And So This Is Christmas

Christmas is an age-old tradition steeped in heart-stirring sentiment, yet embattled by debate. Even so the declaration of a “War on Christmas” appears to be old news. These days we can’t seem to agree on the intent of a simple song – Is ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ ‘a little rapey’ or innocuous?

And so, I don’t celebrate Christmas. What is there to celebrate?

But before I get into the many reasons against the season, might I suggest a reset? What if? During the deepest darkest hours of the year, we were to serve those in need in our communities? How about Merry Kindmas or Happy Caringdays? Ok, I know these are corny catchphrases but hear me out. Christmas has run its course! And wouldn’t it be a wondrous and miraculous gift if we could replace our argument and indulgence with a compassionate embrace?

Years ago I thought I’d write a book on Christmas calling on Christians to abandon the holiday. I devoured books on the topic including Christmas in America by Penne L. Restad and Consumer Rights: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays by Leigh Eric Schmidt.

After review of my detailed notes, and in true Dickens fashion, let me fly you through the ghosts of Christmas past, visit a few of the ghosts of Christmas present, and ponder the ghosts of Christmas future. What will become of the controversial holiday?

The Ghosts of Christmas past…

Did you know there was an ancient war on Christmas?
December 25th as the official day of Christmas dates back to a proclamation of the church of Rome in 336 A.D. This dating of Christ’s birth to the day of winter solstice countered two pagan feasts – Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Historians assert evidence of a war on Christmas in the 3rd century between Sol Inustitiae (Sun of Righteousness) and Sol Invictus (Mithra). In the feast of Saturnalia, celebrated from Dec. 17th to Dec. 23rd, slaves were allowed liberty and presents were exchanged accompanied by a great deal of eating drinking, and lewd behavior.

Throughout history, Christmas began to blend the natural, mythic, and civic traditions and religions of the day.

The first American war on Christmas

puritan-christmasPuritans rejected the church’s notion of Christ’s birth on December 25th and opposed the celebration of Christmas altogether. In fact, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. The Puritan war on Christmas lasted well into the 18th century, until it became recognized as a federal holiday.

A raucous carnival
Christmas in Europe had long been a drunken revelry and European immigrants to the New World happily brought their raucous customs with them. Mummers, wassailers, and revelers with their callithumpian bands shouted their dissatisfaction and merriment all across early America shooting guns in the street and demanding gifts and food from wealthy homeowners.

“Here we stand before your door, 
As we stood the year before;
Give us whisky, give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.”

It wasn’t until Christmas was “recast to fit the essence of a Christian home venerating Jesus and honoring children” that nights became silent and calm.

An object of commercial profit and exploitation

coca cola santaEnter Santa – or the modern version of Santa as derived from Knecth Ruprecht and St. Nicholas, to the elfish Kris Kringle, and finally to the modern day rotund and rosy Santa Claus. In the home, he provided parents a way to teach children about the rewards and punishment of good and bad behavior. In the marketplace, he fueled the growth of consumer commerce. Santa was first used as an advertising tool in 1830-1840’s and quickly became a central figure of the holiday, the modern archetype arising out of a 1930’s ad by Coca-Cola.

In 1870 Congress declared Christmas an official federal holiday and by the 1880’s Americans had reinvented Christmas altogether, fashioned by the moods of modern industrial life complete with Santa’s workshop and the making and distributing of toys to the masses. Shopping for the season trended earlier and earlier in attempt to stimulate recovery after the great depression. In 1941 President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last to the second to last Thursday in November to extend the shopping season. Christmas became the “merchants’ harvest” – a festival of consumption accounting for the majority of annual retail profits. 1924 marked the first Macy’s day parade with “Santa as the guiding spirit of the Christmas bazaar” and department stores supplanted churches in holiday ornamentation.

A few unfortunate accidents
By 1900 one in five Americans had a Christmas tree in the home. Unfortunately, before electric lights, newspapers reported accidental deaths caused by the flames of unwatched candles!

A means of social stratification
Presents were a way to express status and position in society. New Years’ was the original time of gift giving, to convey good wishes for health and prosperity in the coming year. Gift giving didn’t become commonplace until the early 19th Century. And when it did, it soon became clear that Santa preferred rich children over poor children instead of good children over bad ones supporting the mounting social value of materialism over morality.

And a harmful lie
Psychologists frowned on the idea of teaching children that Santa is real, fearing kids would become disillusioned when they realized he is not. Robert Jay Lifton coined the term desymbolization – the loss of human capacity to understand the difference between a symbol and the reality that it’s meant to portray.

Early concerns about Christmas centered largely on issues of social order and decency.

The ghosts of Christmas present

Modern concerns caution selfishness and greed, especially amongst children. What was once a season of innocent indulgence encouraged by imaginative merchants is now a grand festival of consumption monitored by Wall Street as an indicator of economic health. Would we plunge into recession without Christmas?

The modern war on Christmas
The mid-1900’s brought the debate to a boil with lawsuits challenging the constitutional legality of nativity scenes and other religious symbols in the public domain. Allen vs. Hickel (1970) sued the National Park Service to end its annual Christmas pageant of peace with its life-size nativity scene. In 1992 a coalition of Protestant and Catholic ministers issued a proclamation against the commercialization of Christmas. “We have seen the spirit of Christmas reduced to a carnival of mass marketing. Consumption has taken on an almost religious quality; malls have become the new shrines of worship. Massive and alluring advertising crusades have waged war on the essential meaning of the spiritual life, fostering the belief that the marketplace can fulfill our highest aspirations.”

A device of unjust discrimination
The 50’s and 60’s brought complaints about X-mas to an all-time high. The social unrest of the decades caused a shift in women’s sentiments, and many began to voice concerns over their dominant role in organizing all the elaborate trimmings of the season. African Americans protested Christmas as an all-white season. Jews criticized it as exclusionary, and more.

A mental breakdown
At about the same time, psychiatrists began to diagnose the first cases of the holiday blues.

A stress-induced illness
And studies since have found a large percentage of workers call in sick as a result of stress over the holidays.

A serious health hazard
For still somewhat unknown reasons deaths spike around the holidays referred to as the  “Christmas Holiday Effect.”

An opportune crime spree
And rates of criminal activity also spike during the holidays, especially robbery and larceny.

It deprives children of creativity
New studies show kids who are given more toys are less creative and more distracted.

It clutters our lives and minds
Research also shows that materialism is linked to lower levels of well-being and happiness for people of all ages and walks of life.

It presents a financial risk
And yet Americans have a troubling tendency to go overboard! In a 2016 study, 65% of consumers took on holiday debt unexpectedly with an average of $1,003 up from $986 in the year prior. Most predicted they’ll need four months or more to pay it off!

A simple inconvenience
It turns out most employees would rather avoid the holiday Christmas party.

It expands our waistlines
Of course, with the opportunity to overindulge “guilt-free” we’re often left with New Year’s resolutions to shed extra pounds. Not to mention what the added sugar consumption does to our metabolism, immune system, and overall health.

And encourages a return to debauchery
New traditions of revelry have emerged. SantaCon, a kind-of Halloween of Christmastime, is now celebrated in 397 cities and 52 countries!

I could go on and on…but I wonder

What will the Ghosts of Christmas Future bring?

elf on shelfWe all know the elf on the shelf is up to no good! I predict a continued slide to the streets in a return to drunken revelry marked by increasing levels of stress and dissatisfaction.

Is all the harried scurrying about worth it?

Why not turn away from traditions of the past and use the end of the year (the deep of winter and our darkest hour of need) to support one another, volunteer, and spend time in reflection and planning for the year ahead?

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Volunteer time to support local charities
  • Write thank you notes to those who’ve made a difference in your life this year
  • Take time to clear the cobwebs in a ritual cleaning, give what you don’t need to charity and make space to imagine a bountiful New Year
  • Reflect on what you’ve accomplished this year, where you could improve, and what you hope to achieve in the New Year
  • Set goals for continued personal improvement
  • Spend quality time with friends and loved ones
  • Make a healthy meal for a person in need instead of bringing cookies and candy to the office
  • Call someone you haven’t talked to in years to catch up and let them know you care
  • Give money to causes you care about in areas of need
  • Commit to random acts of kindness during the month of December
  • Recognize the good in everyday life, and help me record it here!
  • And find other ways to give and serve

Let’s admit, we’ve outgrown Christmas! It’s time to stop lying to innocent children and instead start teaching them and reminding ourselves of the values of charity, kindness, and compassion.

Could a new festival of kindness be our light at the end of the year? And so I wish you a Merry Kindmas, Happy Caringdays, and a blessed New Year!

 

Essential for Survival

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”  – Mother  Theresa

More than half of Americans report having no one outside of their immediate family to share personal troubles and concerns. The forces of modern life are alienating to a troubling degree. Low social connection is worse for our health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure with the burden of isolation linked to increased risk of depression, disease, suicide, and worse. Often a factor in tragedies of mass proportion, social alienation breeds unpredictable consequence. And yet, we’d rather retreat to our solitary spaces than open up and be vulnerable with one another.

We’ve developed a dangerous aversion to all that is bad and uncomfortable. We’re taught to brush it under the rug, take it in stride, and suck it up; vulnerability is weakness and no one likes a complainer! We’ve built impenetrable fortresses of “the good life” and learned to hide behind a smile.

In refusing to acknowledge what ails us, we’ve turned our back on life itself and what it means to be human, as messy as it is. Denial of suffering is a rejection of life.

Compassion is the remedy, and essential for our continued survival.

We are wired to connect. Our very biology is designed to facilitate bonds of social connection and cooperation, a survival of the kindest and most collaborative vs a survival of the fittest. Let’s embrace one another, the good, the so-called bad, and everything in befeature-MOSS haiga -position 1tween.

There is a real value in suffering.

“…suffering is a privilege, it moves us toward thinking about essential things and shakes us out of shortsighted complacency” (click the link above to read an incredibly moving NY Times opinion piece on the topic by Pico Iyer).

My weeks in Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford, have inspired me to be with the sin of our suffering humanity, to accept it in curiosity instead of rushing to fix, heal, or simply turn away in disgust. Or at least try!

“I am larger and better than I thought. I did not think I held so much goodness.” – Walt Whitman

By helping others we help ourselves and we begin to realize there is no such thing as “compassion fatigue.” By connecting with others, and training the mind and the heart to cultivate compassion it can be drawn up as an endless resource.

In just 8-weeks, I’m no expert. But I am encouraged to continue. My intention in taking the course was to slow down, be less self-concerned and more present, be a better spouse – attuned to the true needs rather than the needs as I see them, and to be a source of positivity and support for others. It will take a full life’s journey to reach these aspirations. So for you, and for me, here are a few final tips to keep us growing together in compassion…

  • Work to establish a regular routine and time to meditate or reflect daily.
  • Begin with YOU – start with self-compassion, treat YOU like a friend, remember and savor what you appreciate about yourself.
  • Set your intention for the day in the morning and check-in with yourself at night before bed. Keep a gratitude journal!
  • Spend time learning more about compassion and altruism.
  • Respond to the people and circumstances in your life with an open heart and attitude of compassion.
  • Take note when you witness acts of kindness and compassion. Keep a kindness log!
  • Connect with a friend or community who shares your interest.
  • Remember that every effort is an affirmation in the right direction; let go of expectation and just practice.

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Taking It In

And, for me…this is where it all fell apart…it’s taken a while to process and find my voice to share what came next. In Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) week seven we learned about Tonglen meditation.

What is Tonglen? It is the Tibetan word for giving and taking. Practiced for centuries exclusively in Tibet, it’s been widely known in the West for less than a decade. The idea (simplified) is to reduce suffering in the world, by taking it in (caution! but NOT taking it on) and then transforming it through your own inner well of limitless compassion and love. The transformation is highly visual and takes place in the rhythm of the breath. The suffering of self and others is absorbed slowly with the deliberate in-breath (perhaps imagined and inhaled as a dark cloud), and then, just as light immediately cancels out the darkness, the warmth of your heart (perhaps as a golden beam of light or burst of flowers) relieves the suffering you took in with an equally deliberate out-breath.

tonglen 3
Inhale suffering, exhale love and compassion. Simple, right? Are you picking up on my sarcasm?

Before you can effectively practice Tonglen, you have to be adept at tapping into the well of compassion inside yourself. But where does this limitless well of love and compassion come from?

And that is why I stopped. I wasn’t fully on board with the concept. And I realized that I’m all too often stuck in the empathy trap. The place where you’re taking on, and taking on wholly and completely (Warning! Warning!), then walking straight off the cliff with the very person you’re trying to help. That’s not helpful and may even be harmful to YOU, AND those around you! Sigh…

Do you prioritize others’ feelings over your own? If so, you might be in this mean little trap with me.

“Overly empathic people may even lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings, and may lack internal resources to give their best to key people in their life. What’s more, unending empathy creates vulnerability to gas-lighting, in which another person negates your own reality to assert his or hers…Those who regularly prioritize the feelings of others above their own needs often experience generalized anxiety or low-level depression. They may describe a feeling of emptiness or alienation, or dwell incessantly on situations from the perspective of another.”
– Robin Stern & Diana Divecha, July 7, 2015 Greater Good Magazine

And so, the idea of Tonglen was not appealing. But I’m not alone, many people respond similarly upon introduction to the practice. They ask, how can I possibly take in and transform what already seems so overwhelming?

Then, an epiphany! I began to connect this foreign practice to the roots of my own faith.

I’m a Christian. I don’t profess it openly because I don’t subscribe to interpretations presented by “organized” religion, I don’t go to church, I happen to admire atheists like Sam Harris and Robert Sapolsky, I love science, and quite honestly, I’m ashamed of what most people do in the name of Christ.

But when I began to think of Tonglen as Jesus’ calling to be a light unto the world, I began to imagine myself drawing on the light of His suffering and forgiveness. I felt an opening of my own heart toward the possibility of freedom from the burden of empathy, the burden of feeling too much.

Empathic distress is real, but with faith, there is an endless well of love and compassion that never runs dry, a light capable of transforming the darkness.

In CCT we graduated through studies and practices of loving-kindness and compassion for self, others, strangers, and beyond. I’m reminded of a book I read in an undergraduate religious studies class, Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, an elegant study of the overlapping teachings of Buddha and Christ. This was the beginning of a personal spiritual journey. In college, I moved from a naive stance of reared Christianity to becoming a rebel skeptic and nearly nihilist, then later on to adopt a sort of a new age version of Christianity, and now, to professing my own authentic faith.

Christ is within. He is the infinite source of light to transform our suffering. The original followers of Christ were called followers of The Way. Unfortunately, the modern church has lost the way and the truth of Christ and Western Buddhist philosophy has risen up to take its place providing comfort in a stress-ridden world. I relate to the Buddhist idea that suffering is the base of our human experience. But taking it a step further, I know that the burden of sin is the source of our suffering separating us from the divine. This separation is the ultimate suffering.

Personally, I bear the guilt of being silent about my faith. As they say, we never really change, we only, perhaps slowly, become more of what we are. Pay attention to the moments of resistance in your life and what they may be telling you. For me, my Christian faith, which includes contemplative practice, is the source of a boundless compassion through Christ.

god of comfort