It’s the most wonderful time of the year, again!

Andy Williams sang, "It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”  And it is, or it could be.

christmas-decorations

In the midst of a global pandemic, echoes of conflict coming from eastern Europe pitting us against our old Cold War adversary, armed teenagers with semi-automatic weapons turning high schools into non-metaphorical battlefields, nasty partisan rancor in the seat of our democracy that goes far beyond a mere difference of opinion about social issues or civil rights, and Dollar Tree stores raising prices of most items to $1.25 from $1 by the end of April next year, we need to remember what’s important, and the holiday season gives us an opportunity to do just that.

While many Christians will insist that "Jesus is the reason for the season," a Pew Research poll shows that only half of the 90% of Americans celebrating Christmas see it as a religious holiday; this angers some Christians and Fox News hosts who say non-Christian celebrations of Christmas ignore the holiday’s true nature giving way to a supposedly dangerous multiculturalism that dilutes what it means to be an American.  And yet, many Christmas traditions pre-date Christianity itself.  Christmas as we know it is an appropriation of pagan celebrations surrounding the winter solstice applied to the birth of Christ.  Of note is that the Bible gives no indication that Jesus was born on the 25th of December, but it does give some clues that it was likely at least springtime or early summer.  Luke 2:8-14 speaks of shepherds living outdoors and tending to a flock of sheep at night — "And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”  This would be unlikely in the month of December; weather conditions would be too cold to live outside and the vegetation for sheep to graze upon wouldn’t grow till spring.  So why celebrate his birthday in the dead of winter?

The upper classes in ancient Rome celebrated Dec. 25 as the birthday of the sun god Mithra.  The date fell in the middle of Saturnalia, a monthlong holiday dedicated to food, drink, and revelry, and Pope Julius I who was the bishop of Rome from February 6, 337 until his death on April 12, 352 is said to have chosen that day to celebrate Christ's birth as a way of co-opting the pagan rituals, a process called syncretism, to further the missionary and evangelization mission of the early Church.  The Puritans who came to America in the 1620's chose to not celebrate Christmas specifically for this reason.  And what is more American than a Puritan?  By the way, they thought Jesus had been born sometime in September, which would make him a Virgo, or possibly a Libra, but definitely not a Capricorn.

Be that as it may, and quieting my inner iconoclast, I like what Erin Wathen, the Senior Pastor at Foothills Christian Church, has to say:

When you get right down to it, the best way to "keep Christ in Christmas” is to model Christlike behavior. Jesus was for feeding people. Jesus was for healing and compassion. Jesus was for getting a bunch of loud, messy, mismatched people around a table and having a big dinner. Not a moment of his life did he spend trying to get his name up on a sign.

But when it comes right down to it, it’s the fond memories of childhood, an innocent time before labels, that are stirring in me at the moment.  The aromas from the kitchen of mom cooking “the bird” (as she always called it), the soup she made by letting the turkey carcass steep overnight in her giant Stock Pot after we’d picked all the meat off it, the sight at night of our quiet Los Angeles suburb lit up with lights hanging off rooftop eaves and decorations in yards, movies like A Christmas Story in which Ralphie is resolute in getting a "Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time,” only to be repeatedly rebuffed with the warning, "You'll shoot your eye out,” in a non-stop loop on the TV, the tinny sounds of Christmas carols playing on the AM/FM radio in our den punctuated by ads for "Cal Worthington and his dog Spot” — Angelenos, sing it with me:  "If you need a car or truck, go see Cal, if you want to save a buck, go see Cal, give a new car to your wife, she will love you all your life, I will stand upon my head until my ears are turning red, Go see Cal, Go see Cal, Go see Cal” — the excitement of Christmas morning, the parish church filled with so many flowers you couldn’t see the marble of the altar, our annual trip to Forest Lawn to trim the grass and weeds around grandma and grandpa’s headstone, and then finding out what your friends got from under their trees.

It was, in a word… magical.  No other day of the year felt like it.  Even now.

There’s no other way to describe it.  It’s as close to real magic as one can get growing up.  I lost my mother earlier this year, and in the ten months since she passed away I have realized how much I miss her, though if you had asked me this time last year I would have told you that she drives me crazy.  Now, this holiday brings back for me hundreds of great memories centered around the home she made for our family where we learned kindness, generosity, self-sacrificing love, perspective, community, and joy – the Christmas spirit.

Common ground, whether you are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in the manger, the oil lasting eight days in the Temple after the Maccabean victories over the forces of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the rededication of the Temple, the arrival of Santa Claus in his sleigh, or simply the rebirth of life promised by days that are getting longer and warmer, is that this is a month and a day when we gather with loved ones and friends, we are generous either materially or spiritually or both, we sit around a table to enjoy a meal and each other’s company, we remind ourselves of the important people in our lives, and we remember those we have lost.

No matter what your beliefs are, I hope the holidays are a time of happiness, health, and camaraderie for you and your family and your friends.  I hope you are surrounded by good people, great food, and a festive atmosphere.  I hope you get some time off from work, take some time off from “the news,” get a chance to relax, and just enjoy yourself.

I’ve got a Charlie Brown tree up on my patio!

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