Demythologizing Christmas

Rev. Furrer will speak on the heart of Christmas when its stripped of all the schmaltz and commercialism.

“Demythologizing Christmas”

I want to talk about the heart, the essence, of Christmas. It’s a holiday laden with myth—all holidays are laden with myth though few so clearly as Christmas.

Unitarians love Christmas. It’s our favorite holiday. But this was not always so. As I explained last Sunday, our puritan ancestors deplored the day, as it had no clear scriptural basis. True enough the nativity narratives in Luke and Matthew say the baby Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem, that shepherds, beckoned by an angel, were in attendance, and that later—on Epiphany (12th Night), wise men came from the East seeking to see him. But these narratives are full of anomalies. To cite only the most obvious, why would shepherds be out in wintertime? They wouldn’t, period.

The puritans were all well versed in scripture and very serious in their daily readings and devotionals. They knew these anomalies and knew, too of the Roman holiday of Saturnalia: an annual return-of-the-sun ritual that Roman authorities grafted into Christianity in order to make the new religion more palatable to their fourth century subjects. So for the puritans, Christmas was pagan, pure and simple, and they wanted nothing to do with it. Indeed, from 1659 to 1681 celebrating Christmas was illegal in Massachusetts. People caught with an advent wreath were subject to punishment and a fine.

There were, apparently, secret celebrations or they wouldn’t have made such laws. But as the Puritans themselves were in periodic trouble with authorities in London, there were occasions when their rule was less secure. And on such occasions the popular social order—part of a cultural world that went back thousands of years—sort of naturally bubbled up. Christmas was an important—and symbolically charged—part of this cultural world.

By the 1730’s, and there ever after, religious authorities more or less stopped condemning Christmas and began, instead, to purify it of its seasonal excesses. This goes on to this day: those who would “put Christ back in Christmas” are but modern-day puritans. After 1760 it became unusual not to celebrate Christmas and no hymnal published thereafter failed to include a Christmas hymn. Our current UU hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, has thirty-three: more than in any other category.

In the popular imagination, myth = primitive untruth. In fact, myths are neither—neither primitive nor untrue. They are, rather, a kind of poetry or imagery that helps us make sense of the world and our place in it. They are not to be taken literally, any more than Shakespeare or Mark Twain or Emily Dickenson. They should, however, to be taken seriously. The philosopher Alan Watts, who spoke to several of our churches and fellowships back in 1960s, defined myth as “an imagery with which we make sense of the world.” In any case, people who reject myth out of hand, it seems to me, are as confused about its intention as those who take it literally. The key—if you want to understand myth—is (1) enjoy it as poetry, and; (2) strip away the hokum by demythologizing it. If you strip away the myth—see it as myth (as metaphor and poetry), that is, then you can enjoy it all the more, and see its value and meaning all the more clearly.

So what is the Christmas myth? Basically, it seems to me, it’s about faith. And hope. And renewal. And also, Christmas is about the means to nurture these needed qualities—faith, hope, renewal—in our communities and in us.

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People everywhere celebrate the cycle of nature. All the Northern Hemisphere cultures celebrate winter solstice[1], when the days stop getting shorter and the sun begins its six-month return of increasingly longer and longer days. Christmas is one of those festivals. Hanukkah is another. In India it’s called Sankranti, in China it’s known as Dong Zhi. The Hopi Indians of Arizona have Soyal, a month-long celebration with rituals to insure victory of light over darkness. Hopi culture is deeply entwined with aiding the sun’s return and giving strength to budding life—so it’s not surprising that Soyal lasts for 20 days and includes prayer stick making, purification, rituals and a concluding rabbit hunt, feast and blessing. Other Indian tribes have similar rites.

There seems to be something innately human—and healing—in the keeping of holidays and in the celebration of seasonal turning points. The 20th century English author G. K. Chesterton observed, “We tend to tire of the most eternal splendors, and a mark on our calendar, or a crash of bells at midnight maybe reminds us that we have only recently…” arrived on earth. So we create ritual observances—celebrations and festivals—and thereby add enough of the human touch to cosmic events to make us stop… and pay attention to the great natural drama that unfolds before our very eyes every day.

The practice of bringing greenery indoors and festooning our homes with the few plants that retain their color through the winter—pine trees, ivy, and holly—is pretty universal, too. The Puritans sought to prevent this, but to no avail. People are part of nature and want to be around it. Nature heals and connects us to life and to a sense of being alive. This was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s and the Transcendentalists’ big insight: that the closest we can get to God is in the direct unmediated experience of nature—and that doing so is healing. And good.

Not only are we a part of nature, it’s part of us. We belong to it. It flows through us; in the arts and sciences, to be sure, but also in cultural folkways and idioms. Completely demythologized, Christmas is about having faith that the sun — S-U-N — will return. And hope that, even in the darkest times, light will come again. And warmth. And a regenerated earth. The custom of decorating our Christmas tree with fruit and flowers—and ornaments that look like them—reveals the natural cycle of life at the heart of our celebrations, whether we think about it or not.

And this, as much as anything else, is what’s so amazing about the natural cycle of life: it goes on whether we pause to contemplate it or not, and us along with it. Nature will heal us, whether we are in touch with it or not in touch with it. Spring, with real fruits and flowers, will come along whether or not we decorate a tree. Nature will do this all by itself, and carry us along in the process. Life continues and new life will come in its many forms. The days will grow longer, and the earth will renew itself. Babies will be born; some of whom—though born in extremely modest circumstances—will grow up to do great, even prophetic, things. Love happens, and people are renewed and strengthened in the process.

When we understand myth as poetry we realize that all parts of the story are happening all the time. Nevertheless, the Christmas myth focuses on one particular winter, roughly 2000 years ago, when Jesus of Nazareth—a man later executed by Roman authorities—was allegedly born. The nativity narratives that we’re all familiar with essentially reflect the efforts of early Christian mythmakers to conflate the natural cycle of the returning S-U-N with the birth of one particular S-O-N. They wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem so that he’d be—through Joseph, whom they rendered more or less a stepfather—in the lineage of King David. The myth makers also put wise men (professors, scientists, and pundits of their day) and shepherds (hard working everyday hustlers) in attendance, and raging tyrants out to get the baby—all this that we might recognize the birth’s importance.

What made it so important? Here’s what I think: Jesus’ birth was important because his message, as an adult, was the human counterpart to the natural cycle of earth and sun, a recipe for renewal in our social and domestic relationships. And that message: love.

It’s actually a pretty tough message to even hear sometimes, let alone follow. The prophet Jesus, when he grew up, preached radical love and inclusiveness. There were those who didn’t like that message, and they had him put to death. And there are those today who would pervert his message by twisting it into selective love and exclusivity.  Like the evangelical Reverend Ted Haggard, since brought down by scandal, who only a year before his downfall had consigned to a hell of everlasting torment interviewer Barbara Walters (a Jew) and all others like her who don’t buy into his narrow, restrictive ideas. By any calculus, this is mean-spirited; or, as one commentator said, “Ted Haggard believes in a hell of a God.” And preaches—he’s still at it—a message very different from that of the actual Jesus, who mythic birthday we celebrate in eighteen days. The harder they come, sometimes, the harder they fall. Ted seems to be softening and become more self-reflective of late, having written that he now believes Evangelical Christianity has abandoned the actual Gospel for “image management and damage control. Maybe,” Haggard writes, “we should be willing to admit that we are all growing in grace, be willing to be numbered with the transgressors, and stop over-stating and over-promising.”

Love your enemies, turn the other cheek when assailed, and pray for those who persecute you. In case you hadn’t noticed: this is not the message that the Ted Haggard of old or other fundamentalists put forth. Like the most rigid puritans, like King Herod, like Ted Haggard in his younger days and his still rigid fundamentalist allies, such people are cut us off from the natural wellsprings of renewal, and would have us cut off, too. Loving your enemy, turning the other cheek when assailed, and praying for those who persecute you: cynics and self-described “realists” will decry such ideas as whimpish sentimentality, and always have[2]. But in just the same way that lighting candles and decorating trees helps boost our spirits in the midst of winter, learning to love—and celebrating the love we’re already graced to receive and to share—can bring hope and faith… even in the darkest times.

The late C. S. Lewis was a prolific author. One of his books, The Great Divorce, has always stayed with me. In it, Lewis finds himself on a strange bus ride to heaven. The passengers eventually disembark on a broad plain leading to a mountain range off in the distance: a place not unlike the Santa Fe basin where I used to live with the Sangre de Christo Mountains rising to the east. As the bus passengers look out over the beautiful expanse they spy coming to meet them spirit guides who will lead them over the mountains.  But—heavens! —It turns out that in every case the guide is the one person that the guests do not want to meet; the former spouse who ran off with someone else, the business partner who defrauded them, and so on. “If getting into heaven means having to be escorted by you, than I’ll make my habitations elsewhere, thank you!” And so nearly all of the get back on the bus and go home. People would rather live in hell—or purgatory—Lewis’s imagery clearly suggests, if living in heaven requires letting go of their familiar resentments and forgiving one another. This is sad, it seems to me, but all too often very true.

Learning to love is never easy. It means letting go of a lot of things that don’t really matter. Loving a little child, for most of us, is easy. They’re totally vulnerable and dependent, and so our natural maternal and paternal instincts take over. We incline naturally to want to love children and make sure they’re safe and comfortable. We’re willing to keep at bay whatever calamities lay outside our domestic perimeter, that this baby might sleep peacefully through the night and rise up eager, filled with hopeful expectation.

It’s harder to love the less innocent, people who are grown up and especially those who make choices that hurt us, sometimes knowing they’re hurting us but who do it anyway. This is why family members, and friends so easily hurt us. And why we sometimes steel ourselves against them, even when we don’t consciously intend to. Nevertheless, maintained the grown-up Jesus, love and forgiveness and reaching out is the way to renewal, to the return of warmth and light in human relationships.

Another thing: Jesus’ message of solidarity with the dispossessed and non-violence in the face of violence resonates with nature—and with the natural cycle of life. His message is the human, social overlay and complement to the life cycle: that love is the human way to get through the winter and begin the spring. The winter of December, January and February, and the winter we create in our own lives whenever we give up hope in one another and cast our lot with the Centurion guard, i.e., with whomever’s playing the role of King Herod and his mercenary legions in our own time and place, whatever the era.

In the face of darkness the human capacity to love is our hope. Reaching out in love will generate faith as surely as spring follows winter. This is the demythologized heart of Christmas, and of all the other solstice celebrations. Non-violent inclusivity will come to flower and bear fruit if only we’re hopeful and faithful enough to see it through. As Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King—modern-day incarnations of the same message—made clear, by virtue of their incredible success despite dark forces aligned against them.

“Healing,” wrote the poet W. H. Auden “…is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing Nature.” Nature restores us by reminding us of our connections to the earth and to the natural life cycle. Solstice celebrations help us pause that we might remember our mortality—how brief our span of years on earth—and take steps to live fully and lovingly while we can.

I must make one final point: The winter solstice marks the return of the sun, but only the beginning of winter. Once the days begin getting longer, the weather continues to be cold and damp for at least another six to ten weeks. Striving to love one another will help us through the wet and blustery days ahead, but so will patience. The art of lying fallow. Of aligning our biological clocks with that of the natural world and resting internally. In winter the life energy is still underground. The return of the sun is just at its beginning. The movement underground is just at its beginning, as is the movement within each of our souls; therefore it must be strengthened by rest. Allowing energy that’s renewing itself to be strengthened by rest means that it won’t be dissipated and used prematurely or unskillfully. As with the return of health after an illness or the return of understanding after an estrangement, everything must be treated tenderly, and with care at the beginning, so that the return may lead to a flowering later on.

This is what the image of Jesus in the manger is all about: allowing ourselves to love—difficult, as it may be—that the tender promise of renewal will come to flower.


[1] As we will here, led by LeAnne and Chris Struble, on Dec 21.

[2] For instance, in the current movie, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” Roger Stone shares how it was that hyper-combative attorney Roy Cohn instructed him, and a friend of his, Donald Trump, to never apologize, under any circumstances.