Keeping the Joy: A Christmas Practice

An unadorned Christmas tree, its branches having relaxed in the warm living room, stood in the corner.

A string of Christmas lights lay out in a row along the wall. Checking for burned out bulbs, my mom replaced any that no longer glowed with festive light.

The cardboard box, removed from its eleven-month slumber in storage, sat in the middle of the living room, crumpled newspaper strewn about the carpet. My siblings and I unwrapped ornaments and decorations as we took them out of the box.

One of these decorations was a dime store Santa Claus that had been my mother’s since she was three years old. It held a candle that we never lit. One of the ornaments was a bell that had come from my grandparents on my father’s side. The bell, however, was shattered. As we kids took out the usable ornaments, Mom opened the bell’s box carefully, gently peeling back its wrapping to reveal the sparkling shards.

Annually, I wondered to myself: why do we hold on to these? The cracked and peeling Santa candle stand with its never burned candle, the broken bits of an ornament that would never go on a tree—why keep these?

Their value was in what they represented: my parents’ past and childhood and Christmases of yore. Their utility was their ability to convey continuity, history, and tradition.

The story of these objects (a war time holiday, a Christmas tree that fell over) was told ritually as we decorated the Christmas tree. Function, or usefulness, is only one measure of something’s worth.

At what point does a person or a family decide to throw such things away?

I moved recently, and as I began to unpack and sort out my new home, I read—…you know what, I had to go check just now on the title. It’s called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but I have been referring to it as The Magical Art of Throwing Everything Away mostly because its author, Marie Kondo, advocates not holding on to anything.

Well, not exactly. She insists that you keep only those things which bring you joy. Presumably, when I am done this process, I will be surrounded only by things which bring me joy. Which sounds wonderful! And as a touchstone for whether or not to keep a thing, Does this bring me joy? diminishes the power of all other reasons to keep it: I might reread it again or I might fit into this if I lose ten pounds or But a special person gave this to me or I think I will need this for my doctoral research.

It also means being in touch with what joy feels like.

The December holiday season is a time of nostalgia, a time for holding precious shards of our past gently in hand. It can be a time of mourning what is irreparably damaged, for grieving loss, for handling those broken places of our past or present lightly, carefully. We can ask if now is the time to let go.

There’s a delicious old word which I’ve only ever heard Quakers use: cumber. To cumber is to weigh down, to inhibit, to clutter up. Too many things, and too many things that bring us no joy, are cumbersome. We can become so encumbered, we can’t move.

I think of cumber as all of that clutter that I hang on to that is not useful or beautiful and no longer brings me joy. Getting rid of it is true liberation.

But I hesitate to give away or recycle or send to the landfill so many things that I am not tied to anything—a tradition, a past, a family, a faith. So much of the rootlessness of modern life, it seems to me, comes from being enamoured with the shifting, never ending cycles of the new, the latest, the up-to-date.

History, tradition, and memory inform who we are, give us context and meaning. Yet the past ought not limit us. How many of us have spent this season with endless, joyless tasks (baking cookies, writing cards, buying gifts) because that’s just what we do every year and it can never be different?

Christmas is one of those seasons when this all comes together for me. It can be a time of imagination, of creating new practices while keeping and cherishing past traditions. Of doing things that bring joy—for one’s self, one’s household, and family—and laying down what is no longer useful, beautiful, or joyful.

I have a handful of Christmas items that, while they bring me great joy, don’t seem as historic as the relics of my family’s Christmas ornament box. But come to think of it, they represent my own collection of memories, stories, and traditions. I would hate to lose any of it. I have—even as I release what weighs me down—been creating and curating my own cherished reliquary of hallowed things.

I guess that’s how it happens.




Bearers of Dangerous Memory

There has been an outpouring celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela since his death last week. He was an outstanding statesman as well as leader and kept his nation from the brink of catastrophic civil war or worse by courageously walking the path of reconciliation, justice and peace. He refused to become like so many other post-colonial leaders, a strongman with a lifelong hold on power, insisting on serving only one term as president of a liberated South Africa.

What has been somewhat surprising has been the accolades he has received from conservative political figures. When he was a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the British, American and other governments. As a matter of fact, he was on a list of terrorists kept by the Department of Homeland Security up until 2008.

Politicians who claimed he was a communist instigator of instability and revolution, and who actively resisted international sanctions against apartheid South Africa, are now singing his praises. The CIA had a hand in imprisoning Mandela, he was considered so dangerous by our US government. Now the US president is lionizing Mandela at his memorial service.

Mandela never backed down from his castigating the US for its military adventures overseas, never backed down from his support for national independence for the Palestinian people, never backed down from being a voice for the oppressed and colonized.

We have seen this before, haven’t we?

In the United States, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was considered subversive, increasingly so in the year before his assassination. Dr. King became progressively more trenchant in his criticism of the US war in Viet Nam, and increasingly vocal about economic justice and its relationship to racism and militarism.

Now he has a federal holiday in his honor, during which we are reminded how he dreamed of a bias-free society.

And guess who called upon workers to rise up and do this:

“Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.”

If you guessed the avowed socialist, Helen Keller, you’d be right.

Keller is lauded for her heroism in overcoming difficulties and prejudices associated with her disabilities, and her lovely words about optimism and hope are glowingly quoted. Like Dr. King, her pointed remarks about the wealthy leeching off of ordinary people while keeping them down are willfully forgotten.

This white washing of individuals who spoke out boldly for social justice, economic equity, and an end to war, colonialism, and imperialism dulls our senses and lulls us into accepting the status quo. They become domesticated saints, nonthreatening figures who stood for good things we all believe in. This revisionism is meant to keep us from catching their vision of the world made right.

Every Advent, there are right-wing pundits who deplore the so-called “war on Christmas.” In my view, the real “war on Christmas” was the battle that turned the celebration of the birth of Jesus from a warning that the powers of domination are going to be overthrown into a sentimental holiday.

The story of Jesus’ birth, told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, tell of the political upset caused by the arrival of this baby. The stories of his birth describe him as a threat to the powers that be. King Herod seeks to destroy this claimant to his throne. Outcast sheep herders hear “good news” proclaimed about a “saviour” and “messiah” and “lord”—all political terms.

The revolutionary message of a great leader who taught and lived the way of resistance to domination, taught and lived the way of peace and reconciliation, has been domesticated and drained of its radical power.

It happens all the time.

Yet some of us will remember.

Some of us bear the memory of the ones who defied the powers—Mandela, Helen Keller, Dr. King, and a host of others, a great cloud of witnesses.

Some of us bear the memory of the prophet who proclaimed the arrival of God’s realm of justice and peace and embodied God’s desire for humanity in healing acts of protest and compassion.

Jesus was himself arrested by the powers that be, interrogated and tortured and finally executed as a political criminal. German theologian Johann Baptist Metz speaks of the “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ life and mission, dangerous because it continues to challenge the powers and principalities of this world, powers and principalities based on domination, exploitation, and violence.

Dangerous because the memory of Jesus draws us to the abandoned places of empire—the prison cell and torture chamber, the battle field and the homeless shelter, the toxic waste dump and the inner city school, the family farm and the sweatshop factories—drawing us out of our comfort zones and across lines of class, race, nation and culture to do the work of creating the realm of God.

We who are enlivened by the memory of those who proclaimed a vision of the world redeemed, the world salvaged, the world reclaimed by the passionate, unrelenting forces of love continue to struggle for it to be made in this world. We risk what they risked in the service of a vision of the world made right. In our efforts to make the world a better place, we truly remember and reenact the mission of all who came before us.

We contain within us the powerful memories of prophetic voices that proclaimed justice and truth to the powers that be. We remember all those who struggled to set the world right.

In this age of willful amnesia, such memories are dangerous.

May we all be bearers of such dangerous memories.

A Tale of Two Christmases

There are two holidays that are celebrated on December 25.

One is the twelve-day Christian feast of the Nativity, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It begins with a vigil on the evening of December 24 and runs through until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. It is a time of feasting and merry-making, singing carols and visiting family and friends. As a sign of God’s generously giving himself to the world in Jesus, gifts are exchanged, and the poor are served by the more fortunate. This twelve-day holiday is preceded by four weeks of introspection in anticipation of the arrival of Christ known as Advent.

The other celebration on December 25 is a consumer-capitalist holiday which, although it is dipped in the flavor of the religious holiday, has only its aroma. This secular “holy” day makes some reference to generosity, but mostly in the guise of buying and giving consumer goods. It, too, has habits of feasting and merry-making. It generally begins after Halloween and ends abruptly on December 25.

Many people find it confusing that both holidays are called “Christmas.”

I respect those celebrating the capitalist holiday, though I understand it to be completely different from the Christian one. Not worse, just different.

The capitalist celebration of Christmas has something to recommend it. Secular people with no connection to religious tradition or community have the opportunity to spend time reflecting on the season’s themes: light in the darkness, generosity, new life, birth, the blessings of children and family, magic. Many donate time and money to charitable organizations.

More often than not, individuals unconsciously act out family traditions (decorating the home, bringing an evergreen tree into the house, putting presents underneath the tree, making certain recipes) without thinking too much about it. Is this a religious observance? Tradition? Why are we doing this?

A hero of this consumerist holiday is Santa Claus, the jolly white-bearded man who lives hidden in an enchanted workshop at the north pole and magically distributes gifts to children by coming down the chimney while they sleep. He is a symbol of the capitalist Christmas, embodying the generous, gift-giving spirit of the holiday.

The symbol of the Christian holiday is a little newborn baby.

The two different stories of Jesus Christ’s birth found in the New Testament each act as an overture to the gospel that follows. One represents Jesus as the new Moses, fulfilling prophecies of a new divinely appointed leader (Matthew), and the other that a leader has come for the lowest, most outcast of the world, Jewish and non-Jewish (Luke).

These birth stories are theological reflections, meant to convey who and what Jesus is and was to the communities out of which these gospels were formed. Reading and reflecting on these two narratives—the sheep herders, the animal stall, the star, the magi and the wicked ruler—and understanding what is being conveyed can be a meaningful exercise once a year.

The Christian church adopted a pagan holiday to celebrate the birth of Christ as it developed its liturgical year. The winter solstice (broadly, Saturnalia in southern Europe, Yule in northern Europe) celebrates the return or rebirth of the sun in the darkest time of the year. This fit the Christian understanding of the person of Jesus Christ – his birth and life were like divine light dawning on a darkened world.

Christians who get upset by the “commercialization” of Christmas may be helped to know that the capitalist Christmas is a different celebration from their own and is entirely commercial—commercialism is, in fact, its raison d’être.

Christians who want to “put the Christ back into Christmas” have my sympathy. But rather than judging others (wait, didn’t somebody wise say something about judging others?) for not celebrating the Christian holiday, it may be more helpful to practice one’s own holiday with integrity and spirit. Before you remove the speck in your neighbor’s eye, maybe it’s time to pluck out the Yule log stuck in your own!

Those who celebrate the birth of Christ in December may want to ask ourselves what is the best way to do so.

  • Is it by trampling people to death at the shopping mall?
  • Stressing out about buying (or making) presents for loved ones?
  • Becoming apoplectic about travelling, decorating, baking, entertaining, shopping?
  • Getting snotty about other people celebrating holidays at this time of year? (and yes, “happy holidays,” because there are a number of festivals being celebrated this time of year—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, winter solstice, Yule, New Year’s, among others, as well as both Christmases).

In what ways is the Christian observance of Christmas exactly similar to the capitalist observance? In what ways is the Christian celebration different from the commercial one? In what ways are practicing Christians smooshing the two together?

I don’t celebrate the capitalist holiday. I haven’t for years. For a while, my only celebration at this time of year was New Year’s. But now I see the wisdom of observing a threefold religious occasion—Advent, Nativity, Epiphany.

I try not to use “Christmas” language, because I like to distinguish what I’m doing from the capitalist holiday. Rather than reclaim “Christmas,” I call what I do by other names, even as the capitalists begin to relinquish “Christmas” in favor of “holiday” or “winter.”

I invite practicing Christians to consider withdrawing their support for the capitalist version of Christmas and finding ways of celebrating the birth of Christ with integrity and spirit.

  • Remember that Advent is a time for reflection, not crazy making. What about taking up a spiritual discipline of meditation or vigil keeping or prayer or journaling? What are some of your most significant hopes? What calls forth your forbearance and patience?
  • Remember that Christmas (the Feast of the Nativity) is a twelve-day celebration. Merry-making, visits, singing, gift-giving, baking… why not spread it out over the twelve days? Why not choose an activity to do with the members of your household, friends, and family for each of the twelve days? What about serving the poor and disenfranchised in some way?
  • Remember that Epiphany is also a holiday. Sometimes called Twelfth Night, some traditions include “king’s cake,” a cake with a coin baked into it, and progressive dinners.

Rather than grumbling that the cashier at the store didn’t say “Merry Christmas” while you handed over fistfuls of money, why not get out of the stores altogether?

Put the Christ back into Christmas by putting your cash and your credit card back in your wallet.

Spend less time at the mall and more time at church, with your loved ones, and with the poor and oppressed people in your community.

There are lots of resources for having a more simple, meaningful and joy-filled Christmas. Visit  Buy Nothing Christmas and the Advent Conspiracy for inspiration and resources. There is so much out there!

(And by the way, you don’t have to be Christian to want to change the way you experience the December holiday season. Many of us unconsciously go through the motions, perpetuating family customs and traditions we haven’t really paid much attention to and may even find joyless or meaningless. You, too, may want to withdraw your support from the capitalist Christmas and find some more authentic ways of celebrating the themes of the season).

Many Christians are having a hard time adjusting to living in a post-Christendom world. Christianity is no longer the established religion, seamlessly woven together with civic society and political governance. That sucks for some Christians and they get all crankypants about not being the definitive, dominant culture. That’s how I experience the resentful complaining of a so-called “war on Christmas.”

As much as it is a loss, the fall of Christendom is also an opportunity for followers of Jesus to bear authentic witness to his life and teachings. Cultural accretions that have nothing to do with—or are antithetical to—his gospel message can be stripped away.

It’s hard when in-groups get pushed to the margin. It requires humility and grace. But the margin is a good place to do religion, especially if your religion actually teaches humility and grace.

In fact, that reminds me of a story. A young unwed woman, under the rule of an empire that taxed and oppressed ordinary people, gives birth to a baby in a squalid barn, heralded only by homeless ruffians… and angels…