The Thinker

Decking the secular halls

So an atheist, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist (me), his un-churched sister, her sarcastic college age son and the cynical brother who says he only worships Baal get together for dinner. The occasion: Christmas, of course.

That’s right, our Christmas tree is festooned with lights and bulbs. An angel adorns its top proclaiming the good news of Jesus’s birth. Our halls (such as they are) are decked out. There are cookie tins stuffed with ginger snaps and butter cookies.  Charlotte Church’s coloratura voice is coming out of speakers singing, of course, Christmas carols. Our porch and garage door are lined with blue lights that I put up weeks ago to celebrate the Christmas season. We have all the signs of Christmas except for the Christ part. We’re having ourselves a fully secular Christmas.

If you had to pick a Christian among us, I would come the closest. The roots of Unitarian Universalism are in Christianity. There are in fact many practicing Christian UUs, although I can’t find them in my “church” which seems to be at least half atheists. Still, UUs generally admire Jesus, such as he is imperfectly revealed to us in the gospels. I don’t think he was divine, as is true of most of us UUs. Also I don’t put much faith in prayer or miracles, but I do think Jesus probably existed and obviously inspired enough people so that his ideas carried forward after his death in a viral manner. There is no historical record of his existence outside of the Gospels, but that’s good enough for me; it passes my Occam’s Razor test.

Of course there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th anyhow, but it is convenient to the winter solstice, which was likely why it is celebrated on this date. There used to be a lot of heathens around and if you are going to convert them you have to work with their natural worship dates.  So most likely we are celebrating the birth of a man who might well be fictional, that most rational people cannot consider divine, whose birthday we don’t know and whose legend is known only because oral tradition was eventually written down and then rewritten, often with errors and omissions, over the centuries. Along the way we picked up saints, including a Greek bishop called St. Nicholas, and morphed this single aesthete into an obese citizen of the North Pole who dwelled in his own small kingdom full of elves and flying reindeer, and that fly despite the absence of wings. St. Nick magically supplies toys just one night a year to all the good Christian children in the world and keeps up an impressive schedule making appearances at local shopping malls. As adults we of course laugh at this childish nonsense, even while seventy three percent of us Americans also profess to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Myth has morphed into rarely challenged creed. A compelling new book suggests Judaism was simply made up by a bunch of elders in an attempt to unite the Judeans and the Galileans so they could fight common encroachers. If correct there was likely no Abraham, no Moses, no enslavement of the Jews in Egypt (for which there is no independent record), no burning bush, and no forty years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai which, lacking an oasis, would probably kill a large group of Jews dead within a few weeks anyhow.

And yet still we celebrate Christmas, and this includes the hopelessly secular among us like most of my family who, sadly, were raised as devout Catholics. My adult daughter, a professed atheist and now back in her bedroom after graduation, is fully into the Christmas season. She was pushing us early to put up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree. She was ready to deck our halls and could be heard singing Christmas carols in her bedroom. She was aghast that I forgot to buy some kielbasa for Christmas breakfast, a tradition that dates back to my deceased mother and which we carry on, if I don’t forget about it, on Christmas mornings. So it was off to the Food Lion before they closed Christmas Eve for some of the sacred sausage, served with scrambled eggs somewhat hurriedly before unwrapping presents under our Christmas tree.

No White Christmas this year, which is actually par for the course here in Northern Virginia. You can expect one every fifteen years or so. However, it was cold enough to qualify for Christmas, with temperatures that never made it officially above freezing despite clear skies. Walking this afternoon for exercise and bundled in my warmest parka, I felt gratitude, not just for Jesus but also for warm houses. Living outside in this weather like our distant ancestors did must have sucked. The only people these days who have an inkling of what it is like are our homeless, the exact sort of people Jesus would have cared the most about. As we raise our eggnog and sing our carols, we try not to think about them. Let them sleep in the woods in a tent and get dinner out of a dumpster. Sadly, some of our leaders clearly want to increase their ranks, and in the recently passed budget agreement succeeded by reducing food stamp allowances and heating assistance and ending long-term unemployment benefits. This is based on the curious and erroneous belief that this will make them get off their duffs and earn a living, but really was done because they are sadists absent compassion for anyone not like them. For many of these poor, 2014 will be bleaker than 2013.

For those of us lucky enough to have some wealth and privilege, we can wrap ourselves up inside our houses, sing carols in front of a hearth (probably with a gas log), tell and retell dated family stories, eat too much food and mostly forget about Jesus. If he were alive he’d probably be suggesting that we bring some food and eggnog outside to our neighbors in the woods, or maybe invite them inside our house for some home cooking, a shower, use of our washing machines and a night in a clean bed. Most of us are not that brave, convinced that the homeless are mentally ill, thus likely to strangle us in our sleep. We like the idea of being kind to those less fortunate to us more than the soiling our hands through the actual doing of deeds. Some of us will work in a soup kitchen for a day or two. Some may even give out blankets to prevent hypothermia for the homeless. To the extent that I put my values into action this year, it was to talk for five minutes with the guy from Goodwill who empties my trash in the office on Christmas Eve, learn about his son and daughter and wish him a happy holiday. I also bought $75 in gift cards for a local 16-year-old teenage girl through the Secret Santa program at our church. I also give money to charities, but this is an implicit admission that I want others to do the work that I can’t seem to do personally. I too am hypocritical, although perhaps less than most.

Yet still we huddle around our tree on Christmas Eve, unwrap our presents on Christmas Day and listen to holiday tunes on the player, many of which proclaim a savior was born today. Looking at our actions toward each other, there’s not much evidence that Jesus succeeded. And while none of us believe in Jesus’s divinity, we do sort of wish, like Santa Claus, that he actually did all those wonderful things. We just haven’t drunk enough spiked eggnog to short-circuit the logical parts of our brains.

If we could actually minister like Jesus, well then perhaps Christmas would be worthy of our celebration.


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