The holidays are touted as a time to be “merry,” and to be of good cheer, urging us all towards “peace, and goodwill,” bolstered by a bewildering array of lights, reindeer, ominously large inflatable snowmen, long white bearded jolly Santa Claus’ in every mall and on every street corner, with bells ringing and jingling as we go dashing through the snow, with trees strapped to the roof of our modern day four wheel drive sleighs. There’s plenty of Christmas cheer, and for many, it’s an exciting, wonderful time of celebration, eggnog, turkey dinners, presents, and visits with loved ones and family. It can also be a time of stress, grief, frustration, and loneliness for many, especially when our modern day expectations about the holidays seem to pale in comparison to the reality of what we’re experiencing, and what’s being sold to us as, “Christmas,” and its many and varied traditions and customs.
When I was a child, like many of my contemporaries, I couldn’t wait for Christmas. Mom would let us open a single gift on Christmas Eve, after we got home from midnight mass, before chiding us that if we didn’t go to sleep, Santa and his sleigh wouldn’t be able to pull off the magical deliverance that many children my age had come to anticipate. For good measure, we made sure that cookies and milk were set out to entice and thank Santa, and to ensure that a forensic trail remained after his visit, before we went to bed, desperate to surrender to sleep. Half eaten cookies were, of course, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was the real deal. In the morning, our faith was affirmed with a bewildering array of colourful packages adorned with ribbons and bows stacked high liked a mountain beneath a bright and shining tree, each gift bearing the words, “From Santa,” handwritten in his magical script on gift tags, confirming his covenant with all children that he had, indeed, surely known when we were sleeping, and when we were awake, and whether we had been bad or good, naughty, or nice. His second coming was our salvation, at least on that morning, as he swooped down from the cold starry heavens on his reindeer guided chariot to redeem the hopes and dreams of children everywhere. We’d seen him before, touched him, had our photos taken with him, sat on his lap, tugged at his beard (which in adult retrospect, bears a striking resemblance to God as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel if you dress it up with a jolly red suit and hat in place of His heavenly nightgown – blessed are those who don’t tug at the whiskers, and yet believe). We whispered our desires into his ear as he put his arm around us, and heard his jolly laughter bellow from aloft on his throne, seated there in his polar realm, a child’s other-worldly heaven perched high on top of the world, the very seat of the workshop of creation for all that was good – most especially, toys! His grace, and kindness, had redeemed us, once more.
All evidence to the contrary, whether it was based on our own suspicions, or the insane and dangerous heresies of “non-believers,” traces of recycled gift wrap, exhausted parents still sleeping on the couch with tape stuck to their fingers, or the absence of sleigh tracks on the roof, we believed, in Santa, and in Christmas, and nothing could shake that belief after the sight of those presents, each one containing a granted wish, an answered prayer, delivered in our names, right to our home – it had all confirmed everything we already knew to be true, everything we knew that must be true. Santa, was real! Moreover, we had a personal relationship with him, he knew each of us by name, and we were in his book – on his list. Just as the sacred scriptures contained in the book of, “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” or the sacred song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” prophetically foretold, he had heard our whispered prayers while we jiggled on his knee, read our sanctified and plaintive letters, and he loved us, really loved us – enough to travel around the world, in one single night, despite our misbehaving antics and tantrums, to bring us, and the world, gifts, undeserved gifts, and the great joy and excitement that came with them. Our long suffering, trying desperately to be good, our sacrifices with early bedtimes and behaving, was over – at least this morning. We were good, or at least, managed to make that list, somehow, despite the odds, and overlooked misdeeds, or at least, the undiscovered culpatory evidence of them, by grace or by luck, hadn’t resulted in a lump of coal. It was a miracle, of epic proportions, assisted not by angels, but by flying reindeer, an army of elves, a magical sleigh, and the jolly love of a polar saint who adored all children – a miracle repeated, every year, for as long as we were children, witnessed in our imaginations and hearts, and corroborated by an overwhelming abundance of, albeit circumstantial, evidence (not the least of which being first hand accounts and testimonies of the kids next door) which none of us were prepared to deny, lest the magic ceased with the blasphemy of suspicion – warranted or not. After all, with all the ritual, the amazing accounts, the ancient origins, how could millions of “believers,” children and adults alike, possibly be wrong? Deception on such a universal scale, surely, could not be possible. How could you possibly NOT believe in Santa? Surely, such a suggestion is the Grinch’s work, incarnate in the likes of Scrooge, the Bumble, Winter Warlock and his other evil anti-Santa henchmen.
Eventually of course, in time, we came to learn of the well meaning deceptions that accompanied the “miracle,” and with age, came wisdom, and with wisdom, came an understanding of the metaphor, the myth, and its deeper and more profound meanings, both spiritually and morally. Santa was an invitation, an invitation to believe in something beyond the myth, and the real gift under the tree all those years wasn’t the new train set, barbie doll, or bike, it was the belief and faith in the act of giving, and receiving, love, and the joy that comes from it. It was also an exercise in faith, and ultimately, skepticism, a healthy doubt (and a good tug of the beard), that would arise from the metaphor itself, that lead, ultimately, to a deeper truth, about faith, about kindness, and about what it really means to “believe.” The magic wasn’t in the man. He did not exist, at least not as we ever knew him. The magic was in the myth, and in our faith in it. It was, in the end, a message about the power of humility, of vulnerability. We survived the apocalyptic revelation that Santa and our world view, as children, were fabrications, and seeing the deeper meaning, we at least vowed not to usurp the myth held dear in the hearts and minds of the young, until they too, were, “ready” to mature and grow beyond it, or had come to that conclusion of their own accord.
As many of you can attest to if you’re my age, being a parent at Christmas can be exhausting. When I foster parented my two amazing nephews during a part of their childhood, my wife and I would spend hours buying presents, hiding gifts under the bed or in closets to conceal the ruse, spent hours wrapping them, and decorating the house, between cooking turkeys and ham, and stuffing and hanging stockings with care, and so, by Christmas morning, we were spent. Only the thrill of watching these wonderful children open their gifts, marked with tags proclaiming, “From Santa,” and the excitement they had in validating their beliefs, kept us going through the day, lifting our own spirits along the way with the joy we shared in seeing them happy. It’s a sweet memory, and one that I know many parents, and their children share. We were willing accomplices, perpetrators of the great myth, and on that day, even we too, wanted to believe, if not in Santa, in the spirit of him, and in Christmas. We’d evangelized him, and knowingly perpetrated a fraud on the children for the sake of the myth, justified, out of love and a desire for their happiness, knowing full well, that in time, the deceit could not be sustained. What was “true,” didn’t matter as much as the deeper truths that were shared by the execution of the deed. The means, justified the end, at least this one. We were proud of ourselves, and accepted the mission repeatedly, one that was sanctioned by our own traditions, a crusade of kindness, handed down to us from our ancestors – disciples of the great saint himself, Santa. Santa was dead, an invention who lived only in our delightfully clever myth, but we were going to keep him alive, and resurrect him, at least for another year.
I’ve spent many Christmas holidays since, nearly half a century’s worth now, some alone, some quiet, some with friends and family, and each year, part of that tradition remains, even in the darkest of places, or in the darkest of times. I know what it’s like to be alone on Christmas morning, to suffer and grieve during what was supposed to be a time of celebration and happiness, to be a prisoner of fear, anxious, and I’ve known what it’s like to work through the holidays, tired and unappreciated, or to be separated from family and loved ones, and to have prayers go unanswered, to be shut out, abandoned by friends and family – forgotten. I’ve felt the desolation of Christmas, the horrible feeling that it’s left you behind, uncounted, unloved, the “humbug” of expectations crashing to the ground into a pile of tinsel and cold ashes. I’ve also seen disillusionment with the holiday creep into the lives of other people I know – turning otherwise civil and sane, respectable people, into childish monsters, with flared tempers, cursing Christmas greetings under their breath, seething with contempt, wrestling with the pain, anger, and the hurt of feeling unappreciated, disenfranchised, or harbouring outright petty and jealous misgivings toward their fellow man and woman, brought raw to the surface, during what to some, is a very lonely and troublesome holiday. They’d just as soon shove you under a shopping cart if you get in their way, or slam a door in your face if you wished them holiday cheer, let alone offer you the charity of decent manners or courtesy. The comfort and expectation we knew in Christmas as children, seems like a distant far off dream, a fantasy, its meaning no longer relevant. For many, the myth has failed.
One particular Christmas in our home, when I was a teenager, brought the humbug out in mom. She’d spent all evening, and much of the morning, putting together the perfect Christmas Day dinner – turkey, squash, stuffing, you name it, it was on the stove. The table was set for royalty, candles lit, the tree glimmered with lights, and Christmas music played softly on the record player (for those of you too young to know what this is, it’s like an iPod, but much heavier), and as she toiled, sweating from the heat of the oven, the rest of us relaxed and mused over our gifts. The peaceful illusion soon came to an abrupt halt, as the turkey, pan and all, crashed to the floor in the kitchen. The dogs were instantly aware of their opportunity, and bounded towards the pantry. The doors slammed shut, just in time, and behind them, was mom, on her knees, scraping up the remains of her prized bird from the kitchen floor. Somehow, she managed to clean off the fowl mess, resurrect at least the semblance of a mangled turkey from what remained, and in her grace, brought out the meal as we all sat down at the table to give thanks.
My grandmother was with us that Christmas day, and she sat at the head of the table, and led us in grace. After the blessing, there was a moment of silence, broken by her observation that went something like, “Oh my, what happened to the bird!?” Nana was a stoic, stiff upper lipped woman, very British, and she wasn’t good at hiding her disdain or criticism. It was the voice of a mother telling her daughter that she hadn’t measured up, nose raised in the air, a scowl looking down from above the rim of her bifocal glasses. Mom was just as stubborn, and in her frustration, she did the only thing any respectable cook could do under the circumstances. She rose slowly from her chair, walked around the table, opened the door to the patio, hoisted the Christmas tree up over her head, ornaments and all, swung it around, and tossed it outside into the yard. She then calmly closed the door behind the tree, turned to us, as our jaws dropped, eyes wide in shock and awe, and said calmly, “Christmas, is now over.” She turned and walked away, went to her bedroom, and closed the door.
We spent the rest of that Christmas Day contemplating every possible meaning of the word, “silent.”
The stress and expectations that many of us have come to acknowledge surrounding our experience of Christmas hasn’t seemed to abate with time. People still go a little crazy, trying to impress, out spend, have the brightest lights or the most perfect table setting, and seem to get lost in the sea of consumerism or devotional fervour that seems to fuel many of our ideas of what a perfect Christmas should be. Our “silent” Christmas, although by many “standards,” a disaster, was really one of the best gifts we ever got. It was in the silent aftermath, in that humility, in that desolation, that the real meaning of Christmas shone through. It wasn’t about the turkey, or the gifts, the tree, or even the company. It was about remembering the silence and humility, the utter aloneness, rejection, and stark beginnings, that God chose to come into this world with. It was about the Silent Night. The Holy Night. It was about a young family, desperate to find shelter, away from home, away from family, in utter poverty, in the dark of night, cold, obscure, unknown – seeking a way to bring love into the world. Scriptures don’t tell us much about the real events that surrounded the first “Noel,” and over time, we’ve created our own myths around what the ancients bequeathed to us in their conflicting accounts, including, not surprisingly, even the date ascribed to the event itself. I think we can be pretty certain however, that there were no turkey dinners, no Christmas trees adorned with lights and ornaments, no eggnog, and no Santa Claus or carollers singing off in the distance. It was an obscure birth, and a very humble one. It was in the silence of that night, in that humility, in that obscurity, in a mangled mess of a world with bleak expectations, that God’s love, and ultimately, His forgiveness, became our greatest gifts.
This Christmas, whether you’re with friends and family celebrating, or alone, working, or enjoying good cheer, I wish you a very Merry Christmas, but more, I wish you a moment of silence, and the peace of knowing, that your belief, your faith, that your whispered prayers, answered or not, are more precious gifts than those you’ll find under your tree. To unwrap them, and the magic they hold beyond the myths, you need only be still, be silent, and with a humble heart, listen, as love draws near you in that silent, Holy night of our humble walk in faith with Him. In that silence, I hope you find something that you, too, can believe in.