusion of the Divine Spirit.  Among Unitarians and Universalists, the notion of Incarnation became universal.  We came to realize that every child is the Christ child, that every night a child is born is a holy night.  The hope and salvation of humanity became vested in every baby.  In this progression, Unitarian Universalists identified the mythology of the traditional Christmas story, found parallels in other world religions, universalized it, and made it compatible for a naturalistic and humanistic age.

In this serious/critical approach to the Season, literally and figuratively, the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater.  In this interpretation, Unitarians Universalists retained Jesus as a focus and the “true” meaning of Christmas.  In integrity, a good Unitarian could enter into the Christian Spirit of the Season. [45]

The Green Eyed Goddess of Envy

When the Solstice approaches and the wheel of the year turns, memories abound.  In the Season of Memory, I remember the Christmas of 1976 first of all.

That year, I was an intern minister at the First Universalist Church of Syracuse.  We were living in a government subsidized townhouse apartment complex in Fayetteville, NY, a Syracuse suburb.  In particular, I remember the yellow shag carpeting.  (Remember shag carpeting?)  I also remember a canary yellow AMC Pacer owned by an adjacent neighbor.  (Remember AMC and its curious collection of cars?)  And I remember a single parent dad, father to a young boy, whose living room was bare except for a television, reclining chair, and, next to the chair, a life-size plastic Santa Claus illuminated from within–a bleak but beguiling tableau seen through the drapeless patio doors, the dad often in full recline, with a can of beer in his hand, bathed by a soft light of Santa-glow. 

It was our first American Christmas after living in Canada for six years.  Our daughter Katie was nine years old.  Ellie had a make-money job as a chair assistant to an orthodontist.  We had little money, but enough to get by.  We were relatively young, embarking on a new adventure, unsure of what our future would be.  I was an apprentice minister in a remnant Universalist congregation, testing my suitability for the trade.  For reasons of economy but more for the sake of our daughter, we tried to make Christmas hand-fashioned and family centered.   

That year it snowed at least a little for more than forty consecutive days.  We ventured forth on a bitterly cold Saturday morning to cut a crooked little tree at a picked-over Christmas Tree farm.  When I dragged the tree through the sliding doors, from the patio to the living room, a frozen mouse fell out of a bird’s nest that rested in the midst of the tight branches onto the yellow shag carpeting.  (When we left that place six months later, we were still picking out balsam needles from the rug.)

In the afternoon on the Saturday we cut our tree and brought it home, we fashioned ornaments from Styrofoam and chunks of wood, festooning our creations with plastic jewels, glitter, and water paint.  I used the occasion to lecture Katie about the real meaning of Christmas.  As an illustration, I moralized as I created the head of an anti-Christmas spirit that I named the Green-Eyed Goddess of Envy.  Her round Styrofoam head had green acrylic hair and shimmering emerald green eyes.  I told Katie, the Green Eyed Goddess of Envy’s refrain is “Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee!”

No longer a moral lesson, but a symbol of my ridiculous excess, the Green-Eyed Goddess of Envy–sometimes called the Green-Eyed Goddess of Excessmas–appears each year to perch at the top of our tree. 

When she appears, her green eyes are undiminished by ever-increasing years.  Memories flow. We laugh at my moralizing about Christmas meaning, even as I savor the irony of the lesson I learned. [73-74]


A Natural History of
Christmas Customs

In pagan northern and central Europe, straw played a significant part in Winter Solstice celebrations.  It symbolized the fertility of the earth and was a talisman for a good harvest.  Yule straw, preferably from the last sheaf of the harvest, housed the corn spirit.  Farmers spread it on their floors, scattered it in the fields and tied it to tree trunks to encourage fruitfulness.  In Denmark and Sweden, straw from that same last sheaf was used to bake the Yule Boar, a loaf in the shape of a boar that stood on the table throughout the various observances; it also contained the corn spirit.  Norwegians slept on Yule straw so guests who visited at year’s end might sleep in the beds; a dream dreamed on Yule straw would come true.

Scandinavians hung sheaves of oats outdoors for the birds to eat, probably a relic of an ancient sacrifice to the agricultural gods.  Polish people put a sheaf of rye, oats, wheat, and barley in each of the four corners of their homes.  In the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe, a creature name Polaznik visited the house at dawn on Christmas Day, throwing a handful of wheat over those who lived within, an omen of prosperity in the New Year.

Most familiar to us today–we can buy them in artsier specialty stores– are straw ornaments.  Perhaps you’ve seen the Swedish “jublock,” a straw goat to be placed on the Christmas table or beneath the tree.  No, it’s not a symbol of the devil, rather a representation the Norse god Thor, a friend of humanity, said to ride a goat.  And there is a variety of Scandinavian straw stars, crosses, and other figures derived from ancient fertility symbols.  In many areas, the Yule log, when first lighted, was sprinkled with wine and grain, another reenactment of sacrifice to the agricultural gods

In Europe, the Yule Log continues to be a centerpiece of the Seasonal observances.  It is strictly pagan, relating to the Viking Yule (which means wheel and suggests the turning of the seasons) and symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness–the rebirth of the sun at the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year.  Before the relatively recent advent of The Christmas Tree in England, the Yule Log was the season’s central symbol.  It was carried to the great hearth on Christmas Eve, children astride it, pulled by ivy-covered ropes.  A brand from the previous year’s Yule lighted it.  To assure a good harvest, corn and wine were sprinkled on the flames.  In Scotland a female effigy carved out of wood, the Christmas woman (perhaps a link to Freya, Norse goddess of fertility), was burnt in the fire.
Many different European groups beat the burning Yule Log, for example, Northern Italians, Bulgarians, and Spaniards, probably to drive out evil spirits.  Many other superstitions by many other peoples were associated with the great log of the Solstice Season.

The symbolism of evergreens is apparent, even in our contemporary observances, however removed and remote they may be from their sources.  In ancient as in modern times, they represented that which endures the darkest and coldest time of the year, when all else is sear, dormant, or dead.  In pagan days, evergreens of all sorts–mistletoe, holly, yew, bay, laurel, rosemary, ivy, plus firs of all varieties–were cut at the time of the Winter Solstice and brought indoors to help the sun rise again.  Northern Europeans brought branches in to their homes as a refuge for the woods spirits during the worst weather of the year.  Romans, at the January Kalends, gave each other green branches of holly; they nailed laurel to their doorposts.

The Druids held mistletoe in especially high regard.  The called it the Golden Bough and believed it contained the life of their sacred oak tree through the winter.  At the Winter Solstice, a white robed priest would cut it down with a golden sickle, sacrifice two white bulls, place some on the altar, and give the remainder to the celebrants that they might hang it above their doors.  Kissing under the mistletoe today, from a British custom, combines the Scandinavian custom of declaring a truce when under it with the belief that it conveyed fertility and vitality. 

An evergreen plant that bore berries–holly, ivy, and mistletoe–was a seasonal symbol of fertility.  Bound into wreaths as symbols of renewal, peace, and friendship, their round shape kept evil witches and spirits at bay.  Ivy, the sacred plant of Bacchus, was valued as a protection against drunkenness.  Yew protected against witches.  Bay leaves came from a Roman award to poets and conquerors.

Of course, the Christmas Tree has a more ancient history.  St. Boniface, completing the Christianization of Germany in the eight century, cut down the sacred oak of Odin; behind it was a small fir tree Boniface dedicated to the Christ Child.  The custom of decorating a fir tree can be accurately traced back only to the 1600s in Alsace.  In its modern form, the Christmas Tree relates to the universal archetype of the Tree of Life from which springs all goodness and bounty.  The hanging of fruit and other foods, facsimile animals, symbolic treasures of all sorts may well be the most authentic and spontaneous celebration of the season.

To the ancients, straw and grain, the great Yule Log, various forms of evergreen plants were more immediate or vital symbols than they are to us today, removed as we are from Nature and agriculture. 

For us, they are familiar decorations, though their timeless symbolism surely endures on an unconscious level.  They are archetypes of our collective unconscious.

When days grow short and the warmth of the sun grows weak, a vital essence in each of us responds, because we’re of Nature, too.  These natural symbols, allow us to respond psychically, in the midst of the seasonal drama of life ebbing and flowing, assuring us that once again winter turns toward spring. [28-30]


Magic and Miracle
Santa Biker

Last year after the Christmas Eve service, I rushed to O’Hare to catch an eight o’clock flight to Los Angeles to join Ellie and Katie for a West Coast Christmas Eve.  O’Hare had so few passengers, it had the eerie illusion of being deserted.  The only noteworthy activity occurred at my gate, where a sixty-year-old man in a well worn Santa Claus suit sat–long gray hair and beard with a credible pot belly.  He looked so authentic that young children stopped and stared, while flight attendants veered to talk to him.

I wondered if he were working the airport, the City of Chicago’s Christmas Eve ambassador.  What a beguiling possibility.

When the flight to LA boarded, he was first in line, carrying not a sack of presents but a scuffed briefcase.  Passengers joked with him, of course, asking him what had happened to his reindeer and sleigh.  Up close, he was the most convincing Saint Nick I’d ever seen.

Cruising over Kansas at 30,000 feet on Christmas Eve, it was enchanting to have that red and white, right jolly old elf sitting forward.  The quarter-full cabin was transformed.  Usually blas√© attendants were charmed by his presence; one produced a camera for group photos.  He produced a press kit from which he took eight by ten glossy photographs.  He autographed a head shot for each of the attendants.  Because of the press kit and our destination, I was thinking this was not a Chicago but a Hollywood Santa.

I’d stashed my bag in the overhead, two seats in front of Santa’s seat.  When we could walk about, I went through the pretext of looking for something in a bag.  In the process, Santa and I struck up a conversation.

Here’s the skinny:  He worked for a Santa Clause agency that contracted major malls and stores through the US.  He was in special demand and commanded greater pay, because he was a “natural beard” Santa.  For the past fortysome days, he’d worked in a Connecticut mall.  He’d come directly from work, without time to change (so he claimed), to catch a flight back to his LA home.  The rest of the year, he worked for the Navy making model ships and planes that were used in gunnery practice.  He hoped to become a movie actor and already had a couple of bit parts in major movies–hence his press kit from which he produced a resume.

As a young adult, he’d been a biker–not a Hell’s Angel, but another bike club.  As he talked, he removed his red Santa’s tunic to reveal a black, biker’s club tee shirt with a club logo.  Fading blue tattoos etched thick forearms.

His insights into being a good Santa fascinated me.  He related how he comported himself for both children and parents.  This man, who in civilian garb surely looked menacing–particularly on the seat of a thundering Harley wearing club colors–had internalized a complex Santa Clause code of behavior–a persona that was palpable. 

He had just enough of a menacing glint in his piercing blue eyes to make me suspect he was a markedly different man when not wearing that costume, a costume and persona he obviously relished, because he chose to wear it cross-country.

It was Christmas magic what that costume did to an elder, bona fide California biker, rendering him a curiously serious but still right jolly old elf.  It was Christmas magic to be flying to LA on the night before Christmas with Old Biker Santa.  

Magic of the Season

The Holiday Season is magical.  Think of the stories we love, though we know them romantic fictions:

  • the Hanukkah miracle of the oil that occurred when the defiled temple of Jerusalem was rededicated in 165 BCE.
  • the traditional Nativity Tale of a guiding star, an angel speaking to shepherds, a virgin birth, a promised child, magi bearing gifts, and a cruel king.
  • Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” with three ghosts and redemption of the archetypal curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge.
  • Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” with a guardian angel and excursion to what-might-have-happened-if land.

They all respond to a common impulse and touch us with a similar message of hope and transformation.


If Only for the Season

If only for the Season…
Let us banish cynicism
            and welcome wonder.

If only for the Season…
Let us downplay our differences
            and discover bonds
            of common origin and continuing cause.

If only for the Season…
Let us deny apathy and indifference
            and truly live by loving.

If only for the Season…
Let us set aside worry
            and smile and laugh and sing.

If only for the Season…
Let us subvert greed and jealousy
            and be good gift getters and givers.

If only for the Season…
The brief season
            of light,
            of life,
            of love,

Let us be wise enough to be a little foolish
            about candlelight and children and matters
            of the heart…
If only for the Season. [12]

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