This week Southern California has experienced that rarity—rain several days running.
My dogs hate it, so I (along with most of the neighbors in this condo complex) have been out walking between bands of rain.
There’s a place where two streets fork, forming a triangle of grass and shrubbery that functions as the bulletin board for the local canine community, so while my dogs sniff each leaf and blade of grass to catch up on the news, I can look at the houses, in particular one that seems to have every inch of its front, roof, and tiny patio decorated with cotton “snow,” colorful wire figures all lit up, and festoons of icicle lights. Hanging from the front of the chimney a great glowing Santa face is framed by more lights, and the windows blink and glow with twinkling colored lights.
Over the past few days, I’ve overheard quite a variety of commentary.
Among all the whoas! Beautiful! Wow! Awesomes! (mostly from kids) was this exchange:
(Kid in envious voice) “Bet those kids get a lot of presents.”
“No,” (the parental figure shot back), “because their dad spent all his money on Christmas lights.”
From adult passers-by there was the usual spectrum of reactions, pleased and not-so-pleased, the latter ranging from the secular to the fundamentalist, which can be summed up as:
“I hate this time of year, the frickin’ lights and Christmas crap, and you can’t escape the damn music. There oughta be a law against religion.”
“Look at that house. Singing snowmen, wire reindeer, elves, Santa face, icicle and colored lights, and not one single sign of what Christmas is actually all about—the birth of Christ. What a blatant exercise in consumerism!”
The amusing thing is that both sorts of commentators spoke in exactly the same tone of self-righteousness.
So I got to thinking about how many definitions of the ‘Yule spirit’ there are, and how we symbolize it. Last year a bunch of us at a party were talking about this. The 15-year-old said something like, “You know what’s weird? My grandma is all about church and putting Christ back into Christmas, but I was looking at her tree, and all of a sudden it seemed weird to me. She’s got a tree inside her house, and sitting on top of it is this really expensive porcelain Father Christmas, with velvet robes. And I thought, if I was a Martian, and I walked into her house, I would think, why does this lady have a two-foot tall old man in robes perched on top of a tree, with these lights and metal balls hanging all over it? Nobody back on Mars would believe it, they’d think I was making it up.”
Their mom’s response went something like, “It’s symbolism—Father Christmas represents the saint, and he’s on top of the tree where the star usually goes, to symbolize heaven. The saints are all about good behavior, and family, and morals and the things you’re supposed to be thinking about when you think about the birth of Jesus.”
We got into a long discussion about Yule traditions, whose culture had borrowed symbols from whose, and appropriation of Christmas trappings to legitimize gobbling, guzzling, and grabbing the goodies.
But we’re also giving gifts, someone pointed out. It’s not just about getting but also giving. About getting together with loved ones, taking stock at the end of a year. Looking outside yourself, and maybe sharing with your fellow human. Listening to music, because yeah, a lot of Christmas jingles are incredibly irritating, but there are also some really beautiful pieces—as there has been a few centuries of refinement going on here. Which is why people of various religious backgrounds (including UU and the more laid-back skeptics) will join choirs to happily sing the Halleluiah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
Nobody convinced anyone else, going away with pretty much the same ideas they’d arrived with, but the discussion was amicable for all its disparity.
I love this disparity, I have to admit. I love how one person seeing that house sees blatant commercialism while another person, looking at the same house, sees a celebration of the sacred, and all the twinkling lights are an evocation of the numinous, of anticipation, of hope and joy and nothing more serious than the promise of fun. I love our stories and myths and our patterns and our endless quest for the significance just out of reach.
There’s a quote that I think fits the season, and the humans who live through this season:
“We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves . . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own . . . We demand windows.”