by Julia Steiny
Christmas and I have a relationship. I always have a tree, jammed with a silly number of lights. I give a Christmas Eve dinner which increasingly is made up of orphans and adopted relatives, as my kids are busy elsewhere. (We’ll gather at one of their houses on Christmas day. This is new.) I do an annual letter that works hard to tell newsy stories without those obnoxious lists of everyone’s awesome accomplishments. In recent years, I’ve become a minimalist about presents, not for Scroogey reasons, but because I have neither time nor desire to shop. And I don’t want to encourage anyone to add to the stuff in my house. I’m in edit mode.
Oh, I should add that unlike many people’s relationship to Christmas, mine does not include making cookies, pies or gingerbread houses. I am a virgin baker and expect to die in this state. As it is, I am overly fond of consuming other people’s confections.
In the days of yore, starting when my kids were little, the centerpiece of the season for me was directing a children’s pageant with a theater friend and her musical husband. At least that’s how it started, with the three of us trying to distract our kids from obsessing about presents. I totally miss that labor, not that I have time for such a thing now. But then my relationship to the season was deeply anchored in kids and magic and the story of the baby in the manger bringing a message of love and peace.
Now I find myself on the defensive when Christmas and its associations come up. I’m shocked at how remarkably free people feel to say nasty remarks to my face about my relationship to this holiday. I get it that Christmas stories don’t meet the test of scientific method. I just don’t care. Faith and science live in different realms.
And churches, like all institutions, can misbehave horribly. I get that too. But that’s human and has nothing to do with the message that came with the baby in the manger. Ideas, even great ones, are all vulnerable to misuse.
In my tradition the Summary of the Law sets out the rule that its people should love God, their neighbor, and by implication, themselves. “Love” is the thrice-used imperative verb. Honored perhaps mostly in the breach, it’s still a good rule. Given the work I do with distressed students and families, I often feel like the relationship garbage man. So that Summary means a lot to me. I don’t care how you get there, but love needs to be at the center of all relationships, however strained they can get. And yes, relationships can be very, very messy.
I wish there were some un-creepy way schools could teach about the primacy of love, among all the emotions. How can you understand literature without understanding how much love and the lack thereof drives behavior? How can you understand history without having some clue as to what people got out of religion for millennia? Peace on earth and good will toward men still seem like terrific ideas we would be better off sharing.
So here’s hoping you have a very merry Christmas, if that’s your tradition, or Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or whatever brings you to others’ light in the darkness. Draw closer; be kinder, more curious, more forgiving. Work a bit harder on being the one responsible for good relationships. And that way we’ll all have a much happier new year.