Until my freshman year in college, all the Christmases of my youth passed in the same white American way. Heavily church-related, with candlelight services on Christmas Eve, readings from the relevant chapters in Luke that talk about the shepherds and the angels and being of good cheer (“for unto you is born this day in the City of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord”) and all the attendant mythology and sentiment and gifts. Christmas trees, of course, and Christmas dinners with my grandparents, in whose house we had lived in an upstairs apartment since 1959 when my father died.
When I went to college, 1971 that was, I came to my boyhood home in Maine with a friend of mine also named Craig, my Japanese friend from Kauai, Hawaii with the same first name but a vastly different last name. My family welcomed him in for the duration of our break from college in the Midwest. It was just too far to go back to Hawaii for the holiday, and he had never been to New England before. He had also never seen snow and it was a revelation to watch someone experience, for the first time, something we took for granted in the Maine winters I was familiar with back then.
His parents were grateful and solicitous and they sent us gifts like macadamia nuts and calamari from Hawaii to say thanks. None of us had ever eaten macadamia nuts or calamari before, and the squid was smelly enough to our unsophisticated New England noses that we put them outside my bedroom on the roof that was right outside the window just so the cold night air would absorb the smell.
That was a monumental shift in our family Christmas celebrations. We all had a good time and he met some of my high school cronies. He was also from a Christian conservative family, over there in the Hawaiian islands, so he fit right in with our normal spiritual observances. That was to be the last one I spent with my family in that way.
That spring, back in college, I met the coed who would became my future ex-wife and that began my first experience spending Christmas somewhere else than Maine. In addition, it was in a place that had never seen snow before. Bermuda, in fact, where the family owned property and often went on holidays. It was shocking for a Maine boy to see Santa Claus in a benevolent winter environment like that with no boots or heavy coats in sight. It was a trip, really, a whole different experience to have the Christmas lights strung up with hot sun and palmetto trees and views of the ocean. I’d never even imagined anything like it before.
The annual Bermuda trips at Christmas time began. After her parents died and the place on the island was sold, came the years of dealing with presents and creating magic for our three children back stateside. Then, after 17 years of marriage, it was “fuck it” and “fuck this” after a shitty divorce. No more pretending that I actually liked this stressful and wasteful buying frenzy.
If I had been engaged in my personal “Inquiry Into A Gratitude-Inspired Life” 35 or maybe 40 years ago, I would have had to confront my burgeoning hatred, disgust and resentment of what I saw as the huge commercialized hoax called Christmas before it really took root in my life. I would have been challenged to take a look at how I was stressing everything that sucked instead of asking “What’s great about this?”
Living for a while in the Bay Area in the early 90s, my new wife and I finally just became official Christmas dropouts. We celebrated like our Jewish friends, going out for Chinese food, and went to movies and had absolutely nothing to do with any of it. Like turning the lights off on Halloween night so trick-or-treaters don’t come knocking. EXEUNT, like the curtain closing on a Shakespeare play. EXEUNT, we’re out of here, no curtain or encore. That was the most memorable Christmas of my adult life.
We sent no cards, we gave no gifts, including my own children, my mom, my brother, any one in my family, most of whom probably will never understand why I turned into such an asshole about it. Whether a courageous counter cultural statement (my fantasy about it) or cowardly hiding of my head in the sand hoping it would just go away (most likely the truth), that’s what happened. I just cried “uncle” and “I yield, I quit” and disappeared.
“It’s fair to say that nowhere in scripture is there any meaning assigned to the date of December 25. That is an artifice created by humanity. We made it mean something.”
Over the years, however, maybe because we gave ourselves permission to do what was in our hearts, a funny thing happened. We started to appreciate some aspects of the season in a new way. I found myself admitting that I enjoyed the lights as they multiplied day after day. I enjoyed the music, even the kitschy stuff, like how Willie Nelson’s Frosty the Snowman sounds like something you’d hear on the sound system waiting by yourself in a lonely bus stop somewhere in a lonely town on a lonely Christmas Eve. I started to look forward to and even mouth the words to Jingle Bell Rock and to let in how deeply meaningful the holiday is for many people in my life. That’s the lesson I missed all those years ago. I was absolutely stressing all the crap and not looking around at what was wonderful about the season.
I didn’t give myself a chance to imbue this day with my own meaning, which is a lesson for gratitude seekers. “Batteries not included” will be on many boxes under dressed-up trees. Life should have one that says “Meaning not included.” There is real sweetness about this time of year, now that I have eyes to see it again, though I still don’t get the gift thing. Not yet, anyway.
No matter where one is on the continuum of belief in biblical inerrancy or the historicity of the manger story or whether the oil to light the Temple’s menorah really lasted eight days, it’s fair to say that nowhere in scripture is there any meaning assigned to the date of December 25. That is an artifice created by humanity. We made it mean something.
No one knows for sure when this birth or the Hanukkah miracle took place. I know my son was born on December 20. There’s a birth certificate, and I was in the room when it happened. That day is meaningful to me. I know that this time of year is an especially good one to work out our meaning-making muscles.
Macrina Wiederkehr, the Benedictine Monastic, wrote that “Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary. There are burning bushes all around you. Every tree is full of angels. Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb.”