Commusings: Christmess by Jeff KrasnoDec 26, 2020
Of course, my brother and I had designs on waking with the rooster’s crow, rowdily rousing our parents and attacking the trove of presents that bulged under the tree, spilling out over the candy cane apron ‘round it.
But the cock-a-doodle-doo came in the form of a volley of jagged barbs shooting like arrows up the stairs from the kitchen and into my bedroom. I sprang out of bed and fetched my brother from his bunk. We scurried to the top of the stairs and snuggled into each other three steps down. He was seven and his pajamas still had feet.
Our parents squabbled often, and Eric and I took a strange, masochistic delight in listening to them bicker. One parent would grab the red cape and goad the other to charge. And, like spectators at a bullfight, we muttered a quiet “Olé” under our breath as they dodged one another. We furtively tabulated the piercing stabs until this one morning when my father said, “Well, if you’re planning to leave in June anyway, you might as well leave now.”
My stomach hurtled into my throat like I’d swallowed a melon. And, in an instant, sitting on those stairs with my brother under my arm on that Christmas day, my new broken life flickered before me.
As it is with grief, I did not accept it. I vowed to fix things. I would leverage everything in my power, including my own sanity, to save their marriage. I would be my brother’s keeper. I would punish my mother. I would be unborn to her. This dematriation became the shadowy sub-plot of my fraught adolescence.
Of course, none of it worked. And, finally, against my will, many years later, I collapsed in surrender. I resigned to wisdom.
I don’t mean to throw a wet stocking on your holiday yule log. As you will see, this story is not even remotely woeful. My point is that the holiday season is emotionally messy for most of us.
This is true in any year, but Xmas 2020 may well be the burnt-out star precariously balanced atop a most crooked tree. The celebration of this time without the presence of family is profoundly melancholic for many and a substantial relief for others.
This season expects our joy and, in a desperate bid for good tidings, we swill the pints of Christmas cheer. The piped-in choruses of major-keyed carols backdrop a frenzy of gift-wrapping, potato-mashing and cider-spiking. But while the twinkling lights shine bright on the tree, the branches cast a shadow in which our merriment is muted by bittersweet introspection. If your soul is one with the spirit of the season, God bless you. But if sorrow cleaves your heart right now, then, please know, you are not alone in your aloneness.
I recall traveling to Japan in the early 2000’s. Suspended above the entrance of a sprawling underground mall in Fukuoka was an over-sized Santa nailed to a giant cross. I’d never witnessed the cultural hegemony of the West translated in such a gruesome and hilarious fashion. As the initial amazement waned, this crucified Claus begged a question: How did we get here?
How did the celebration of the nativity of a prophet transform into a commodified free-for-all led by a bespectacled man with fur-cuffed trousers? Upon reflection. I couldn’t really blame the hapless Japanese bloke in charge of environmental décor for his befuddlement. The confusing emotional tumult of the season is mirrored by an equally confounding tradition.
A lithe, sandaled man hailing from the warm climes of Nazareth is commemorated by a rotund grandfather sporting galoshes befitting the North Pole. The apostles have grown antlers and pull a sleigh laden with Playstations (I reckon Blitzen is Judas Iscariot). We once sanctified Mary’s incomparable chastity, and, now, in honor of the birth of her son, I dutifully fulfill the wish list of my eldest daughter with make-up from Sephora. Why not Santa on a cross?
Generally uninspired by the Holy Mother, Schuyler, bless her, was a virgin until twenty. I devoted two years of unsullied chivalry to my noble pursuit of her. (And in my prime years I might add.) I dubbed her private area the Kingdom of God, for there was more chance of a camel passing through the eye of a needle than a rich man entering it (Mark 10:25 ;-). I won’t claim that our daughters were conceived immaculately, but it was damn close.
I particularly empathize with poor Joseph. Imagine all the nappies he devotedly changed without even a proper shag let alone much paternal credit. Just as The Holy Spirit “overshadowed” Mary, Joseph lives in the shadow of God. Strange that a religion that gives its savior two dads also promotes the fatal public stoning of homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13).
Evidently, the emergence of Santa Claus as Christ’s proxy is a product of syncretism evolving over millennia. Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian man with dowries so that they would avoid a life of prostitution.
Father Christmas dates back to 16th-century England during the reign of Henry VIII, when he was portrayed as a large man in scarlet robes lined with fur. He exemplified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food, wine and revelry. As England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on December 6th, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to December 25th to coincide with Christmas Day. Essentially, the traditional celebrations of Old Saint Nick and Christmas were merged.
The modern visual of our jolly, red-hatted Santa is derived from the 1823 poem by Clement Clark Moore, A Visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas). The political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, also played a significant role in crafting his image. Of course, good old American capitalism embellished our jovial gift-giver as well. Coca-Cola sweetened Claus’ persona throughout the 20th century with advertisement campaigns.
For years, I eschewed the holiday, deriding its over-commercialization, perhaps a reflection of an evolving anti-materialism, or maybe just a half-hearted attempt to spiritually bypass my adolescent trauma. I still give December 25 a minor side-eye, but the unbridled holiday spirit of my children has slowly humbled, if impoverished, me. My daughters are a stark reminder that my life isn’t all about me. It’s about me in connection with them, with you, and with the world.
The messiness of the holiday season brings life’s contradictions into stark relief. We experience both the joy and discomfort of togetherness while balancing the serenity and loneliness of solitude. We express the immaterial emotions we hold for one another in the form of material gifts. We celebrate the birth of a new beginning while grieving the passage of those we have loved. In growing, we accept the imperfect perfection of life’s incongruities.
I’ll never be that guy in the Christmas card wearing the reindeer antlers with the sparkly-toothed family in matching Rudolph sweaters. Behind every photoshopped depiction of feigned perfection, there are a hundred broken hearts. Still, what was once a lump of coal, over time, became a diamond. Sure, I’ve spent plenty of fraught energy navigating Christmas calendars between my parents, divvying up time fairly like slices of pumpkin pie. But, in the end, my mother and father were the absolute best parents they knew how to be. My mother bequeathed me persistence and creativity. My father imparted the love of music and a custody of words. In the end, they were my greatest teachers. And, of course, together, they gave me this miracle that I call my life. My love for them transcends the familial. I revere them as people.
I reflect upon those years of teenage tribulation, of reckless wrath. I picked up an ember from the crackling fire. In my fury, I clenched it, waiting for the right moment to hurl it at my mother, to exact my revenge. All that time, it was me getting burned. When you are angry, YOU are the one that is angry. With the wisdom that time brings, I now recognize that I, myself, was the source of my own suffering. So often, it is this way. I don’t blame the child on the stairs; the imagined future of suffering that flashed before me was a phantom of my own projection. I do not contend that loss is not painful, but as one spiritually grows, so does the ability to respond to the event instead of reacting hastily to the judgment of it.
After Jesus hung upon the cross for three hours, he summoned his final words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
The greatest gift you can give, this season or any, is forgiveness. And this gift extends potently to yourself. I have long since forgiven my parents for their shortcomings. But it took considerably longer to forgive myself. Consider wrapping up this present with a ribbon and sending it off in a self-addressed envelope.
If you can practice forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude for the abundance of what fills your life, then you will be walking in the footsteps of the baby born on this day. You will be finding Christ in the mess. Watch then the angels appear into your life as they recognize themselves in you. This can make any holiday a merry one.
That’s all I have to exclaim as I drive out of sight.
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
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Commusings is a curious and contemplative commentary on the current and timeless from Commune Co-founder Jeff Krasno (and occasional guest writers). These weekly writings help us envision a collective path forward through deep thinking, quiet listening, and honest conversations about spirituality, philosophy, and culture. Subscribe to the weekly Commusings newsletter here.
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