The Celebration of Stuffmas
Last year I was having a casual discussion about Christmas plans with a friend of mine. She is a successful sales executive of apparently rather material bent and generally unexpressed religion or spirituality so her response surprised me. She told me that she had very little interest in the holidays. "I never understood what a fat man in a red suit has to do with Jesus." she said rather emphatically. I had never thought of it exactly that way before but it certainly was a powerful echo of the way I myself have come to feel. In this most important holiday season even Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has become more visible than Jesus and, other than an occasional nativity scene, the religious symbols of Christmas have all but disappeared along with their significance.
It seems that the pendulum has swung once more. Contemporary materialism has now almost fully returned Christmas to its original status, that of a pagan celebration. We have almost totally lost the meaning of holiday which is "holy day." In modern Japan this "holiday" has no traditional or religious meaning at all; it is merely about the buying and exchanging of gifts. Beginning around Thanksgiving we are bombarded by the media with economic reports about Christmas sales figures and it seems as if the fate of the nation hangs on how much the cash registers ring. "Buy, buy, buy!" is the refrain of the modern Christmas carol. In ancient Rome, the festival of Saturnalia was celebrated at the winter solstice, which occurs in our modern calendar around December 21-22. This was a time of partying, drinking and general debauchery; this part of the tradition certainly continues today to which we have added the commercial feature.
The early Christians adopted this time to celebrate the birth of Jesus so that they would go unnoticed among the loud and boisterous pagan festivities. The meaning of the word Christmas is, quite obviously, Christ Mass and mass is the celebration of the Eucharist or Last Supper. Interestingly, the word eucharist is directly from a Greek word meaning gratitude. Here Jesus and his closest and most beloved gathered to celebrate and express gratitude for his presence and teachings. It is also a celebration, although this is little acknowledged and has been mostly obscured, of his soon-to-be-demonstrated resurrection, leading us all to a new possibility for being. In Christian tradition there is the period of Advent (from the Greek meaning coming) beginning on St. Andrew's Day, the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. This is meant to be a period of quiet and inner observance, traditionally a period of fasting and penance. The outer fasting, though, was merely an external symbol of an inner fasting from the thoughts and activities of the world and, as with many of our symbols which have become idols unto themselves, we now summarily throw them out as anachronistic. Thus Christmas has once again become hedonistic revelry, externally and commercially oriented, filled with the same drunken debauchery (both literally and figuratively) as Saturnalia. The real meaning of quiet contemplation has been lost among the shops, the liquor stores and the malls.
No one can seriously contend that the historical birth of Jesus of Nazareth was on or anywhere near the winter solstice. It is interesting to note, however, that the date finally selected is the third day after the Sun (Son?) has descended to the lowest point in the sky of the northern hemisphere, at an astronomical point known as 0 Capricorn. Mythologically this point is associated with Saturn, hence Saturnalia. Saturn, in Roman myth, is the King of the Earth and the word Saturn has its earliest roots in stem which is also related to "Satan", known in Christianity as the Prince of the Earth. So that, on December 25, on the third day after the descent into hell, the Sun (Son?) has once again risen.
The Jesus myth (and please understand that the use of the word myth is in no way intended to depreciate or disparage the man or the message, only to point out that the actual historical details of the life of this man are sketchy and subject to much speculation. Whoever he was, he continues to be my personal role model) is about the resurrection of Man, the whole of humanity. It is about bringing to manifestation the Christ child which lies dormant and unrecognized within each and every one of us. It is about demonstrating the qualities so clearly taught by the character Jesus.
For this reason Christmas is not about worshipping the man himself or the supposed details of his earthly birth. Certainly we need be grateful for the fact that someone, regardless of his beginnings, name or details, was born and dramatically demonstrated a possibility for all of Mankind. He preached very little; he rarely went to a synagogue; he taught by example. Can we say that of our modern clergy? I suspect that, if this man were to return in the manner which many expect, that he would be as fond of the church which has been founded and operated in his name for almost 2000 years as he was of the Sadducees and the Pharisees of his day. His behavior toward most churches would probably be very similar to how he behaved in the temples of his time. And he would see, in this season which celebrates his birth (as the Christ Consciousness, always among us, sees), that we have learned very little from the actual message of his life.
Also, Christmas is not about "STUFF". Throughout the Christmas season we teach our children "I want, I want, I want" emphasizing the getting aspect and further underscoring the feeling of lack and deprivation among a large portion of our populace. In addition we are beginning to discover that the high pressure spending frenzy and the resultant "charge card hangover" in January and February produce tremendous stress and depression. Christmas is not about buying and getting; it is about gratitude and giving. True giving, however, is not necessarily material and has no expectation of receiving. It is a natural flow from a giver who gives only from his need to give, as a cow needs to give her milk which is overflowing.... my cup runneth over. Is this the current spirit? A friend of mine recently asked his new Thai-born daughter-in-law, who has spoken English for only about a year what she wanted for Christmas. Her reply was, "I want your heart, Papa." We have much to learn from this young one who grew up in a Buddhist culture.
Many here spend as much as a month's pay on Christmas "gifts." Would you be willing to give a month of your time, of your self? Jesus possibly never gave anyone "STUFF", but he gave his life to demonstrate a real potential for Man. How much of your life have you given, freely, without expectation, compensation (of any kind), or even any feeling of self-satisfaction and pride; purely and simply for the joy of giving? Where is the real Spirit of Christmas?
In this busy and hectic holiday season, please join me at least for a moment in remembering that holiday really means "holy day" and that this particular holy day celebrates much more than the historical birth of a man in Bethlehem almost 2000 years ago. It can and must symbolize the birth of the eternal living Christ in the minds and hearts of each and every one of us. This inner joy far exceeds the temporary elation of getting "STUFF." It is our only real hope. Amen.
©1993 daan dehn (12/14/91)
major revision (12/21/93)
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