Thursday, December 21, 2006
It’s such a good story. A bright new star appears in the sky. Three wise and wealthy men from three different lands each independently feel the need to start walking. They bump into each other on the road and discover that they’re headed in the same direction. Somehow they know they’re going to find a new king. And what they find is a baby boy, born to peasants. And they bow down to him.
There’s such radical beauty at the heart of that simple tale, in the image of three kings kneeling before a baby—in a barn, no less. It can so easily be seen as a powerful icon of humility, of the innate nobility of the human spirit. We know the rest of the story—that this child will grow up to preach that we should all love each other. I don’t care if it’s myth or divine truth—that’s good stuff.
We are a nation of people who at one time in our lives believed in flying reindeer.
We are supposed to decide to either believe this story or not; we’re supposed to take sides on whether the baby Jesus is in truth the king of kings. For me, a baptized and confirmed lapsed Catholic, that argument isn’t necessary or even important. Like many of my peers, I have allowed myself to become too sophisticated to embrace religion—I am neither proud or ashamed of that fact. But I still dig the Christmas story.
Here’s another good one: A small group of rebel Jewish warriors, refusing to bow to the gods of their oppressors, fight for three years and manage to drive a huge army from their homeland. In victory they re-enter their temple, which had been in the hands of their Greco-Syrian enemies. To purify it, according to their tradition, they must burn a menorah filled with consecrated oil continuously—but there is only enough oil for one day. They light the menorah anyway, and it burns for eight days—time enough for them to make and consecrate more oil. The Jews believe their god has blessed them with a miracle.
Hanukkah is a celebration of the light symbolized by the menorah, and of the victory of the Jewish warriors, and ultimately of the notion that faith brings miracles.
Even more than the Christmas story does, the Hanukkah story asks us to believe in something like divine magic. That kind of thinking is officially out of fashion. Even many religious people today struggle with the notion of miracles; religion for many people today is about morality, charity, community—lots of good stuff—but not so much about divine magic. For the over-educated moderns that constitute much of our nation, and much of my crowd, the topic does not come up.
Somehow, though, in my heart of hearts, I cannot shake the belief that there is something in this world that we can’t see or know, some benevolent force in the universe that loves us and wants us to be happy. I admit that as a child I was brainwashed, but I don’t think that’s why this belief persists. I am pretty sure it’s because I have witnessed things in this world that felt miraculous.
Or maybe it’s because I still want to believe in Santa Claus.
• • •
So yes—there’s the other story, the one about the jolly old man with a fluffy white beard and an army of elves, who lives at the North Pole, where he watches over all the world’s little boys and girls all year while the elves make toys, and then one night, in the dead of winter, flies around the world in a sled drawn by reindeer, and slips down chimneys to leave dolls and bikes and Playstations around the tree.
Once upon a time, most of us believed this bizarre tale. We are a nation of people who at one time in our lives believed in flying reindeer. And we all tell our children the same story. It’s not just to trick them into being good (I dislike that part of the story, the notion of Santa giving lumps of coal to bad children, just as I reject the notion of a judgmental God who casts sinners into eternal hell). I think it’s pretty obvious that we lie to our kids about Santa Claus because we want them to believe there is magic in the world.
Eventually they (we) all find out that it’s a lie. Christmas is the best thing, and then…what? No Santa?! It’s too cruel. And so we don’t quite let go.
And every year as the darkness and cold descend, we set up the manger to welcome the baby, or put lights on the trees or menorahs in the windows. We go out into the cold to find gifts for the people we love. We send cards to friends far away, and get together with the ones close by, and we tell the old stories, and maybe sing the old songs. It’s a humble sort of magic—but still.