If ever there were a holiday that needed deconstructing, it is Christmas. I say this as one who celebrates Christmas as an observant Protestant Christian. And I don't mean that we should seek "the real meaning of Christmas" by eschewing the "consumer mentality" of Christmas. That's a given, and economic events have a way of giving correction to our excesses. (this year consumer spending is down for the first time in years...and it had nothing to do with pastor's making people feel guilty) Christians since the time of the Puritans have decried the various traditions of Christmas as "pagan" and improper. That's not what I'm saying at all.
American Christmas is a gloriously syncretistic affair. I realized this as I tried to explain Kwanzaa to my 10 year old. She had sung the requisite Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas songs at her concert. (For some reason the Kwanzaa song was painfully dreadful, no offense to the holiday. It seems to attract well-meaning white people who sing words in Swahili badly...listen to this for an example. Where is Isaac Hayes when you need him?) In any case, I found myself saying "well honey, Kwanzaa was kind of invented holiday, it is really a synthetic celebration, not properly belonging to one religious tradition. Then I realized that Christmas was exactly the same. Synthetic. like my Christmas tree. Like plastic poinsettias. Put together from so many different cultures, it's hard to find the core truth.
Christmas traditions have gotten so confused that secular folks protest the public display of Christmas trees because it is an imposition of religion. They argue for a name change to "holiday tree." This strikes me as summarily silly, akin to protesting to the eating of French Fries because it is anti-patriotic and Francophile. Sometimes cultures just chew up and digest practices from other countries and cultures and assimilate them into the body politic in a way unrelated to the original practice. Like pizza, or Chinese food (even Ricky Bobby thought Americans invented them) have morphed into their own uniquely American identity.
So I'd like to make my own contribution to the confusion. I'd like to nominate a new image as the iconic, neo-Rockwellian personification of the holiday.
The stone manger.
8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
The manger was a sign. It was a sign to some poor working stiffs who pulled the night shift, possibly in the spring (not necessarily December 25--probably another cultural accretion from the Roman's winter solistice...). The last thing they were thinking about was spiritual reality...they were just trying to get some dumb sheep to follow them. (in other words, they were in management) Suddenly, the sky lit up with the aurora borealis of eternity. Raw, unfiltered spiritual reality is down right scary. No one has to tell us "Don't be afraid" when we look at the quaint creche scenes that seem to infuriate the ACLU. No one has to reassure us when we look at smiling Santa, or pat glowing Rudolph. But when the shiny dudes called angels burst in raw solar energy, radiating good news like a glowing furnace, the guys on the night shift needed a stiff drink and bolstered courage. So like sheep, they followed the heavenly directions.
And they found...a baby swaddled in birthing clothes, lain in a stone feeding trough. This is the germ from which all other Christmas pageantry springs. So unlikely, so shocking, that it is little wonder we have covered it up with saccharine traditions like mistletoe and stockings. Hey, I've got three kids and I have NEVER lain any of them in a feeding trough. They'd call social services on me, and they should. (whoever they are) Who would put their son there?
Well first of all Mary. So marginalized, so far from the center of society, that she had no other choice. Like an undocumented alien, on the run, in the back of a crowded pickup truck, she does the best she can. But beyond that, if you believe the story, God does it. God who's called a Father, lays His Son in a rock crib far from comfort. And somehow that's good news?
How could that be? Isn't it easier to sing "Away in a Manger" and feel good about ourselves by helping the "less fortunate" and going about our lives? Isn't this the easy way to celebrate Christmas?
Perhaps the "true meaning" of Christmas is that no matter where we are, laboring in a meaningless job, caring for children who seem to exalt their own wishes into imperatives, studying in school to enter an economy with no room for us, wherever this synthetic holiday finds us; we are the poor shepherds. We are the invited guests to God's mysterious entry into human history. We are the recipients of the joyful news that no station, no calling, no destiny in all the world is too mean, too humble, too meaningless, for God to pass it by at Christmas. Christmas is for the aliens, the factory workers, the out of work CEO's, the bankrupt, the parent's who regret not being able to afford the "perfect gift" and for the lonely and depressed at Christmas.
The Way of the Manger.
Christmas lies in a stone crib, barely clothed and squawling with full lungs; His every cry a "sign" from a transcendant God that this life can hold eternity. That raw, frightening spirituality can enter the grubby, mundane and often viscious world we all inhabit, and draw us to His side. Our Christmas is synthetic, processed, tame. The real Christmas is a mess...but it is a sign.
What do you think, stone manger earrings? Stone manger sweaters? Stone manger light displays for your yard? You make the call. Merry Christmas.