Christmas is a mystery. Not a satisfying mystery like John Grisham would write but as Yul Brenner’s King of Siam might have called it, ‘a puzzlement.’ All of us see the season and the day in different ways. And the meaning of the holiday changes for each of us throughout the stages of our lives. When I was five years old, it was the most glorious season. It went with smells of spice, the tang of the blue spruce trees that my grandfather insisted upon even in the days when artificial trees were the vogue, the cinnamon of apple pies, the old, wise background of my grandfather’s Granger pipe tobacco, clove-studded apples in the linen closet, hanging peppermint canes, the sage in my grandmother’s cornbread dressing.
One of my presents that year was a cowboy suit. It was a Hollywood cowboy suit with piping on the shoulders and matching hat with fake leather lacing at the edge of the brim. They dressed me up in it and took a formal portrait of their little Gene Autrey and hung it on the wall where it stayed, to my great embarrassment, into my adulthood. By the time I was twenty, I hated Christmas like I hated that dippy photograph of my innocence, no, my gullibility. I was just too cute for words and it made me sick like Christmas made me sick with its tacky hypocrisy and bourgeois commercialism. I thought it was a bigger joke than the religion which inspired it. I doubted ALL in those days. Aspiring young bolshevik grinches like me at twenty had little use for religion or commercialism.
But I grew out of that, or just got over it like I had gotten over the betrayal of my innocence with the Santa Claus Myth and the Little Baby Jesus Fable. By the time my children started arriving and the next generation was all around me, I was ready to see the holiday through their eyes again. I had begun to understand all myths for their beauty and power which was beyond truth and credulity. In short, I had to become a Buddhist before I could really appreciate Christmas. Buddhists have a free-wheeling attitude about myths and religious stories. They just assume that stories are stories. They don’t need to be true in order to be fun and useful. Nor did the Buddha require his followers to abandon their native religions and mythologies. If you were a Hindu or a Jain or a Sikh, you could still take the Middle Way.
A Couple of years ago I found myself in the heartland of America on Christmas. The little town in the Tennessee hills didn’t have much but an extension cord from the TVA and of course it had a Walmart. I try to avoid Walmarts as a rule. They make me feel like an autistic child, overwhelmed by incomprehensible sensory overload. I don’t know what possessed me to go into the Walmart on a Christmas Eve. All I can say is that the Ghost of Christmas Future could not have conjured such a nightmare for Scrooge himself. It was Bosch’s Purgatorio under cruel florescent lighting, a stacked and mechanized hell crowded as a pig-trough at feeding time. They all had the terrible gleam of last-minute gluttony in their eyes and pushed rolling carts overflowing with boxes of nothing and stood in lines to pay, fat people with chubby little grasping children already bored and complaining, even beginning to have their own small doubts about Santa Claus. I can’t explain how lonely it made me feel. Now I remember, I was there to buy beer.
The Poet’s Eye sees how easy it is to become cynical about the modern Yuletide experience. The greatest and most copied and adapted Christmas story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is itself a warning against this type of scrooge-like cynicism. The story is always relevant, especially in hard times. It is a statement on class and economics as much as it is a tale of personal transformation. Wikipedia has a long page listing several hundred adaptations and variations and parodies of A Christmas Carol. We keep retelling the story because it is a great illustration of a perennial truth and also because we need to remind ourselves in contemporary language that the spirits of charity and giving are their own rewards.
Still, Christmas remains a puzzlement. It’s not that much of a religious holiday anymore, unless you worship consumerism. Less than half of us will visit our respective houses of worship on Christmas. We will more likely be in an airport security line than in a church. For many of us it has become an empty ritual, done out of habit or family obligation. It’s certainly good for business, but everybody has their own notion of what the holiday means or to whom it is dedicated. Local cults have throughout history hung their tags on the solstice celebration. I suppose it makes little difference if we are celebrating God, Mammon, Santa Claus or just the comforting surety of celestial progress.
I have decided to use this Christmas Season as a time to get in touch with my inner Scrooge. I’m shopping online for one of those nightshirt thingies. I’ve been remembering Christmas Past and hoping for at least a few more Christmas Futures. In the Present I wonder what I can give to Tiny Tim and I think of you, my kind readers. I would give you all an iPad if my credit was any good, but instead I give you these worried-over words, these thoughts I hope will give you better thoughts of your own, and my gratitude for your patience with my attempts at comedy. A Happy Humbug to All, and to all a good night!
“The Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington, D.C. This wasn’t for any religious reasons. They couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.”