From Star Root, date unknown
The Christmas of ‘72 came straight out of Heidi –clear blue skies, green mountain meadows, majestic fir trees, the sound of water splashing over rocks. We walked along the top of Elk Ridge, just the two of us, making an outdoor day of it. We would join friends later for a traditional turkey feast. Before long, we ran into the women who were care-taking our neighbor’s house. They, too, could not stay inside on such a day. As we sat down beside the road to share our sacraments, we fell into one of those spontaneous two-hour deep conversations that used to happen a lot in early Shum. We ended, not surprisingly, on the subject of Christmas. I allowed as how I had always loved it, but one of the women made a very significant remark I never forgot. It was, “Yes we still do it, but it’s not REALLY our kind of holiday, is it?”
I was stunned. Does voluntary simplicity mean I have to give up Christmas? Well, how about Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving? I had begun to wonder, even before this remark, just how many of the holidays were actually invented by Hallmark cards in conjunction with candy companies. Being a lover of costumes, I had clung to Halloween, but I did wonder why one celebrated true love on Valentine’s Day by getting the loved one a box full of fattening chemicals while pressuring her/him for sex. Christmas and Easter always had more meaning for me than many people in my world because of my Christian background. A large part of those holidays for me happened in church and I really did get into the symbolism and the music. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to notice that, far from being spiritually uplifted, most people end up being suckered into guilt-spending and trying to make up with cards, candy and conformist gifts, for the alienated and dysfunctional interaction they have with family and friends the rest of the time.
I’ve been working on this problem for quite a while now. First I tried to subvert consumerism by making my gifts. That was when I still had the requisite time and some aspiration to craftswomanship. Some of the back-East relatives must have thought it strange or cheap, but then everyone has an eccentric aunt who crochets fancy potholders. A kooky aunt in California who does macrame with seashells is not that big departure from tradition. In my house, there was usually a store-bought toy or two from the grandparents to add to the pile of handmade puppets, rag dolls and clothes I had made for the kids, maybe also a low-end toy or two we actually bought new in a non-thrift store. That was okay, until they hit public-school and the annual what-did-you-get list. Then the pressure was on.
By that time, the purity of the homesteading dream had already been compromised by the advent of cash crops and there was more money circulating in general. I’ll never forget the Christmas we first went to Toys”R” Us in the Concord Shopping Mall. It was a week before the Holy Day and we were two hayseed Humboldt hippies with four wish lists and what city savvy we had ever had, had been long forgotten. We were lucky we didn’t get trampled. For real meaningless misery, it’s hard to choose between that Christmas experience and our family trip to Disneyland the day after Christmas, the one where the family got separated immediately in the crowd and I wandered around for six hours with the toddler, hoping the other children were with their father and trying to give him a good time even though he had been separated from his brother and sisters.
The memory of the Christmas of ‘73 is as hard to evaluate. That year, I was seven months pregnant and living in a toolshed. The father, ashamed to take me to his family reunion in Los Angeles because we weren’t married, at least to each other, had left me to face the winter festivities alone. He said he had left the order for my Christmas present with the jewelry maker and instructed me to pick it up and give it to myself. When I tried to do that, the jewelry maker had no idea what the hell I was talking about. I found it an unspeakably humiliating. So, feeling especially “knocked up” on Christmas Eve, I set out to see what Christmas spirit might be found in Garberville. I knew the minister of one of the churches, through some friends, and had heard that they had a nice midnight service at his church. Perhaps, I thought, my Christian past would surface to console me in my time of woe.
I sneaked in late to the brightly lighted church, and, as intrusively as one can with a seven-month tummy while trying to hide a ringless left hand. The back pew I chose was occupied solely by an old man who took it all in as soon as I arrived. I thought I heard him thinking, “welfare mother, hippie slut,” but then scolded myself for making bigoted assumptions. The pastor announced the next carol. There was no hymnal at my end of the pew. I was not dismayed, for I knew all the lyrics of all the standard carols and didn’t really need a book. But the old man had no way of knowing that. He opened his hymnal and glanced sideways at me. Once. Then twice. I waited. Would he share his book? “C’mon, man,” I thought. “You can do it. Share your hymnal with ‘even ‘the least of these.’ “
At last he edged over to me and stuck the book out. I reached out, gingerly, to let him know I wasn’t asking, and our voices rose to heaven, singing about peace on Earth and good will to men. (I sang “folks” in my head as part of my ongoing project to desex the language of The Broadman Hymnal.) In the end, he even smiled. It was a rather surprised smile, but by the time we joined the candlelight procession outside to sing “Silent Night” to the clear winter sky, we were almost friends, somehow. I could still find Christmas in church back, at least when desperate enough. It probably helps to have a good imagination. Few people know better than an ex-Southern Baptist just how many hypocrites can fit into one little church, especially at Christmas.
One of the special things about Christmas for me has always been Mary. Protestants pretty much finished Mary off as meaningful myth. Catholics knew better. I was taught to think of Catholics as idol worshipers because they prayed to Mary and made “graven” images. I was never sure what “graven” meant, though it shows up in the commandment against idolatry. Is it statues vs. printed pictures?, I wondered. There were printed pictures of her in my Sunday School book. Very confusing. Nevertheless, graven images or no, it was acceptable at Christmanstime to remember her role in producing Christ. I loved the Christmas story. I loved the stable, the manger, the angels, shepherds, the wise men, the star and the camels. Most of all, I loved Mary and the baby. One of my earliest disappointments in life was that I didn’t get chosen to play Mary in the school Christmas pageant (you could still do that then). I figured it was because I was blonde, since the girl chosen and long brown hair, but the teacher, whom I dearly loved, patiently explained to me that she was saving me for the biggest role because I was the best reader. I was going to be the Angel Gabriel and read/narrate the story, only speaking part in the pageant. I was suspicious, everyone knows angels are blonde, was I being bamboozled? But, as it turned out, I had a great time as the Angel Gabriel, except for my mother worrying how idolatrous that might be, and decided maybe I did get the role because I was the best reader.
Baptists don’t go in much for nativity scenes (more idol worship), but the first one I saw, at a friend’s house, was a fascination. One of my all-time best Christmas memories is finding an unpainted ceramic Nativity scene at a rummage sale– chubby baby-faced child figures, as if they were themselves a Christmas pageant, complete with the donkey, sheep and camels. I added some angels later. My six-year-old son and I spent a great afternoon in Pullman WA with snow falling outside, painting all the figures while I told the story. Whatever else it might be or not be, it is a great story to tell. The Nativity scene stayed with me and is one of my best treasures.
It may have been a childhood nativity scene that made me finally realize fully that Christ was Jewish. We lived in Miami in a working-class neighborhood that included Cuban emigrants, former French-Canadians, a lion-tamer formerly of the Ringling Bros Circus and various kinds of transplanted Yankees, as well as real cracker families like my own. There were Jewish children at my school and my mother’s boss, for whom she had nothing but praise, was Jewish. There were no African-Americans in my neighborhood, though. They lived little a further down the road, past where we got off the bus, in Liberty City, where I was forbidden to go and discouraged from asking why.
One year I put it altogether. If Mary was Jewish and God is Jewish and Joseph was Jewish, then Christ, no matter what you believed about the virgin birth, had to be Jewish. Jews were special to me ever after, because Jesus was my childhood friend, sometimes my only one. I kept wondering why the Christ in my Sunday School book always looked so much more Nordic than Middle Eastern. After a while, that question along with others, led me into a great theological quagmire. Finding out in my adulthood that one of the Magi was black, served to confirm me in my skepticism. Not only did Jesus always have blue eyes, but I had never seen a picture of a black wise man in my Sunday School book, either. Years later, my son and I carefully painted one of the wise men black. Let’s tell that “old, old story just like it was,” I thought, meaning, of course, as nearly as we know it, how it was.
After 10 years of crusading atheism as a young adult, I found my feet set back on the path to the Great Spirit by the responsible use of various legal and illegal substances. This led me to look beyond Christianity and consider Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as the religions of various tribal peoples. For a while, I considered choosing Comparative Religion as a doctoral “field of interest” in anthropology. I read Costaneda and Allen Ginsberg. I danced with good witches and invoked Wakan-tonka, Ayimiya and Oshun. I had visions of the Great Mother and received the blessings of venerable tree spirits. What, after all that, can one say about Christmas? How about the tree? Of course, we all know the tree has nothing to do with Christ. It’s a legacy left by the Druids, who sacrificed a tree, among other living things, in midwinter, amid some serious ritualizing. Roman Catholicism just absorbed that custom, as it did so many others when it couldn’t stamp them out. Can an environmentalist, even one who is at times a Reform Druid (no blood sacrifices), have a Christmas tree in good conscience?
My last three Christmas trees were the tops of fir trees from my own land, and were trees slated to be trimmed, anyway. Even then, they were cut with reverence, after speaking to the tree and asking its permission. Later on, we cut small trees on our land, by way of thinning. Many of my decorations were made by my children, or they were re-glued bits of broken jewelry and small knick-knacks gleaned at rummage sales. About half were bought new in stores over a period of a decade. I thought of my Christmas trees as more or less Hindu. They had lots of animal figures, birds, tigers, elephants and camels, as well as traditional ball ornaments. No lights, no electricity and I was not about to get any candles near the tree while I lived in a house built of kindling. No cartoon figures or superheroes, though I found it impossible to refuse my little son when he solomnly proffered a Star Wars figure. I did, however, insist it be only one and that one Obi Wan Kenobi. I hung it low enough for him to see but pretty much nobody else.
I’m not sure what to do with the Christmas tree when it dries out and becomes a fire hazard. One year I left it to decompose naturally in the woods, but I felt strange every time I passed it. It looked wrong, even though I had done it reverently. More ceremony seemed needed. Now, I cut it up and burn it ritually, piece by piece, in the woodstove, chanting Hari Rama, it was all I could come up with. The site of a dead Christmas tree in the dumpster or a junk pile brings tears to my eyes. If there is no worship involved, it is simply consumerism.
That’s all very well for me. I live in Christmas tree land and am responsible for care taking that portion of The Land which is in my trust. What about the millions of trees slaughtered without ceremony to preside in a suburban house over piles of consumer goods? Perhaps the answer is that if you’re not already growing trees, you must plant one or see that one is planted for every cut one you buy. I don’t know. When Druids invented a winter festival worshiping trees, there were a lot more trees and a hell of a lot less people. Surely the balance between those two species needs to be restored in some way and with my rule, Christmas provides an opportunity to teach that to the children. If someone has a better idea, I’m open. Whatever one’s relationship to trees at Christmas, if knowledge of the current imbalance between people and trees is not a part of the consciousness around the activity, the activity is simply one more corruption of Christmas.
And Santa, what about Santa? I refused to tell that lie to children older than two, though I did continue to label some presents from Santa, sort of jokingly, throughout their childhoods. I told them, when they were talking pretty well, that people dressing as Santa and making pictures of him was a way we remind each other to be generous and kind, that Christmas was a time of honoring compassion and love. (I knew that later on I would tell them the whole history of how his image merged, again thanks to the Catholics, with the image of a Nordic god who routinely rode through the air in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Odin or Thor, can’t remember which.) They were not traumatized, as far as I can tell, and our celebration was in no way compromised. (I probably let the lie about the Tooth Fairy go on longer than the one about Santa Claus, but I was pretty up front on that one, too.)
Every year I waffled on the Christmas issue. Shall I ignore it, believing that I am the only one really praying for world peace on Christmas Eve, or is that some kind of arrogance? Is there karma attached to that? Shall I allow myself to be dragged into the massive display of wealth and status, knowing every year that I will be revealed once again as a financial failure, only able to send salt shakers back to my back-East relatives? Shall I sing The Messiah one more year or not? A midwinter feast celebrating the birth of one of the bringers of peace to a symbolic reincarnation of the Ancient Mother, a celebration that mixes in a little tree worship, too–no, I can’t quite give that up.
Maybe I’ll send homemade cookies to the back-east relatives, even though their kids are all big now and I’m a lousy cook. The nieces ought to have a kooky aunt in California that still makes Christmas cookies. And maybe I’ll scratch around in the basement and dust off that Nativity scene my son and I painted when he was six. Maybe it’s not, as the women said, “really our kind of holiday.” But maybe, like pretty much everything else in our alternative quest, it doesn’t need to be completely thrown out, only meditated upon. The Christmas walk was a good thing and so was the candlelight procession at midnight. The Hindu Christmas tree and homemade Christmas cookies both feel okay, even if guilt-driven, status-conscious wasteful and unnecessary spending doesn’t. All in all, it’s a badly damaged custom, but then I’m an ace recycler. . . .