[It's Christmas Eve today and time for the oldest tradition at Via Meadia: our annual Yule Blog when we update and present our thirteen posts of Christmas running from Christmas Eve through Twelfth Night. During this holiday season in 2012-2013 we will blog on a light holiday schedule through New Year's Day and on January 2 we will be back at full force.]
The stockings are hung by the chimney with care at the ancestral Mead mansion; and as I settle down for a long winter’s rest I am taking a break from politics and war, sort of, to do some good old fashioned Yuletide blogging.
In particular I want to blog about Christmas itself and what it means. Somehow my generation decided to leave this part out when we passed down the traditions and the lore we were taught to the next generation: we’ve bought a lot of Christmas presents but we were too busy to think much about the meaning of the story or to teach the next generation much about this holiday and the religion which it defines.
That was a mistake. On behalf of us all, I apologize, and this Christmas I’ll be doing my little bit to make amends.
I’ve got some time to do it in. As most of us know from the song about the partridge and the pear tree, there are twelve days of Christmas. The season ends on January 6, traditionally celebrated as the day when the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem with those gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Elizabethan England the last night of the Christmas season was celebrated with special parties and feasts. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was written to be performed at that special time of year.
Even today, the twelve days of Christmas are more than a phrase from a carol. In much of the Spanish speaking world, January 6 is when kids get their presents. Jesus got gold, frankincense and myrrh; they get video games and dolls. In New Orleans, January 6 marks the end of the season of Christmas holiday parties and feasting, and the start of the Carnival season of parties and feasting. When I lived there I remember people bitterly complaining how unfair life was; while everyone else in the country was going on post-Christmas diets, we poor put-upon people in New Orleans still faced a month of king cake parties and packing on the pounds.
In the old days people kept a Yule log burning during the holiday season; at Via Meadia we’ve had a tradition from the start of a festive Yule blog. From now until January 6, I’ll be Yule-blogging: reflecting on Christmas in ways that I hope will make sense to Christians and non-Christians alike. The Yule blog is a work in progress; each year I try to make it a little clearer, a little more useful, a little less hopelessly inadequate at explaining some of the most important and mysterious truths there are.
The meaning of Christmas is much bigger than the trite clichés that usually come up in this context; I won’t just be writing about the Importance of Giving and the Desirability of Being Nice. Christmas, at least the way I was taught, is a lot more than a merry interlude in the darkest, nastiest time of the year. It is more than getting or even giving. It is more than carols and candy, more than wonderful meals with the people you love best in the world. It is much more than the modern echo of the pagan festivities marking the winter solstice and the moment when the sun begins to reverse its long and slippery slide down the sky.
For Christians, 77% of the American people according to a recent Gallup poll, Christmas is the hinge of the world’s fate, the turning point of life. It is the most important thing that ever happened, and we celebrate it every year because it is still happening now. Whether we know it or not, whether we appreciate it or not, we are part of the Christmas Event that has turned history upside down. There’s a reason why we date the birth of Christ as the year 1 and why traditionally the world’s history was divided into BC, before Christ, and AD, anno domini, the year of the Lord.. (Actually, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us this year, the monk who tried to calculate it seems to have gotten it wrong; Jesus was probably born four to six years “BC”. He also did not know about the use of zero as a number; there is no Year Zero between AD and BC — which is why irritating pedants remind people at every turn of the century that the “real” new century or millennium doesn’t begin until 2001, for example, rather than on January 1, 2000.)
Non-Christians, including the 5% of Americans who adhere to a non-Christian religion and the 18% who either claimed no religion at all or chose not to answer the pollsters, need to know about Christianity too. Religious education has pretty much fallen by the wayside in American life today. That’s a problem in more ways than one; I see the consequences all the time when students I teach – and policy makers and journalists I know – simply do not comprehend the cultural foundations of American politics and cannot understand the ways that so many people here and around the world are moved by religious values and ideas. I have taught a course on the relationship of American religious ideas to American foreign policy in some of our leading colleges, and I have had smart, well traveled and otherwise well-read students in that course who have never opened a Bible (or any other holy book) in their lives and simply had no idea why so many other people read and study it every day of their lives.
For Christians, I hope these blog posts will enrich your experience of this special season. To believe in the truth of the Christian religion and to encounter Jesus Christ as the saving Son of God is just the first step; understanding this religion, appreciating its resonances and mysteries, participating in the communion of saints and God’s own life, joining the story and not just reading it: that is what being a Christian is about.
I’m trying to blog as a vanilla Christian; that is, I’m trying to write about the elements of our faith that virtually all major Christian communities have historically shared. I’m an Anglican by conviction as well as by birth and that will inevitably influence the way I approach Christmas, but I won’t be trying to sneak in special little Anglican concepts here, and this won’t be about controversial ideas that divide Christians like infant baptism, predestination, the ‘infallibility’ of scripture or, for that matter of the Pope. I hope that Christians of many denominations well find something here that captures what the holiday means to them, and that they will forgive any errors or misapprehensions on my part. These are deep waters, and even stronger swimmers than yours truly can be swept off course.
Final disclaimer: As a layman I have no special theological training and don’t speak with any ecclesiastical authority whatever. If something in this blog troubles you, you should consult with the leaders of your own church. Christmas is big, and understanding it is hard.
However, we’ll keep things as simple as possible here at the Yule blog. After a few posts reviewing the basic story of Christmas, the Yule Blog will move on to the meaning of Christmas. That is the more complicated part; Christmas isn’t just the holiday that celebrates the birthday of the Founder of one of the world’s great religions. It’s the main reason so many of the world’s other great religions don’t like Christianity very much. Christians talk about that baby in the manger as God on earth. The monotheistic religions like Judaism and Islam find that idea blasphemous; polytheistic religions like Hinduism wonder why Christians think their own divine birth is so special while Christians look down on those who worship other divine babies born in other places and times. Christmas, a holiday that is supposedly about peace, is one of the most divisive holidays on the world’s calendar. I want to blog about why.
Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to those of you inclined to celebrate that holiday, and seasonal greetings to everyone else. Whatever your faith or lack of it, however you understand the meaning and purpose of your life, may the next few days be a time of rest, relaxation and healing reflection for you that brings you closer to those you love, more generous to those in need and more in tune with that wiser, happier, richer and more generous self that it’s your hope and your destiny to become.