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Christmas joy: Simple, or not so simple?

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Tuesday, December 14th, 2004 — Kids wait for Santa. Mom is waiting for her “long winter’s nap.” Dad, if he is not already sleeping – at least figuratively -- through Mom’s annual Martha Stewart moment, is waiting for the whole thing to be over.

This might not be the December scene in every home. Yet, for many the annual struggle to find the special meaning -- that “simple joy of the season” -- amid the chaos of to-do lists, and a blizzard of commercial glitter is not simple at all.

How can we get past the exhausting chaos and glitter to what is important? What will move us beyond the predictable boundaries of everyday-ness and into the real joy of this season, despite a long course of obstacles?

Regardless of our personal tradition -- Ramadan, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or any of a number of winter holidays back into the mists of time -- the days and weeks of preparation are intended to propel us ever deeper into the spirit of the season, not throw us off course.

Many of us talk about simplifying the holidays. There are great reasons to do this -- time, money, nerves, waistlines.

This year I considered eliminating the Christmas tree in protest. Surely we would not miss the annual slogging through the mud, then getting the blankety-blank tree installed in a stand that is never the right size, and dragging down dusty, torn boxes of decorations and lights that no longer work. Are we really that crazy?

But there is a risk involved in simplifying: We risk tripping the little switch in our heads that says, "Bah humbug. Why bother?"

Two events helped me sort out my feelings.

First we went to San Francisco to see Irving Berlin’s "White Christmas" – a Christmas gift to my parents. A few days later we were with friends at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park listening to the Schola Cantorum perform an Advent concert. Each of these in its own way seemed to say, "Relax. Enjoy the ride. The spirit of Christmas can be found in many places, many ways."

"White Christmas" begins in 1944 at a military post in Europe. Soldiers have gathered for a Christmas show. The story jumps to Christmas in Vermont, 10 years later. It is a story of heartfelt desires, disappointments, and the miracle that happens when people come together.

Some would call it over-the-top schmaltz. But there was nary a dry eye in the house as the final curtain opened on a winter wonderland of freshly fallen snow and the audience joined in a chorus of White Christmas.

The Schola Cantorum, in stark contrast, performed Gregorian chant and polyphonic music in the St. Patrick’s candle-lit chapel. The music and setting, like the promise of Christmas, were simple, fragile, and pure. There was a hush as we sat transfixed, transported back through the centuries to where the music originated -- to where it seemed like Christmas itself might have originated.

Later I wondered what these two disparate performances had in common. And I realized they each shared a touch of magic – the magic of shared tradition. It is a magic not to be taken for granted. Our symbols and rituals express the spirit of the season. Putting up the tree or lighting the menorah can bring us to the place where the spirit catches us, often unawares, unexpected, and gives us pause in the season’s rush.

A chorus of White Christmas and artificial snow falling in the theater become something much greater because we believe in the miracle they represent. The Medieval simplicity of a Gregorian chant reminds us of a deep mystery we can never fully understand but which nonetheless shines light on the ordinariness of our everyday lives.

Peace on earth. This simple promise of 2000 years ago remains simple today, also. Then, as now, it is the world and our lives that are complex.
The gift of the season is the light it sheds on our human hopes and desires. A light as well as a lightness that comes from knowing we are not alone in the midst of whatever darkness threatens to invade our hearts.

It is precisely our everyday, human lives that are full of promise. We receive this gift when we clear a space to hear the fragile "Glo-o-o-o-o-ria's" delivered on the wings of a silent night.

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa" - old schmaltz from an earlier century. (And, "yes," we put up a Christmas tree this year.)

It is good to remember that neither Santa nor our preparations have to do it all. They only help remind us to believe that life is good, and we are part of that goodness. May your own symbols, whatever your beliefs and culture, be harbingers of peace and goodwill. And wouldn’t peace and good will be a true miracle?

Our winter holidays are about such miracles -- of which we all are invited to be a part.