I've been thinking a lot, during these weeks of Christmas fervor, about what Christmas means to me, not only now that I'm not in active ministry but also now that I am a UU, a "scientist", a theologian, a scholar, in my thinking. I've been trying to discern just what Christmas actually means to ME, not the hyped up portrayals of "the Christmas spirit" or the "giving season" or the legends and stories associated with the season.
What are my Christmas habits? I no longer give extravagant gifts to family members; I don't decorate the house; I don't increase my charitable giving except with the donations I make to selected charities in my siblings' names. I don't go shopping in busy places. I don't worry about what gifts I might get. I am always very happy on Dec. 26 that the season is over and we have a week of relative quiet before the new year begins.
What do I believe about Christmas, now that I know that Jesus undoubtedly wasn't born on Dec. 25, that the legends that surround his birth, life, and death are mostly romantic stories designed to put forth various doctrinal agendas, that the actual history around his birth, as best it can be discovered, has been subsumed by the cultural need to dress it up in miraculous terms. What do I actually believe?
I believe the things I know to be true, true by rational standards such as critical thinking, scientifically gained knowledge. I am skeptical about hyped-up dramas about giving or miraculous events or "wonder" or the value of maintaining the Santa fiction for children. I resist looking at red and green and gold decor in the stores; I don't want to hear carols on loudspeakers; I don't want to hear or read sappy mawkish writings about Christmas spirit, though I must admit there are a few that tickle me or put a lump in my throat.
Yet I don't feel like Scrooge. This time of year is precious to me and it has nothing to do with a doctrinally-induced religious season. It is precious and even sacred to me because of what the earth is doing, what human beings are experiencing, what the tide is bringing up on the shore, where the birds are going, how the constellations wheel in the night sky. It matters deeply to me that the sun sets early and rises late, because that's true, a faithful repetition of nature's patterns that we can count on.
It matters to me that the rains and snows come because they represent the season we're cycling through; I don't need constant sunshine nor do I resent the water in the air and the slush on the roads (unless I have to drive in dangerous conditions!). I like it that the leaves have left the trees and are rotting on the ground. That's the way it's supposed to be, according to the winter season. I like it that we have weird weather at the times of seasonal change; it's like nature's adolescence as it readies for the next stage of earth's life.
For me, the earth is the sacred story. Its rhythms and processes and regeneration are the miracles, the dependable, eternal faithfulness that no home-made deity can reproduce. The earth has taught humankind everything we know, from how to survive in harsh conditions to the most intellectually difficult imaginings of the theoretical scientists. We learned it all from studying the world around us and applying what we learned to our dreams.
More valuable to me than all the lessons and carols, the lights and the merrymaking, the giving and the receiving of gifts, is the chance to be still, to witness the earth moving as the stars revolve, to be part of the grand cotillion of the universe as it wheels throughout space and time.
My small human life is expanded by this experience and I offer to the universe my contributions: walking along the tide line and seeing the new gifts of the sea, gathering friends for a meal and conversation, giving tenderness to those I meet and receiving their warmth in return. These times are real. They mean something true. This is the meaning of the season for me.