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Merry Christmas from the Nutshell!

It's my little Nut's first Christmas!

She is eleven months old and still knows nothing about Christmas presents. Nor does she understand anything about Santa Claus, the Nativity story, or Black Friday sales. But she is astoundingly filled with glee about those human elements of the solstice time that are older than any living nation or religion: wonder at lights shining in the darkness, the joy of celebration, and the mood of anticipation. She knows the word "Christmas tree" and points excitedly at every one she sees, when she hears someone say it. Her grandmother has already taught her to say "Ho ho ho!" (not too far from her first word, "uh-oh"). She goes crazy every time she sees colored lights, velvet bows, wreaths, tinsel, or any kind of holiday decor. We take her on walks in the mall and the grocery store just so she can point out all the decorations and hoot and squeal and say, "Ooooooooh!" Every day when she wakes up in the morning and enters our living room, she bounces and waves at the pile of presents from her Florida grandma and points at the Christmas decorations.

Holy crap is she going to lose it when she finds out she can rip presents open and find toys inside!!!

I just went back and read my thoughts on Christmas last year, which I'm re-posting below. Happy holidays to everyone, of every religion or none at all!

From Christmas 2010:

My favorite Christmas package this year is still wrapped up, but she is considered full term tomorrow! My belly has sunk low, and middle aged and older women have been eying it, skeptical that the big lit-up ball in Times Square will drop before my baby does. But this is my first pregnancy, so she's likely to stay tucked inside for at least a couple more weeks.

Because I am so close to the birth at this time of year, I have received many Christmas gifts for little Nux Gallica. I have also heard plenty of sentimental Christmas miracle stories and have had many people ask me what stories I will tell my daughter about Christmas. Will I tell her about Baby Jesus? Which version of the birth narrative will I tell her is "true?" Will I encourage her to believe in Santa? Am I worried about telling my child lies? Am I more worried about being a grinch and spoiling Christmas with cynical realism?

Nah, not really. I don't think that honesty has to be cynical or that myths are the same thing as lies. The UU church where I work (and where Gallica will probably take classes and celebrate holidays) has what I consider a very healthy, refreshing take on Christmas. It's an interesting congregation, made up of mostly highly educated, intellectual folks who value spiritual community. The church is non-creedal, which means there is no official belief system required for membership or participation with the church. People who attend range from self-identified Christians to cut-and-dry atheists, but most fall somewhere in between or outside of that spectrum. They are united by principles about how people should treat each other, not what people should believe spiritually.

Each December, the children learn about winter holidays celebrated by various cultures around the world. They burn a Yule log, call to the sun on the winter solstice, and get together to "deck the halls" with paper chains and a Christmas tree. Every other year, the children put on a traditional nativity story Christmas pageant, and each year there are candlelight Christmas Eve services full of traditional Christmas carols. There is never a Christmas Day service. UUs don't go to church on Christmas. Ha!

Most UUs (and a lot of Christians too) know that the nativity story is a mashup of lore that has evolved, shifted, and grown in detail and variation over 2,000 years. First, there are the birth narratives found in Matthew and Luke. These narratives were written long after the death of Jesus and are completely independent of each other, unlike the rest of those two gospels, which seem to be based on a combination of the earlier gospel of Mark and another document, now lost, called "Q" by biblical scholars. The two birth stories are spare and have nothing in common except the location of the birth in Bethlehem. At the time and place the birth narratives were written, it was common for birth stories of great men to be made up after their deaths--not as falsehoods but as symbolic representations of the heroes' greatness--like when Greek and Roman portrait statues were made that used features from images of gods and goddesses as symbols of the human subject's traits. This was not the ancient version of Photoshop. The mythological symbols were well known and not taken literally. For example, a real woman's face might be carved onto the recognizable form of Venus to symbolize her fertility.

In later years, the two biblical narratives got smushed together into the more familiar nativity story, and details were filled in--about the number of magi and who they were, about the stable and animals, and about many other elements found in pageants and lawn ornaments to this day. In medieval times, biblical fan-fic writers began to add in many embellishments never found in original sacred texts, from the sweet and sentimental (remember the movie Small One, about Mary's donkey?) to the gruesome (for example, that God sealed up Mary's lady business like a tomb immediately after the birth so her virginity would be preserved).

A similar, later evolution of narrative created Santa Claus. The character has roots in Pagan mythology, Catholic saint lore, and American marketing schemes.

And both main characters of Christmas are sacred to a lot of people. It's considered abominable to tell a small child that Santa isn't real. (We're talking, angry-mob, getting medieval abominable. Check out this recent post on Offbeat Mama for an example.) And, of course, try explaining to a gung-ho Christian that the birth narratives of Jesus were not written to be taken literally, and furthermore, the familiar story is mostly padding in the form of post-biblical creative writing and mistranslations of Hebrew words. To make matters more complex, although both Christmas stories (of Santa and of Jesus) are sacred to so many of the same people, mixing the two is usually seen as sacrilege. Doesn't it seem kind of wrong to see a Santa figure in a nativity scene?

It just doesn't seem right. Two of the favorite gods of American culture, Baby Jesus and capitalism, cause some very uncomfortable feelings of cognitive dissonance when placed together.

Here's another interesting thing about the two stories. While the whole fun and magic of the Santa story is that it's a game we play for pretend, some people are very sensitive about the "real" details of the nativity story. And I think it's really cute how some Christians get all starry-eyed and amazed when they hear that a single word or small detail of the nativity story might have actually meant something else... like, wow, was that how it really happened? ...when it's basically moot because the whole story was made up, starting with a couple of symbolic sacred texts and evolving over a couple of millennia. But those changing details, while not historically factual, are interesting with regard to what they symbolize and how they make us feel about the whole story. Here is an example of how the translation of one little word can change the whole mood and significance of the tale.

So what will I tell Nux Gallica when she asks questions about Christmas? Will I feed her the broadly accepted, modern versions of the myths? Or will I spoil the magic of Christmas and tell her it's all fake--Baby Jesus in the manger, Santa, Rudolph, and all? Will I play dumb in the service of sentimentality, or will I be a heartless jerk in the service of literal correctness? Neither. The whole truth is more complex, more interesting, and more meaningful. I will tell my daughter the stories of Jesus and Santa. And then I will tell her the most interesting part--the stories behind the stories, the metamyth that opens the doors to deeper symbolism and cultural heritage. I will explain to her how the stories evolved over time and why some people believe in the modern stories and why those stories are important to them. I will also teach her a respect for the human, cross-cultural trait of passing along--and collectively growing--legends and narratives that give our lives meaning, identity, purpose, and poetry. I will try to set her up to see the difference between bullshit (marketing, propaganda, etc.) and genuine, heartfelt mysticism.

Last Christmas, one of the UUs made a remark in the service that made a profound impact on me:

"To take a myth literally is to miss the point."

Jesus told fables, not as lies, and not as literal historical information that should be logged in a record book, but as a symbolic teaching tool pointing to a deeper truth that is hard to express in plain words.

Likewise, the stories of the rabbi's own birth, crafted decades after his death and layered and enriched with the folklore and imagination of 2,000 years, holds the most value when it is studied for what it really is. Not bullshit, not lies, and not dry fact either. It is a living legend, still growing and evolving with modern culture.

Christmas is a time of hope at midwinter, a time to gather with family, a time to practice generosity, and a time to have fun. Knowing the stories behind the stories need not spoil their magic. I don't need to be ignorant of where babies come from to feel that the coming of my own child is a miracle. I still feel excited on Christmas morning without believing that a man in a velvet suit has dropped down my chimney in the night. The whole truth is that sacred and magical tales are grounded in the imaginations of men and women... and also that transcendent truth and beauty are found in the process of creating those tales. Humans, by nature, are both logical and spiritual, and I do not believe that one quality must be denied for the sake of the other. When understood properly, these two human traits enrich and balance each other.
So merry Christmas, if you celebrate this holiday, whether you are a Christian or not, a believer or a skeptic, whether your lawn features a nativity scene, a sleigh hitched to blinking reindeer, or a mix of both. Christmas as we know it is not strictly a Christian holy day. It is not an ancient pagan festival. Nor is it solely a marketing ploy fueled by corporate interests. Christmas is bigger than all of those. It is a truly hybridized, richly evolved, slow-cooked cultural phenomenon as full of depth and wonder as with nonsense. And I can't wait to celebrate Baby's First Christmas with my own little miracle next year. Amen, alleluia!


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