Growing up, my mom was crazy for Christmas. We started the Christmas decorations right after Thanksgiving. We had three nativity scenes, one for the entry way, one for the living room, and one on the dining room window.
In December, she practically turned into Mrs. Claus. There were Christmas cookies, Christmas candy dishes. There were nutcrackers in every room, Johnny Mathis on the record player, a lit fire in the fireplace. We hung the tree together and ate a feast on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Each year we got one more ornament so when we were adults we’d be semi prepared to keep the flame alive. It was warm and generous and familial and festive.
But as I continue to grow in my understanding of the contemplative life, I do wonder about the role of Christmas in the development of a mature spiritual life.
The way we celebrate Christmas now is of course a hodge podge of cultural influences, for example. Peeling back just a few of the cultural layers:
- The tradition of gift giving was adopted from Roman Saturnalia
- The yule log tradition was adopted from Nordic pagan traditions
- The greenery and lights come from the Roman New Year
- An emphasis on community and family festivities and the Christmas tree came about in the Victorian Era
- Our image of Santa is largely influenced by Coca Cola marketing since the 1920s
- Our modern Christmas Day rituals of distributing wrapped gifts plus stockings and a meal became more widely established in the 1950s with post-war wealth
In the contemplative life, we learn to distinguish between cultural conventions and practices that cultivate wisdom. We can distinguish between synthetic and genuine joy and are free to practice meaningfully rather than being beholden to cultural norms. We can identify what practices to maintain and what to leave behind.
But what about the more religious aspect? Here too we have our accrued traditions. Theologically, Advent is a season of watching for the light, for incarnation, for the possibility of resurrection and eternal life coming into the world.
But strictly speaking, from a contemplative point of view, Christmas has a different inflection. In the traditional view, Advent means waiting for a future state of deliverance or completion, but this is based on a linear conception of time in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For contemplatives that conception of time is a social convention, a mental construct only. From this perspective, Christ is an icon of the ever-present kingdom, a symbol of the full awareness of the eternal now.
This awareness pierces through race, class, gender, and religion. He was one in whom the awareness of ever-present divine reality achieved full expression. And we are invited to enter that same alignment with ultimate reality that makes love-in-action possible.
Much of the Christmas story in the gospels has to do with blasting the doors off of the rigidly hierarchical society of Jesus’s day, in which only the pure and righteous elite could come to God. In this story, the limelight shines on foreigners and lowly shepherds and a humble servant girl (scholars speculate Mary would have been between 14-16 when giving birth). These are the ones who encounter the divine, who manifest the divine, rather than the religious establishment.
For contemplatives, Christmas can serve as a reminder of the divine reality underlying all of creation, as it comes into sharp focus through the person, life, and teaching of Christ. This is incarnation. There is a vast love present and accessible in which all things abide. This is why it’s silly to get into conflict about superficial things like a preference for saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” Each day is an opportunity to manifest divine love, not to shame others into talking like us. Experiential awareness of that ever-present love is kingdom awareness.
I hope our Christmas rituals can serve as a cal to presence, as reminder rather than an obstacle to the inner transformation that is available to us.