Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Better than We Intend

"Home is where your heart is but...
everyone's heart doesn't beat the same"
Green Day, Jesus of Suburbia


A strange and a precious Christmas for many: for those that need the intimacy of presence and the possibility of a different way of being; for those in search of affirmation that a life, no matter how small, senseless, or brief it might turn out to be, can work some glory into our existence; for those that need a reason or just an excuse for joy, courage, and togetherness during cold and difficult times; for those that receive it, because they somehow need it; and for those that just want to.

Be merry or however you need to be today; I often find happiness is not the most valuable or appropriate way to feel about something. Today, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian calendar, it is proper to affirm the power of simply being.

And if this is all just a dream, may we dream better than we intend and of much more than we deserve.


Christmas as Artificial

For those that despise Christmas and perhaps wish a real war on it, I can respect your frustration and if we were a world without such a holy day or holiday, I'm sure we would find some surrogate way of producing what we get from this day in some other way. 

It is notable that Christmas is hardly the most significant day in the Christian calendar, according to Catholic tradition. Theologically, its an affirmation that at some point, something started or changed, when a certain child was born somewhere in the middle-east. Only two of the Gospels give nativity scenes and they conflict. Most Catholics worth their knowledge of ritual, acknowledge that December is hardly a historically accurate date to even celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. As much as it is about that, it's really not.

It is also notable that most of the ritual and timing of Christmas comes to us from winter solstice celebrations and other such rituals of seasonal births and deaths. Personally, I always thought that was one of the more forgivable if not commendable aspects of Christianity: either because of an internal development in the cult called "the Way" of Christ or because of an integration of Rome's policies of appropriation of things from other cultures, this demonstrates that a world-view can be valuable but also open to integrating other ways of being and seeing.

And if Christmas has simply become a time for us to engage in or pretend to be happy and nice to one another, as well as dump some serious money into the economy, then I can't say that is such a terrible thing. I cannot imagine all my Chicago winters, much less my winters now (in Chicago or not) without some respite from the surface level cynicism we maintain through the rest of the year. For whatever cause and effect, we generally seem to agree that we need that cheer (however forced) and expense (however unaffordable), even if it is for its own sake.

Right now, I think enough of us agree that we need Christmas, whatever it is and why ever we do it. If the day came that we needed it no longer or we need it to be something else, I'm sure Christmas would somehow oblige.


Christmas as Material

Personally, as a lay-Franciscan and someone far more comfortable in theology around ontology than other varieties, Christmas is one of my favorite holidays, because it is "simply" about a birth. I find it far easier and necessary to recognize the goodness of something in relation to its mere existence than its context or outcomes; perhaps because when I look at the context or outcomes of most things, I find plenty of reason to despair. The smallness and the helplessness of a child far is easier to receive than grand designs, if only because I have long had the disposition to regard such things as inherently worthy of joy.

And because for me, it is about the fundamental affirmation that we find meaning, value, and hope in community. A child can bring people together, give them purpose and hope. A child, in many ways, can really only "be" with us, if not for us. If a god is or was nothing more than a human child that would one day gather people together, say a few things, share a few meals, and die, than I see plenty of reason in celebrating that birth. If that is all that we can get out of life, then I feel all the more reason to find it valuable. If it is the affirmation that something that was once separate from our universe suddenly became a part of our existence, then again, I find value is saying "welcome" and "thank you" for somehow tying your destiny with ours.

The very nature of a birth bringing our attention to the aliveness of the world, that something comes out of the mud and ash that form out bodies, draws us to recognize the dignity of those materials. That a child is not so different than many other animals, that it blurs the line, especially (as some of the stories say) when it is placed in a manger beside the donkeys, sheep, hay, and dirt. Again, if only because of proximity, a sense of significance is suggested in bringing things together. Things erupt at this part of the story into a heavily human-dominated narrative. Even if the things only get added subsequent to the text, the nativity and Christmas force us to engage with the materiality of human bodies. I cannot understand how one can profess a birthday as so incredibly important and then not affirm the importance of the ecological body. In terms of the human, a child is so much more body than mind, so much more mere thingness than spirit, indeed it just crossed that cusp not long ago. 

There are many things I cannot understand about mind-body dualists and their ironic fascination with Christmas is one of them. Then I hear from many of them how Christmas has become all about "materialism" and I just want to shout back with joy "Yes" and "It has always been!" Of course, they probably mean it is about capitalism, not materialism, but if I could get us to understand terms in the same way, I'd probably get along with a lot more of them.


Christmas as Particular

On a basic level, part of why I appreciate Christmas (although not always enjoy it), is because of all the little ways it brings things into my life.

Christmas is when I get to go back to Chicago, see people that have been my friends for over 15 years, and people that have been family for even longer. Even a week or so with them reminds me that most of what I want out of life is not for my own sake (although I often treat it as though it is). If I can make these people proud, if I can do something worthy of their gifts to me, if I can bring dignity to them by demonstrating to the world that such things and people produce lives of some significance, then I am willing do work incredibly hard to do that. If I can bring home money, and knowledge, and stories, and myself every year to share with them as a way of saying thank you for gifts that I can never repay, than I will travel far and wide the rest of the year. If that is simply what Christmas is, then it is incredibly important to me.

In the last few days I have been inundated with calls, messages, e-mails, cards, letters, run-ins, and presents from people I hardly ever get to see and who I am often surprised even would think to stop and recognize me. I hear where their lives have been and are going. I get to rejoice with them, sit with them for a moment, even grieve with them. If that is simply what Christmas is, then it is incredibly important to me.

Most of Christmas ends up being filled with a lot of eating, sleeping, and watching movies. Between periods of intense stress, emotional, physical, mental and financial difficulty (right after term paper season and before the start of another year/semester), I get to collapse in a secure and comfortable place surrounded by people that expect little from me (good or bad). If that is simply what Christmas is, then it is incredibly important to me.

Bright colors, festive music, spicy and sweet food, warm sweaters, bodies pulled close together, my mom's house and cooking, the dog sitting on my lap, my sister on her laptop across the room, putting together a Lego-set with my siblings, seeing my father's family the one time I see them a year, a movie with my mother's family, a parade, people that I often feel are very suspicious or confused by my Catholicism freely wishing me a merry Christmas, a chance to write blog-posts like this, a chance to look at a day in the year and feel it wrap around me like an island in time, a chance to touch many of the things that have made me who I was and am becoming, and getting to bring some of this back to DC with me... If that simply what Christmas is, then it is incredibly, incredibly, impossibly important to me.


Thank You

Christmas is very artificial, material and particular to me 
and thank you to everyone that share it with me.

Thank you to everyone that can no longer share it with me, 
I miss many of you very very much.

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