Delivered at the UU Church of Halifax, December 16 2007
Christmas is my favourite holiday. Because I love irony.
Let me give you an example of what the month of December has been like for me so far. My three year old, Charlie, is obsessed with Santa. And we don’t even really do Santa, at least not in the “be good or he won’t bring you presents” way or in a sit on the lap of the Macy’s Santa while an elf takes an $18 picture way. As parents, our choices about how to present Santa are limited are by the extreme Santification of the world around us. There are Santa mannequins at the grocery store, Santa decorations at the library, Santa ringing a bell on the street corner, Santa cookies at the bakery, Santa’s mailbox at the post office, and Santa’s sleigh on the neighbours’ lawn. There isn’t a Santa free zone anywhere.
The other day I needed a set of washers at the hardware store. I took Charlie with me because if I used my alone time to go shopping I’d never have the time to write a sermon or anything else. When we got to the store there was a ginormous fully decorated Christmas tree in the entryway. Charlie threw himself down on the ground to examine all the gifts underneath. “Pesents, Mama!” he exclaims. “Whit one id po’ me?” and then picked out his favourite while I explained that they aren’t really presents but empty boxes wrapped up to look like presents and even if they were presents they wouldn’t be our presents and we have to go buy some washers and we’ll make some presents out of playdough when we get home—that works sometimes, but not this time. He isn’t listening to a word. Instead he’s busy beaming his love on the presents he knows are for him because Santa knew he was coming to the hardware store today and look! What he left! For Charlie! Silly Mommy.
Sometime we leave these situations happy and tearless, after a lot of effort on both parts, and sometimes we leave not so happy. I could really use a low-key elf to help me out. I still don’t have the washers I needed. When we got home Charlie put on a Santa hat and went around the house with a pillowcase collecting presents, which is pretty cute. Then he had a meltdown because I wouldn’t let him climb up to the roof to visit his reindeer.
I didn’t grow up Christian, but I did grow up Christmas, in a big way. This is my smallest and most pleasant Christmas ever so far--and it’s not small and it’s not really pleasant. My poor kid may well explode from excitement before the 25th. It’s so ridiculous that I’m tempted not to celebrate at all. But I can never resist the twinkling of those little lights.
Having a holiday season at this time of year is a response to the darkness. December 21st is the darkest night of the year, the 22nd is the shortest day. We create light in the darkness to battle the cold and the naturally occurring sense of difficulty and despondency at this time of year. It is a strong and fierce time, when we fight against the dying of the light.
Many of our modern Christmas practices originate in Scandinavia, where people spend most of their waking hours in darkness at this time of year. Ancient traditions surrounding Yuletide ritually address darkness and depression. Take holly, for instance. Evergreens were cherished at this time of year as a natural symbol of rebirth and life amid winter whiteness. But holly was particularly prized to decorate doors, windows and fireplaces because of its prickliness -- to snag and capture evil spirits before they could enter and harm a household. Sort of like flypaper for faeries.
When Charlie goes off the deep end with the modern incarnation of Santa it gives me great comfort to reflect on the Scandinavian origins of Santa. Long back before Nickolas popped up his Saintly head there were the red-cloaked Shamans of ancient Iceland, who would imbibe fly agaric mushrooms, most often by drinking the urine of reindeer that had eaten the mushrooms. The Shamans would then climb down the smokehole of a doorless sacred dwelling to experience visions from the gods. Hallucinations of flying reindeer were commonly reported. Sometimes when I’m feeling really exasperated with today’s commercial Santa I feel tempted to make comments to other shoppers about it. "“You know how he got so jolly.” But I bite my tounge. They already think I’m strange enough in Lunenburg. They don’t need me telling them that Santa drank Prancer’s pee.
The whole town of Lunenburg lost power this past Wednesday for several hours. Not knowing how long it would last, we went out into an oddly quiet world to wrap up our business while we could. As the lights in the sky faded, I lit a fire and some candles. My family congregated around the hearth. The quiet of winter surrounded us. We had some bread and cheese and tea. John and I talked about our days while Charlie pretended to be Santa and gave presents to his dolls. Eventually he fell asleep and we, his tired parents, watched his hair gleam in the flickering light as he lay across from us, dogs curled at our feet. It was five o’clock. We were experiencing a natural, normal end of the day for this time of year.
And then the lights clicked back on. In that first second the glare felt unnatural and harsh. It was a thoroughly unpleasant feeling to be sensation to be plunged from natural night to modern day. I sat there a moment, reluctant to give up our peace. Then John ran to check his e-mail and I ran to check my e-mail and we were off to the races again.
Many of our lives feature a second shift at five o’clock. We surround ourselves with bright lights and push through weariness into action, cooking nice dinners and helping with the homework and doing the laundry everyone needs for tomorrow and checking our email and paying the bills and shopping; shopping for food and shopping for Christmas and shopping to get ourselves a little something as a reward for doing what we ought to despite not feeling like it in the least. Even those of us without major obligation to fill or nine-to-five jobs taking up the bulk of our time have overly active evenings this time of year. This whole electrical light thing is very new in the scale of human history. It is great for productivity, but evolutionarily it’s maladaptive. We are resisting strong biological cues to rest in calm. Your place in the family of things is in the dark.
Animals, after all, have biological rhythms that change with the seasons. Including us. I recently read The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness by Jeff Warren. He’s a former producer of The Current on CBC. Has anyone read it? Warren has some fascinating things to say about the brain. The one that most captured my imagination is his description of a state of consciousness he calls “the watch”. To understand the watch you have to step back a bit to look at human sleep patterns through time and place. In our culture we tend to think of sleeping through the night as optimal behaviour. We go to bed 8 or 7 or 6 hours before we need to get up again. We look for ways to encourage infants to sleep through the night. When we have trouble sleeping through the night, we take medications or natural remedies to help ourselves do it. It turns out, though, that sleeping straight through the night is a very unusual human behaviour, pretty much specific to contemporary times. Whether it is a particularly healthy pattern or even a realistic one for many people is highly debatable.
I suspect that sleeping right through the night is optimal for industry and efficiency, but not necessarily for human health or contentedness. We are missing the very concept of the watch, which is a state of very calm wakefulness in between chunks of sleep. When humans experience darkness for 14 hours in sleep experiments, much as we would currently have without electric light, almost all subjects spend a long night in bed and experience an extended period of restful wakefulness in the middle of the night. This is the watch—a calm, floaty, time out of time when there is nothing to do but lie cuddled in warm blankets and let your thoughts wander . While we do not need to experience “the watch” to function, it seems that in evolutionary terms it is part of optimal functioning for humans and especially at this time of year. The author suggests that many people who experience insomnia and wakefulness are resisting this natural pattern, and indeed researchers have found that by framing this type of wakefulness as a positive event for insomniacs has a powerful effect on their ability to relax, enjoy periods of wakefulness, and eventually drop off back to sleep.
Ever since reading the book and paying attention to my sleep patterns, I have noticed that I do indeed experience a watch hour around 2 am. Rather than struggling to get back to sleep as I have always done, I simply enjoy it. It has become a cherished, restful time. A time to just be, drifting in peaceful darkness. The more darkness in the sky, the more peaceful watch time we should expect to have. Christmas ought to be the most watchful time of year, rather than the least, as we tend to experience it. Both in and out of bed, this is a natural time of year for quiet and reflection.
So, once upon a time, winter was a time of quiet, dark, and scarcity. Today our food supply is relatively unrelated to the cycles of the season and the harvest. Once, Yule or Christmas was a big bang of a feast that stood in stark contrast to careful conservation both before and after the holiday, and that certainly isn’t true any more. Our big bang has gotten bigger, louder, and more blinding, and often far past the point of being enjoyable. During the solstice we are thrashing upstream like salmon to find joy.
How did that happen? Well there are layers upon layers of answers to that question... but I’m mostly going to blame Calvin. Now I’m not Luther’s biggest fan either, believe me, but I really can’t stand Calvin, the author of Protestant Predestination. Predestination basically means that God decided at the beginning of time what would happen through all of history, so that when you are born the question of whether you are saved or damned has long since been decided. There’s nothing you can do about it—faiths, works, nothing. What a bad idea. But also a very popular one. As a public theology, Calvinism has had a truly immense influence on religious, social and political developments, particularly in Europe and North America.
To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favoured by God. If you are saved then the evidence of God’s grace will show in your life. Ill? Destitute? Signs of God’s disfavour. Wealth and good health? You must be one of the elect. So whenever the chips are down the Calvinist doesn’t have just the presenting difficulties, but the deeper concern over what those problems mean about eternal salvation. Well, guess what, the natural reaction is to assuage that anxiety by creating the appearance of well being, the form but not the content. And here we have the single largest and most powerful motivation for Keeping Up Appearances. For prioritizing looking good over feeling good. It’s not something that occurs on a conscious level. It is deeply woven into the weft of our society.
This has so much to do with the way we currently celebrate Christmas. In many ways it has become a show of Official Happiness separate from our actual feelings. The celebration is disconnected from its roots in darkness and despair. Those beautifully wrapped empty boxes under the tree at the hardware store are an elegant symbol of the Protestant tradition. I heard that the corporate offices of Mastercard have a statue of Calvin in the lobby. They certainly have enough to thank him for.
Christmas isn’t some magic panacea of ills. The stress of extra activities, stress of cleaning and cooking and buying presents and dealing with the expectation of being happy as opposed to how we really feel most of the time dealing with all this stuff. We get locked into our overproduction, into creating a false scarcity of time and energy. The sense of scarcity that we create is particularly ironic for us our current culture. We overconsume and our overconsumption adds to our stress.
People who weren’t doing particularly well at Halloween tend to keep on not doing well at Christmas. People fight at Christmas. People hurt each other at Christmas. Loved ones are estranged at Christmas. People get ill at Christmas, and people die at Christmas. People who have died earlier in the year or even years before surprise you unpleasantly by not being there at Christmas.
It’s a season of love, when many of us don’t feel enough love in our lives. It’s a season of giving, but many of us simply don’t have a lot left to give right now. It’s a season of joy, when many feel numbness or despair. It’s not exactly the best time to start untangling big problems or launch a new fitness program. But when you can’t do anything else, you can breathe. You’re doing it anyway. We’re multitasking right now!
You can breathe into the face of exhaustion, of pain, of depression. Breathe into disparity. I find there is nothing so pressing in the holiday season that it can’t wait while I take three deep, slow, renewing breaths. Not even that schmuck in front of me at the post office who is painstakingly looking over every box the post office sells for the unwrapped present he brought in with him. I breathe through the schmuckiness. I think of my aunt Merry, who loved Christmas so that she changed her name from M-a-r-y to M-e-r-r-y and I breathe through the pain of her absence.
I invite you now to sit comfortably, breathe deeply, taking a long exhalation, pushing the air from the bottom of your lungs out. Allow fresh, clean air to flow in without sucking. Breathe slow and long. Breathe down the excitement. Recognize the darkness. Know that your internal state is okay to feel, whatever it is. It doesn’t make some kind of statement about you, what kind of person you are, or whether you are doing things “right”. It just is.
I share these words, paraphrasing Thich Nhat Han:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment.
Breathing out, I know it is a wonderful moment
Breathing in I feel my tension
Breathing out, I release my tension
Breathing in I recognize Expectation
Breathing out I feel free
Life grinds on, through stress and strife. Even Santa had a long journey of chafing and bumping his way to find a fit. And, btw, if you think Santa had it made after he hooked up with the elves then you need to invite me back to read How Santa Lost His Job.
We celebrate the holidays to battle the darkness without and within at this time of year. If you are depressed despite this, you are normal. If you are depressed because of this, you are normal.
As longest night draws near, may we open ourselves to the night. Let the quiet of winter surround you. Many of us feel lonely at Christmas—but we are not alone right now. In this time and this place may you appreciate the people in the chairs around you, and treat one another with love. Let love be your legacy. Let the peace of darkness find a home in thee. Breathe.