This morning I awoke far too early, as my now-departing cold makes the end of our visit together memorable through bouts of insomnia. I wish I could relate some fascinating story about getting up to see what Santa brought, but Santa always came to visit my family's home on Christmas Eve, so that Christmas Day did not involve any efforts to arise early for the purpose of seeing what was under the tree. It was more like "let the games begin!".
I notice that this holiday season I'm more nostalgic about Christmas, even as I'm less worried about the presents and luxuriant decorations and the folderol of the season than ever before. I went to google up the word "twee", because so much of what I remember and love about Christmas might be dismissed as slightly twee (indeed, I think that much of my LiveJournal could be dismissed as slightly twee, but that's a broader post). It turns out that rather than getting the kind of websites that might tell me things like "Charles Dickens invented the word 'twee' in the third chronicle of the "Pickwick Papers" (something I just made up for illustration purposes), I instead came to realize that "twee" has a different meaning in Dutch (numerical, as near as I can tell, but please don't make me google up Nederlandische etymologies) than in English.
Thus, I was treated to Dutch websites about vacation opportunities, including in particular a wonderful website about an "Exclusive Angling Holiday", in which only the metatag title was in English, and the remainder was in Dutch. The pictures, though, combined with those few words similar enough to my theoretical English or my schoolbook German for me to recognize them, showed me a pastoral little setting on a somewhat muddy waterway, in which one stays in a brown wooden cabin that looks exactly like any of thousands of brown wooden cabins on muddy lakes in southern Oklahoma, although if I am guessing my Dutch correctly, this particular shanty cabin in Holland has hot and cold running water, a definite improvement over the "go shower in the communal building" approach of many Oklahoma locales. I also liked the bit in the site about the something or other of Pappillons, which apparently was a butterfly kinda thing.
I like that bit at the end of the story "A Christmas Carol", in which the reformed Scrooge comes to be known as a man who "keeps Christmas" well. I think to myself that although this could be interpreted as having something to do with making wassail using instructions from the Food Channel, and madrigally singing the kinds of songs they used to sing in the interludes between the hoarse droning of the sackbut,
the notion of "keeping Christmas" could be something not so twee.
I'll note only by quick passing the various historicity problems with the dates and times and ways and rituals with which those who believe in Christmas celebrate Christmas. They don't really trouble me at all, and I celebrate Christmas with glee and what I consider to be heartfelt joy each year.
As I sit here at 5:25 a.m. on Christmas Day, though, I question the notion of a "Season of Giving". It's not the "giving" that troubles me. I am all for giving. It's that idea that charity can only be folded into a religious solstice festival.
Around Thanksgiving Day, the local news ran an article about how a local charity had far fewer turkeys than requested turkeys this year. I found the "look at this dire problem" news reporting irritating, because I expected the charity to be bright enough to get the story run early enough that people would have time to step up and donate birds. The conspiracy of holiday charity meets the evening news or the morning newspaper is too well-established for anyone to have to run "it's too late to help but...." news spots.
Even if we set aside my (as usual) petty irritation with the sheer non-cleverness that afflicts some things like a disease, it is a curious thing that the focus on giving compartmentalizes into one month or six week period a year. Granted, in most of the US, that month is a cold month when people might need more help. Yet by mid-January, an even colder month, the impulse is gone.
I really don't want to be too much of a grinch about these things, because I always think that when a Christmas lover like me adopts a grinch uniform, it's just an exercise in needless absurdity. I don't spend too much time worrying about the commercialism of Christmas, as I don't really care how tinny or kitschy or sales-bargain-y Christmas becomes. I see all that as largely surface, and economically driven. Also, since my childhood, I've heard how the world is going to Hell in a handbasket, and all the ways in which this is actually true are ways having nothing to do with the pivotal issue of whether Old Navy runs tacky holiday ads or witty holiday ads.
It's funny the asynchronies that strike one in the season. We went to a truly lovely Christmas Eve service at my brother's family's church. We don't usually attend there (right now, we don't attend anywhere all that often, though we will remedy that), but my nephew was singing at the 10 p.m. service. As we parked in the crowded parking lot of this large-ish Methodist church in Plano, we found ourselves settling into a space sandwiched between an SUV the size of a troop transport and a smaller SUV the size of a large land yacht. Plano, Texas is on the "plain-o", and nobody needs a Montana Mountain Climber to navigate its straight tract home streets for hill to hill combat. Rather than chanting "peace on earth, good will to People" to all and sundry, I found myself grumbling in an undertone to my wife about how we put ourselves in the thrall of oil-producing foreign dictatorships so that people can drive these things on suburban streets. But within moments I was singing Christmas carols with the congregation, and watching my nephew in the choir, and thoroughly enjoying myself.
I thought, though, as I stood singing with attractive, well-dressed throngs of suburbanites about how rich people have more trouble getting into Heaven than camels through the eyes of needles. Each time I had a chance Friday to make a good will offering in honor of the season, I pretty much took it, from the twenty dollars I put in the Salvation Army kettle (notwithstanding this odd situation about a controversy on Salvation Army kettles, in which non-Army, non-retail chain groups on the left and right have been having a debate over issues unrelated to the actual reason a retail chain kept those kettles from appearing in front of their store, i.e., good old-fashioned corporate rule-making, all of which seem to me to have nothing to do with the virtues or drawbacks of the actual denomination, which I both admire and vehemently disagree with on some issues), to the small donation to a foreign mission of someone else's church to the goodwill offering last night.
I dislike intensely the idea that "my formula for salvation is better than yours, so I must be a better person than you are". That's not to say I don't think that some things are right, some things are perniciously wrong, and many things are filled with gray areas. It's just that I think people self-congratulate far too often based on labels like "I attend this church" or "I belong to this political party" or even "I am too well-informed to join anything, so I am morally superior believer in nothing".
Don't tell me how you're saved or how salvation doesn't matter--just do things that make a small difference.
I thought of how the holiday season brings out this spirit of giving, but the needs are there when the season ends. Of course, it's good to have a time when we focus on giving. But I do wonder when people arrogate to themselves the idea that *they* are the givers because of their personal theologies. I don't mean to bash people of faith, because it's not limited to the "religious". I just don't like the kneejerk instinct to call people of different views morons, when in fact a compelling argument can be made that only some fringes are morons, or, conversely, that we are all morons, little fire ants
singing songs between pesticide sprayings.
Last night in church they did a ritual I always enjoy, because it meets my criteria for rituals--it is down to earth and makes sense despite being a ritual. They did the old thing from Christmas Eve services in which everyone in the congregation is handed a candle (protected in each case, by a plastic cup). At the end, they "handed out flame", starting with the giant centerpiece red Advent candle in the stand and fanning out, row by row, to the congregants. We all sang "Silent Night", Franz Gruber's wonderful carol, and I managed to stifle my in-born silly ways by not trying to sing the German words. I am grateful for middle age, because it helps me forget words that I should not pretentiously sing. I am still shaking this flu (an argument why I should have stayed home, but I wanted to see my nephew), so I am afraid my voice sounded even worse than usual. But I like that "handing out flame" and singing in the candle-lit moment.
Yet I find sometimes that I am irritated by what impresses everyone else. You see, the minister of music, who, at this really cool but awfully huge mega-church is also an ordained minister, felt the need as we were doing the candle thing but before we had extinguished the lights, to give us a pep talk about
the symbolism of the candles and how we were all going to let our light shine out and so forth. Now, I love words as much as the next guy. But I am not sure you need words to point out the metaphor in the sharing of light through candles. It all came off to me as one more bit of salesmanship, and in particular as cheerleading of the "we are cool, aren't we, and we personally will save the world" kind.
I hasten to say that my wife, practical and level-headed in almost every way, complimented the talk, so that nobody will imagine that the young minister was at fault, but instead will discount for the flaws in introspection of this reporter.
But I sit here today, pondering the notion of a 12 month season of giving. Every time I turn on the radio, I hear of one more way in which people are planning how to be less kind to other people, and one more way in which people of one politics or faith or even locale are claiming that they are somehow morally superior to everyone else. In my teen days, we sang an awful lot of that song about how the way they'll know we are Christians is "by our love". The song promised that we would all work together, hand in hand, and guard dignity and save each other's pride. Nowadays, though, we'll spend out time in debating the fine points of red and blue states, and call in to radio shows that share our politics and bewail the other side's politics.
It's a bit pat to say "gee, people are suffering in all the world, and we all do so little", because although that's true, it's just one of those toss-off things, like talking about an episode of "Desperate Housewives". I don't see any real point in pretending that weblog chat will make the world
suddenly an equitable place where people get enough to eat, worship or not worship as they please, and
live in good places to live and work reasonable hours at safe jobs.
But even as I pop in the video of "It's a Wonderful Life", one of the dozen Christmas movies I love,
I want to use today as a time to reflect on the ways I can make my life as it is actually lived aligned a bit better with the way I want to live my life. I find that self-monitoring to try to do better things does help me be a slightly better person. I think this year I'm not going to do without resolutions as I usually do in the New Year, but instead work on making a few and keeping them.
I think that one can only deal with one's own shortcomings on such matters. It's fun to have fun with the absurdities ("how do you know it's the season of Love and Christ's birth? why the mall parking lots are all full and whiskey sales increase exponentially"). But really, it's an individual choice to be more caring. It's not because one is visited by three ghosts (and then can manage to find a butcher shop open on the holiday, a true Christmas miracle), although my personal belief system does allow for
inspiration. I don't mind using the season as a mnemonic prod to be a bit more caring, but I really want to act better in general and less because the AM station is playing "rockin' around the Christmas tree".
The holidays are so problematic. I know for many people they are the simultaneous culminations of moments of deep loneliness and family dysfunction, all wrapped up into one. Although my own holidays have always been, like in the song, merry and bright, I have some sympathy with the little boy in the film "Polar Express" who explains that "Christmas doesn't work for me". I have a lot of fellow-feeling with the folks who just don't get any of it, not a penny-bead, not a dollar garland of it. I'd love to see folks get along with family folks better in general, and not have to worry to try so hard in the holidays. I know that so many folks (and reading LiveJournal really reinforces this) have such stormy relationships, both in the home and with the folks that raised them. A few folks didn't get raised at all, but basically had to raise and re-invent themselves--I find myself pleased and amazed at how well some of their lives turn out.
But I don't succumb to the "bah humbug" school of thought, or to the "bash the holidays" spirit that can overtake folks. I'm instead more focused today on how the holidays can be a quiet moment to hear the
singing. I don't mean all those harking for herald angels (who, I theorize, would drink gingerbread lattes rather than intermix with the Sons of Men, if circumstances recurred), but the positive notes out there, the "do-give-a-damn, not because I'm better or saved or superior but because I am human and I want to help".
I want to live in the land of appreciation for all I have, and not in the valley of the needless sensation of lack. I want to nurse wounds to health, and not merely pick scabs to scars. I want to love unabashedly, unreservedly, and without self-conscious fear of whether I am loved in turn. I want to focus and do, and not merely daydream and think. I want to recognize my limitations, and use the knowledge of them as tactical advantages and not as reasons to hate myself. I want January 25 to matter as much as December 25. I want to actually spend a day on a park bench, instead of a half an hour passing by a park bench and thinking about how nice it would be to devote a day to sitting in a park bench. I want to acquire fewer things, and more thoughts. I want to procrastinate less, not only on January 2, but also on July 2. I'd rather be Scrooge's nephew than Pip or Estella or Micawber or Uriah Heep. In small ways suitable to my limited skills, I want to be a bit kinder, do a bit more, and live the year round just a bit better. It's not because, in the way of the old Stuart Smalley routine, "I'm good enough, and I'm darn well worth it", because it's because it's who I want to be.
Today, I'll enjoy the time with my wife, we'll open a few presents, we'll have a fine meal in honor of the day. But I wish for Christmas to remember the importance of giving every day, even on days when spam IMs interrupt me as I finish writing posts, inviting me to webcams I don't want to see.
This has been a year with so very many good things, and so very many difficult, hard, sad things. I'm blessed to have my health, or all of it that a cold can't take, and to have my wife and family. I'm blessed to have friends who care for me, and more than enough to eat, and a good place to live. I love that I maintain my child-like delight in a colorful butterfly, a great song, or a kind word. I know from experience that so long as I am granted life, these great moments, as well as sad and difficult and odd and unfair things, will always be part of the mix.
I don't pretend that I'm a flawless person, and take only slight grim consolation that my particular flaws are more banal and less interesting than those of people more fascinating than I am. I take more consolation in the idea that a fishing trip to southern Oklahoma is probably just as exotic to a Dutch person as a Dutch fishing trip sounds to me.
But I do believe that people can learn to make the most of what they are and can do. I think that the most I hope for this Christmas is to live on August 25 as if it, too, were a season of giving and of learning about my journey.