Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Ecumenical Christmas

About this time last year, my boss came into the teachers' room and frowned. "Where's the Christmas tree?" she wanted to know. "Why isn't it up yet?"

There were only three of us in the staffroom and we were all busy with lesson plans and marking. "Isn't it in the secretary's office?" one of my colleagues mumbled.

But it wasn't. My boss came back and started rummaging around in the cupboards. "It's almost Christmas and we still don't have the tree up!" she lamented. "This just won't do!"

I knew I'd seen it, but I couldn't remember where. "Try the bottom cupboard, just under the dictionaries," I suggested.

There was a triumphant cry and my boss straightened up, clutching a tangle of plastic evergreen. "I knew it was here somewhere!" She gave it a little shake and a cockroach that had been wintering in the branches hit the floor and went scurrying."Okay, let's set it up," my boss said, undeterred by the roach. "And look -- here's a bag of decorations to go on it!"

She dumped everything in the middle of the table, shot us a bright smile, and went off to do more important things. I put down my pen and sighed. One of my colleagues groaned and the other rolled his eyes. Two more colleagues walked into the office, blinked, and smiled. "Oh good, you've got the Christmas tree out!"

As we all started stuffing synthetic branches into slots, I almost burst out laughing. We teachers were a mixed bag of nationalities and faiths. Among us were over half a dozen Christians -- Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox (Russian and Greek) and Syriac -- a Bahai, assorted atheists, and many Muslims, lapsed and practicing. Yet here we were, assembling a plastic replica of a pagan symbol manufactured by Communists in China, at the behest of a Muslim, to celebrate the birth of a Jew. How could you possibly get more ecumenical than that, or more surreal?

But as the week went by, I was glad of that tree. Amazingly, it brought back memories of childhood Christmases, the smell of eucalyptus, crushed fir,and cinnamon, the sparkle of glass ornaments, the thrill of finding this green, glittering thing in the middle of our living room.

The more I thought about it, the weirder it was: historically, Christmas trees have nothing to do with Christ, and yet they have become an international symbol of Christmas -- so much so that even in Muslim-owned shops and businesses in Northern Cyprus where few Christians set foot, you could see them. In Japan, where the population of Christians is about 1%, you can see many Christmas trees at this time of year. We had Christian friends in Tokyo who never bought a Christmas tree, but their largely agnostic neighbors dutifully decorated one every year. For some reason, decorating Christmas trees has become a compelling custom. The whole industrialized world seems to own Christmas.

"It's money," scoffed one of my colleagues in Japan. "Money and cultural imperialism. That's why people put up Christmas trees." And I could see his point: when Christmas trees go up weeks before Halloween, it's impossible not to feel cynical. "It has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity," a friend lamented, shuddering at the abomination of a PVC Christmas tree in a window, glittering with fiber optic decorations. Disco carols boomed raucously from a shop while girls in short red velvet skirts pinned shiny garlands of plastic tinsel to the display window.

But although I can't speak for those who are of other faiths or have no religion at all, I think there is something all human beings can celebrate over Christmas, something that has nothing to do with commercialism, the fundamental idea behind even the plastic replica of a pagan symbol: unselfish giving. Whether or not we believe that Jesus was the son of God, almost all of us have been lucky enough to experience this at some time or other -- a gift offered to us freely, given from the heart, with no strings attached. Yes, it takes a lot to see it there in an aluminum tree festooned with baubles, but have faith: the love is there. And faith and love are what Christmas is all about.



Charles Gramlich said...

Even through the cloud of commercialism, for some folks the true nature of the season peeks through.

Vijaya said...

Ah, for teachers everywhere, we're marking papers ... I still remember one year when grades had to be turned in on the 23rd. And I hadn't had a chance to bake anything. But a Christmas tree is so festive. I do so enjoy this pagan tradition. Christians have borrowed these everywhere they went when they evangelized.

In India, where there are hardly any Christians (1% perhaps) Christmas is non-event. I still remember my father dressing up as Santa Claus one year (I was four) and me fleeing into the garden. I'd never heard of it. My mother only told me about the baby Jesus.

I do dislike the crass commercialism -- all the buying, buying, buying. I'd like to think some of the people are buying for the needy amongst us because winters can be so very difficult for the poor. I think almost in all cultures, winter sharing is common. Those with more give to those with less. And that is the true spirit.

Our King and Savior came amongst the humblest and poorest.

Robert the Skeptic said...

In this Atheist household a Christmas tree goes up every year... we even have an angel on the top.

What cracks me up are the people who put up a tree a week before Thanksgiving; then very day AFTER Christmas, the dead tree is out in the street waiting to be picked up. Too funny!

Anonymous said...

What a lovely story, Mary! Thanks for sharing it.

We've had our tree up for a week. The routine goes like this. Day 1, purchase tree, bring it home in the trunk of the car, affix tree stand, write note to self about putting on stand outdoors next year. Day 2, exclaim about the lovely tree smell several times. Day 3 (after the tree has thawed and the branches have fluffed out), put on two long strings of lights and the angel at the top. Day 4, readjust lights. Days 5 and 6, think about putting on the garlands of gold beads that are each just a little short of what they need to be to drape perfectly. Day 7, replace strand of burned-out lights, put on garlands.

Probably tonight we'll get around to putting on the ornaments, of which we have collected way too many over the years!

Robin said...

I agree! I love Christmas trees. They make me happy. They're pretty, and the Christmas specials are on TV. I think they can be appreciated by people of all religions - even a little Jewish lady like me.

I hope my rabbi doesn't read your blog.

MG Higgins said...

Well said. Neither my husband or I consider ourselves Christian, but our real tree sits in the living room, smelling lovely and bedecked with lights and ornaments. I agree; it's a symbol of unselfish giving more than of religion.

Murr Brewster said...

We always had a Christmas tree. Then our small, technically stuffed dog Pootie wanted one too, and we arranged for a tiny Charlie Brown tree for Pootie upon which he hung an assortment of butt-ugly ornaments. As the years went on, his tree got larger and ours, tastefully appointed, got smaller. Finally last season we skipped ours and Pootie's is as big as the ones we used to have. Only all our good ornaments remain boxed up and Pootie's tree has such things as a ceramic jockstrap, a dunking Michael Jordan, M&M lights, a gummy Santa, and a Walgreen's Special star on top that will sear your retinas.

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- A little more of the goodness and a little less of the commercialism would be great, wouldn't it? But so would world peace, money in the bank, and a pony.

Vijaya -- In both Cyprus and Japan, we had to apply for permission NOT to work on Christmas. Then the assumption was that we must need to spend all day at church and I was asked if I could come in to work AFTER church. It was hard to explain that I didn't want the day off to attend church, but to be with my family.

I loathe the commercialism over Christmas. My husband and I would much rather spend the day working in a soup kitchen than exchange expensive gifts with people who already have everything they need (but nowhere near everything they want). I've seen the true spirit of Christmas celebrated by plenty of people -- many who would not call themselves Christian. And yes -- that is the true spirit, and it is deeply gratifying.

Robert -- Christmas is for atheists too. Giving from the heart, showing compassion and charity to others -- I know dozens of atheists who live their lives that way. They may not make declarations of faith, but for me, their actions speak worlds.

I think I know why people put their trees up after Thanksgiving, then take them down the day after Christmas: they want full value from their Christmas tree, but once the holiday is over, the tree must go. We do it the other way around. We put our tree up just before Christmas and leave it up for ages. One year, we left it until Easter, not because we wanted full value from it, but because I was making a point. Eventually, my youngest daughter cracked and we took it down together. It made great tinder!

Anne -- We don't put lights on our tree -- we tend to leave it out so long it becomes a real fire risk -- but we have a zillion ornaments too, and the thought of groping around in our attic rooms for the boxes they're in is making me a little light-headed. But I do this every year, and it's mainly because of that lovely smell you've mentioned. It's funny how much of Christmas is scent-related. What would Christmas be without cinnamon, crushed fir, eucalyptus, or that delightful scent of fresh plastic?

Robin -- I'll bet your rabbi would love the SNL sketch with Elliot Gould, who turns out to be the only one in an ecumenical holiday service who knows ALL the lyrics to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. He (or she?) would probably be less crazy about Jews for Jesus. They used to visit my cousins' church, and the sight of big, bearded, Semitic-looking guys crying out "Praise the LORD!" was so surreal it always made me smile.

MG -- There's something magical about Christmas trees, isn't there? They smell good, they look good, they bring a little nature into your house -- and sometimes they remind you of good times past -- and that there really is a meaning behind Christmas that transcends stimulating the economy.

Murr -- Ages ago, friends of mine had a competition to find the tackiest Christmas ornaments ever made. I can't even list some of them, they were that mind-boggling. Your ceramic jock strap would have been in the running, though the Walgreen's Special Star sounds pretty decent, and the M & M lights make my mouth water.

Kim Ayres said...

Most of the main symbols of Christmas - tree, Santa, snow, holly wreaths, Christmas stocking, roasted chestnuts etc, have nothing to do whatsoever with a Jew born in a desert environment over two thousand years ago. But then bunnies, chicks and chocolate eggs have nothing to do with his death either :)

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Last year, we celebrated Christmas by looping tinsel and homemade straw angels over our Japanese peace lily and stringing dried lemon slices on gold ribbon over our windows. When people grumbled about authenticity, I reminded them that Jesus was born only 250 miles away, and lilies and angels are mentioned in the Bible. How much more authentic could you get?

Falak said...

Such a christmasy post :) There is something about Christmas that makes me feel happy even though I don't celebrate it. Maybe its just because my friends load me up with sweets and Christmas delicacies :P
Lovely post once again.

Angela Ackerman said...

Ha, I can only imagine how strange this would be with so many nationalities and faiths present...roach not included.

Angela @ the Bookshelf Muse

Anonymous said...

I felt that it was all about commercialism when I was younger, but now I think Xmas is about togetherness.

A Paperback Writer said...

In the USSR during the Cold War, it became a New Year's Tree. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- Sweets and delicacies are great and they're certainly part of my Christmases too, but I want to think they're just part of the trappings. That the real meaning, though well buried under a pile of rubbish, is still in there somewhere, alive in human hearts.

Angela -- I really enjoyed the eclectic atmosphere last Christmas, and it was fun to share putting up a plastic tree with such a variety of people, but we let the cockroach go. He wouldn't have made a fitting ornament for even a plastic tree!

Medeia -- All holidays are good for uniting families. Even my Turkish students who insisted they didn't believe in God loved Bayram, and they specifically said they enjoyed it because they could be with their families. (And speaking of Bayram, I've FINALLY ordered your book!)

The meaning of Christmas gets lost through the constant message to buy, buy, buy. There's a lot of cynical hard-sell at Christmas and it's very depressing, but the kernel of meaning is still there.

APW -- I never knew that! What's funny is that the kept the concept, they just shifted the occasion. The desire to worship a tree seems hard-wired into a lot of us.

Blythe Woolston said...

Exquisite. While assembling the plastic tree, you also assembled as a community. I like that part best.
We have a particularly fragrant tree this year.
A naked paper doll representing Empress Theodora reigns each year in our house. I can't imagine a better angel for the lot of us.

Pat said...

I've always believed that it was Prince Albert who brought the Christmas tree idea to Britain and I bless him for it.
The tree and the crib scene remind me each year of the real spirit of Christmas and give me joy.

Mary Witzl said...

Blythe -- I've always suspected that the angels amongst us are disguised as plain old mortals, naked or otherwise. Every household finds the angel that works for them; I had a feeling yours wouldn't be a glitzy sweet-smiling blonde in flowing white robes.

Pat -- There is something magical about stars, newborn babies, and the sap from newly-cut evergreens, isn't there? Christmas has so many wonderful sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Creches and Christmas trees work for me too.