Lists are made, the food is baked, gifts are wrapped and yet there's still more to do? Why is it that during this time of celebrating so many holidays that hail the return of light that we are focusing more on gift returns instead? We string lights, we light candles, and sometimes even the outside of our homes...but how much light are we getting? Being intentional about this time of year is hard. We have messages from our childhood traditions, the media, and our own expectations about what it takes to do it right. Rethinking how we celebrate the winter holidays while not simple, can be quite radical.
This isn't something inside a sappy Halmark card. Searching for happiness and light has been the focus of age old quests and legends. What was the search for the Holy Grail all about? What about some wise men searching for a star in the night? I remember being fascinated by the story of the Wise Men that were willing to take off for strange lands - hoping to find something by the light of a star. What star are we following? What is it that we are searching for in this season?
“Jesus is the reason for the season” doesn't quite do it. Meg Cox wrote an article in U.U. World about this same struggle. Figuring out how to celebrate holidays is not always easy. She said “Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have beloved holiday traditions. But at home many of us still struggle to find the right mix of family traditions for this time of year. Many UUs respect Christian traditions that celebrate the birth of Jesus but are personally uncomfortable with the idea that he was the Christ. Yet veering away from religious rituals throws them smack into the materialistic, secular approach to Christmas, and they don’t want to deify Santa Claus either.” Some of us have grown up with Jewish traditions or some mixture of secular and Christian traditions. Coming up with meaningful ritual and practice is one way to search for the light in this time of shorter days and longer nights.
Meg Cox says that there are ways to celebrate the holidays without watering down everything into something unrecognizable and unprofound. She writes “Let’s start by going back to basics: No matter how historically suspect the date may be, Christmas is fundamentally the celebration of the birth of Jesus. In UU classrooms and homes, Jesus is lauded as a wise man whose devotion to peace and justice are worthy of praise and emulation. All the Unitarian Universalists I know take the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. very seriously as a holiday: Should we celebrate the birthday of Jesus with any less intensity?” She suggests that by embracing the stories and messages of Jesus, there is something to be found or reclaimed in this holiday.
The wise men in the story of the birth of Jesus are not that different from our own quests to find what is holy. We look for signs and we search in earnest for that which can bring us beyond despair and into hope. Yet we need not beat paths through deserts or forests to find this holy grail of happiness. Sometimes we must simply turn off the commercials, put away the electronics, and tune in. There are countless poems about the stillness of winter. It is in that point of stillness that wisdoms speaks. Yet, it is rare indeed that we have or make time for it. And yet, - in what many hail as a holy time – we are bulldozed by a loud, bright, and frenzied sensory overload. I was reminded of this when attended an Unplugging the Christmas Machine workshop last year, and that is what it seems to take sometimes. I have felt like I needed to pull the plug on what society has defined as Christmas, and explore my values around materialism, ritual, and what it is exactly that I am celebrating?
While we celebrate the traditional Christmas festivities with my extended family, we have greatly reduced the material push of this time. We've tried to shift to handmade or baked goods, or more giving lasting gifts like books. At home, our family celebrates the Winter Solstice. In my house, we light a fire and try to stay up all night on the solstice to greet the dawn. We drink hot cider or cocoa, tell stories, and play games We celebrate the light returning, and talk about what that means in our lives. And yes my kids still get excited about Santa Claus, but we primarily focus that he represents the spirit of giving. The boys are excited about presents, but they also get excited about evergreens and berries...and the stories about the return of the light. This is a magical time of year - with intention and sometimes unplugging the Christmas machine.