Another year over and Christmas has come and gone. I am feeling discontent. The days leading up to Christmas Eve were spent working full-time. The radio, playing full blast, had been an obligatory accoutrement. To make the time go by faster. Admittedly, I love music and on many occasions felt like breaking protocol and dancing and singing away the monotony of the job. I could see, in the tapping of shoes, the swaying of hips and the silent mouthing of lyrics, that my co-workers felt the same.
Irksome were, however, the many minutes spent listening to commercials. The ‘sell more stuff by getting on the Christmas themed commercial band wagon’ game was in full effect. Every single advert followed the same exhausting narrative. To guarantee an extra special Christmas for yours truly and loved ones (and don’t forget the pets!) – buy, buy, buy! From jewellery, cars and the well-known assortment of house, work and play tools/toys to food, more food and then some. Everything was on sale. It appeared that being ready for Christmas meant having done all the shopping. Expensive you say? Don’t worry. Cheap deals, incredible promotions, low rate financing and off course, low interest credit card offers are there to help make the season bright. I could feel my stress barometer rising steadily.
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” said the Grinch. “Gifts, gifts… gifts, gifts, gifts, gifts, gifts! You wanna know what happens to your gifts? They all come to me. In your garbage. You see what I’m saying? In your garbage”.
I am reminded of an article by Michael Sandel where he considers how capitalism is morphing from being an external phenomenon – an economic system – to becoming embedded in our individual lives so that in our particular form of relating and value assigning, we co-create a society that views itself and the individual through a lens of capitalism. In such a society, almost everything can be bought and sold. Consider what Lewis Hyde writes about in his book The Gift:
“The desire to consume is a kind of lust. We long to have the world flow through us like air or food. We are thirsty and hungry for something that can only be carried inside bodies. But consumer goods merely bait this lust, they do not satisfy it. The consumer of commodities is invited to a meal without passion, a consumption that leads to neither satiation nor fire. He is a stranger seduced into feeding on the drippings of someone else’s capital without benefit of its inner nourishment, and he is hungry at the end of the meal, depressed and weary as we all feel when lust has dragged us from the house and led us to nothing”.
I remember vividly how, during my younger days, the time leading up to Christmas Eve was filled with a wonderful sense of anticipation and awe. Certainly, much of my excitement revolved around receiving Christmas gifts, so let us not idealize youth as a time free from petty materialism. HOWEVER, what bears mentioning is that for a younger, perhaps much more naïve, me, Christmas was feeling sheltered, warm, protected and loved. Christmas was also being part of a greater story whose details mattered less than the traditions that belonged with it – lighting candles, baking food, singing carols, going for walks, playing in the snow, picking out Christmas trees, preparing presents, drinking hot chocolate… In a way, it is possible to capture the meaning that Christmas had for me in these everyday acts of waiting and preparing with friends and family. Everything was held together and brightened by wonder. It was so easy to feel awe, to be overjoyed and be captivated by the moments.
A beautiful poem by T.S. Eliot captures my own feelings exceptionally well. I would therefore like to share a few lines from it.
“There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure…
The wonder of the child and the ease of being in the moment is contrasted very well with the adult taking Christmas as a pretext to revisit some of the youthful excitement and keep at bay the bored habituation, the fatigue and the tedium of everyday life filled with responsibilities, timelines, worries and in my case, a sometimes desperate desire for meaning and having purpose.
Perhaps I am not alone in these feelings.
For educator and activist Parker Palmer, Christmas becomes a time of reflection on the connection between the good words that we speak, our desires for love, truth and justice, and the way we live our lives. In the Christmas story, he writes, God takes the risk of incarnation and becomes flesh in the form of a vulnerable baby. In this sense, he suggests that the best gift that we can give to others may lie in a simple question: “What good words wait to be born in us, and how can we love one another in ways that midwife their incarnation?”
“The trouble with how we’ve treated Christmas is we’ve screened out the Emperors, and so we’ve missed the point of the angels”. So goes the argument in the article Every Christmas Carol a Protest Song. Exploring a historical context of Christmas, a similar article explores how Pope Julius, around the year 350, declared December 25th to be Christ’s birthday and in so doing subverted a Roman imperial theological system that celebrated, also on December 25th, the birthday of the “Unconquered Sun”, a Roman god who brought peace through violent conquest. In time, the 25th of December therefore became a time to celebrate the Christian Son of God who brought peace through non-violence and who, so the story goes, abhorred division, exclusion and oppression.
Acknowledging the violence that has been carried out in the name of Christianity, we can nevertheless be reminded of a narrative that sees non-violence and inclusion as a central tenant for how we could live our lives more meaningfully. Christmas and the historical context upon which the tradition rests, may then prompt us to remember and reflect on our role and responsibilities in a larger narrative of peace and love.
Finally, I return again and again to the story of the Christmas Truce. On Christmas Eve of 1914, during what was then called the Great War, a temporary truce was declared and soldiers from both sides emerged from their trenches. Both sides stepped over the bodies of fallen comrades and met in the middle of the battlefield – the no man’s land. This is what ensued:
“Eye to eye, they shook hands and shared pictures of their loved ones at home. They exchanged small presents: cigarettes, military-issued desserts, coat buttons. They recognized and celebrated their similar interests. The soldiers from both sides had parents who were factory workers, domestic laborers and all manner of ordinary, everyday people. They bonded over this.
The soldiers were soon snapped back to the horrors of the previous months. The bodies of their fallen comrades, littering no man’s land, couldn’t be ignored any longer. Teams, intermixed from both sides, carried blue and torn bodies to their graves in relative silence.
Someone then suggested soccer, but there were no balls. A tin can was tossed out into the cleared-out space as a sorry substitute, but the soldiers made the most of it. They traded the grim duties of war for sport. The soldiers played like their lives depended on the game. They savored each clunky kick, pass and goal, needing the fun to last forever. Respect and sportsmanship flowed between the teams. In those moments, the men were no longer enemies.
Time was slower during moments of calm. Both sides felt it. It was a calm they were surprised by, a calm they didn’t know existed before the war. Every glance, laugh and touch was vivid and important. It felt like the best narcotic.”
We are left to wonder: What if the soldiers had refused to get back in our trenches? Would word have spread? What could have happened next?
I am reminded of this incredible story every year during Christmas time. It stands as a remarkable testament to what also motivated Nelson Mandela to seek peace rather than retribution and vengeance:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite”
I am discontent and somewhat disheartened by the gradual process of losing touch with a beautiful childhood memory that had seen me full of awe and youthful wonder in the face of all that was Christmas. I believe that I am in a transition phase and am learning to slowly let go of these early memories. In this process, I am allowing myself the creative space to reimagine what Christmas might mean to me, as I continue to grow, learn and seek meaning in a world that often leaves me feeling down and depressed.