30 December 2014

Facing the Darkness

Another Christmas has passed.

When I was a child, my mother was a consummate Christmas magician. Her decorations sparkled with promise. Her holiday table groaned with delicious treats. The pretty packages under the tree contained carefully chosen signs of her love. I wanted to taste this magic so badly that I once burnt my tongue on one of the colored lights on the tree.

I grew up, the scales fell from my eyes, and I saw things differently. The Christmas tableau now seemed like an exercise in excess: too much food, too much drink, too much stress, too many presents filled with too many things that people didn't need. No one in the family was a practicing Christian.

What was it all for?

My mother's explanation that Christmas was about family failed to satisfy me.

I was reading a lot of Pagan thought at the time, including James Frazer's amazing work The Golden Bough. One of the things that amazed/amused me most about Frazer's work was that he devoted his enormous tome to the universality of the sacrificed god of vegetation without once mentioning how the Christian myth is an instantiation of the same blood sacrifice. I guess Frazer's work was scandalous enough in 1890 without thumbing his nose at the establishment religion.

The subtext was very clear to me in the 1980s. The Jesus myth was another instance enacting a blood sacrifice of the god of vegetation in order to bring the Sun back from its winter darkness and restore the fecundity of the Earth. We animals shivering in cold as the days grow darker need to believe that Spring will come again. We need to believe in the return of the Light and Warmth to keep us from despair in our darkest days.

So. The Christian myth was relevant to me after all. Change the spelling of Son to Sun, shift the celebration from Christmas to Solstice, and we're good to go. The tree and the lights and the presents and the music and the treats can all stay.

This would have worked except for the inexorable insistence of the rest of my world (including my extended family) to keep the Christmas celebration on the 24th and 25th. Adding in a Solstice celebration just increased the stress.

I next read the book Unplug the Christmas Machine in an attempt to tame the Stressmas holidaze. This helped me prioritize the aspects of the winter holidays that mattered the most to me and my loved ones, and to strike a balance between Christmas minimalism and Christmas excess.

Then I became a Quaker. To my somewhat uneasy truce with the Christmas holiday, I now added the Quaker opinion that Christmas oughtn't to be celebrated at all. I had a lot of sympathy with this viewpoint, but it wasn't going to fly. I received no leading during worship to eschew the celebration of Christmas. I was left to work it out for myself.

My mostly minimalist approach worked pretty well except for a few things. Members of my immediate family, still tended to have meltdowns around the holidays. I struggled with a deep depression between Christmas and New Year's most years. This annual battle with the darkness discouraged and exhausted me.

Over the past several years, I've spent more time thinking about what religion is for. Why do humans all over the world engage in religious practices? What deep human needs does religion fill?

It's hard to be a warm-blooded animal in a big, cold, sharp, hard, and indifferent universe. We need a Light to shine within and around us, leading us through the dark nights of our souls. We need to believe that things will be alright, that we will make it, that we can do it.

The celebration of Christmas, right after the darkest time, is a way of laughing in the face of the forces of darkness and cold and stillness. It's a way of asserting our animal warmth and movement and noise, our ability to light a candle against the darkness. It's an annual act of courage.

My mother has always been full of that kind of courage. She makes merry in the face of despair, and has often stalked her own depression with laughter and love and gatherings of loved ones.

I have a greater peace with Christmas this year. I look around at all the people frenetically trying to make merry. I see the courageous souls behind their eyes, struggling against the darkness. Every hackneyed Christmas card inscription can be a prayer held in the heart, a counter to all the messages of anger, greed, and despair.

I will not give in to the darkness. I will stand in the path of darkness, sing Christmas carols, quaff ridiculous holiday drinks, decorate trees, light candles, boil sugar syrup into magical concoctions, and fill my family's stockings with hope and wishes for a good future.

When the darkness triumphs, as it does sometimes, I will have the courage to laugh at it. I will acknowledge the annual Christmas meltdowns, the forays into depression and despair, the deep sadness that can well up in the darkest part of the year. There is a place at the table for the darkness. Perhaps it would like a cup of cocoa?

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