As a child I knew Christmas was wonderful and magical, but the holiday puzzled me greatly, for adults usually did not behave in the utterly mad manner they joyously behaved, on Christmas.
This mystery was increased by the fact I was raised as a Unitarian, and Unitarians didn’t stress the Godhood of Christ, at that time. In fact, as I understood it, being a Unitarian mainly meant you didn’t have to go to church, which meant I was freed from any sort of preconceptions or propaganda concerning the power of priests and popes, but also meant I was ignorant, (though I prefer the word “innocent”), because I was largely untaught.
My father did believe in God, but seemed to have the attitude, “It is better to meditate on God while fishing than to meditate on fishing while in church.” When fishing with him he would tell me about how incredible Creation was, scientifically describing the fingerprints of an awesome Creator, but the Creator Himself was never mentioned. This seemed to be part of Unitarianism in the 1950’s: Silence was golden, for talking about the Creator, The Only One Worthy Of Worship, was presumptive, a “Bridge Too Far”, and in some way was politically incorrect.
Considering Christmas is all about the Creator popping in on His Creation, like the author of a book magically appearing in the pages midway through a book, it is logical that my father’s failure to mention the Creator would leave me utterly mystified about what the heck Christmas was all about.
Then my father vanished from my life when I was eleven. (Divorce may be another aspect of Unitarianism.) Christmas kept on happening, but the loss of such a wonderfully crazy man made the following Christmases very gloomy. (Mothers seem to downplay the trauma the loss of a father causes a boy, focused as they are on the trauma an irresponsible husband causes a wife. In my case, the following Christmases saw my father so troubled, and my mother so upset, that we six children spent more time parenting our parents than being parented.)
One thing we kids bravely attempted was “to make Christmas like it used to be”, (before the divorce). We put on a brave face and attempted to be jolly. Behind my mask, I kept wondering, “What the heck are we doing this for?”
I had only one friend who I could be anything close to honest with, as a young teenager, and he got to hear me anguish about things I’d never say to my mother. We’d skulk down streets after dark bitterly grumbling, and at times he saw me completely lose it.
I recall one time we met a couple of pretty girls, after dark, and were attempting to woo them in the center of town by buying them a couple of bottles of soda, but just then a fellow who was older and had an actual car showed up, and the two girls preferred a car to a soda. As the girls drove off with him I looked at the bottle of soda I held in my hands, and then with a snarl threw it. (One didn’t ordinarily do such things in my little town.) As the bottle vanished over the top of a store and smashed in a distant back alley my friend exclaimed, “Are you mad!” I myself was a bit surprised I had done such a thing, and took off, running at top speed into the darkness away from the Main Street lights. My buddy was such a friend that he was running right beside me, though he hadn’t thrown any bottles.
My good buddy happened to be Jewish, which put him at a bit of a disadvantage when I began to confess to him I didn’t understand what the heck Christmas was all about. I told him I just didn’t get it. I knew there was such a thing as “Christmas Spirit”, but felt in the dark.
We were actually walking in the dark, as I complained, beside a very large town green that sloped down into deeper darkness, and some adolescent impulse made me shout, “I can’t stand it!” and I again ran, plunging down into deeper darkness, and I can remember my startled buddy shouting out, “Come back! Come back!”
Looking back, I seem to have amnesia. I did come back, feeling a bit foolish about my behavior, and we continued our walk. But I’m not sure what turned me around, nor did we talk about why I had “lost it”.
This just goes to show you how amazingly ignorant an emotional 15-year-old can be about Christmas. I knew some sort of miracle was involved, but had no clue what it was. There was all sorts of odd behavior, without any explanation.
One odd thing was that, down at the toe of my stocking on Christmas morning, there would always be an orange. My mother insisted upon it. It was some sort of tradition without a lick of sense behind it, that I could see. I questioned, being the sort of annoying teenager who demands answers, but the best I could get from adults was that, back when my grandparents were young, oranges were a scarce commodity in New England, as they grew far to the south, and bringing them north involved risky sails in coastal schooners (before railroads). An orange was a special gift in 1850, and tradition remembered how special it was, even when an orange wasn’t so special any more.
No one explained the tradition actually goes back far before 1850, to a dude named Nicholas who lived back around the year 300. (Yes, this is THE saint, who became Santa Claus.)
Now, when we talk about a fellow who lived over 1700 years ago, we lack video. Modern historians, who demand signed documents, will go on and on about lack of evidence. However Nick apparently did exist, and was a follower of Jesus Christ, who apparently also existed, though we do not have a single signed document to historically verify the cause of enormous cathedrals being erected in His name.
This Nick fellow, when a lad, had parents who were followers of Christ back before the Bible existed as a book. (There were only scattered documents in the year 300, and the gospel was largely passed by word of mouth). Nick’s parents were wealthy, and likely had access to various gospels and letters written by disciples of Christ, but back then being a Christian was still something you could go to jail for. Then the plauge came through town, and both of Nick’s parents died of it, and Nick became an orphan. He was a very rich orphan, and may have had the help of a Christian uncle, but he was not under any illusion that things of the world (even parents) are lasting. Therefore Nick decided to obey Jesus, and to give away the family fortune he had inherited, to help the poor. (He did not subscribe to the idea that a 401K is worthy of worship).
Details are lacking. I imagine financial advisers must have freaked out. I also imagine that less-than-spiritual people must have flocked to the scene, to help Nick become penniless. Once Nick wound up in jail, I imagine these fair-weather-friends lost interest in him. Or maybe not. We lack records. Why? Well, you see, apparently Nick didn’t want to get all sorts of press for helping the poor, and therefore was secretive. He didn’t want the benefactors to think the charity “came from Nick”, when he believed it came from Jesus working through him and prompting him, and therefore apparently, when Nick gave, he did so in a downright sneaky fashion.
Because Nick was so sneaky, we have no signed documents, and the IRS is annoyed. All we have is legends. One legend is that the poorest of the poor lived in tiny huts, so small that one couldn’t stand up in them, and Nick knew when they were especially impoverished because they couldn’t even afford fuel on wintry evenings, and no smoke came from their chimneys. Therefore, as he passed their squat abodes, he would furtively reach up to the top of their low chimney’s, and drop a gold coin to clink in their cold hearth beneath, as they slept on winter nights, and then, after doing this deed, Nick would hurry away. (So you can see this might lead to the idea of Santa sneaking down the chimney at midnight to leave gifts.)
Another tale involves a broke man who had three daughters of marrying age. In order to get a husband, back in those times, the father had to pay the prospective husband this thing called a “dowry”. When a Dad was flat broke, his daughters faced going to the “Poor Farm”, and back in those days in southern Turkey this involved daughters being sold into slavery. This particular Dad was at his wit’s end, because he didn’t want his daughter to be slaves, and wanted them to be wives. When Nick heard about this, he came creeping and sneaking by their house, found an open window, and surreptitiously rolled three balls of solid gold to the hearth, where they happened to roll to a halt nudging against the toes of stockings being dried by the fire. (So you can see why this might lead to the idea of Santa putting a tangerine or orange (golden ball) at the toe of a stocking, put by a fireplace.)
But Nick didn’t do this to be famous. He did everything possible to be unknown and unremembered. He wanted Jesus to be remembered. At first he did a fairly good job of giving God the glory, and finding dishonor for himself. In fact he apparently wound up flat broke and in jail. (Just think of that. Santa jailed by the politically correct.)
However at that time there was a political upheaval. A politically incorrect person became emperor of Rome. Rather than crucifying Christians and feeding them to lions, he became a Christian himself. (His name was Constantine, not Donald Trump.)
All of a sudden being a Christian did not mean you were fed to lions, and in fact it meant you were politically correct. Under the orders of Constantine, followers of Jesus formed a committee, (Council of Nicaea) to decide what a “Christian” actually was. Nick, who had never even officially been a “priest”, suddenly found himself a “bishop”, and was invited.
During the committee-meeting all sorts of esoteric subjects were discussed, and apparently a somewhat Unitarian fellow named Arius was advancing the idea that Jesus wasn’t actually God, and this infuriated Nick to such a degree that he jumped up and punched Arius in the nose. (Imagine Santa punching anyone.) (When they dug up Nick’s skull back around 1950 they carefully x-rayed it, before putting it back in the grave, and among other things it showed that Nick’s nose had been badly broken at some point, and had healed crooked, which might indicate Nick had failed to “turn the other cheek” fast enough, during another, earlier, pugilistic episode.) (Apparently saints, before sainthood, are quite capable of sin.)
As punching-people-in-the-nose is flagrantly unchristian behavior, Santa Claus was about to be kicked off the committee, but a strange thing then happened. Though Nick was a sinner for belting Arius, he saw a stunning miracle happen. Jesus and Mary joined the meeting, (likely with heavenly music and glowing lights). Santa was promptly forgiven. (I’m just telling you what research-of-lore reveals.) (I’ll also confess my own church’s committee-meetings are pretty darn boring, compared to the meetings they held 1700 years ago.)
In any case, Christmas only involves Nick because Nick was an extremist, and crazy about Jesus. If people go crazy on Christmas, and go in debt with their irrational generosity, they are only following the footsteps of Saint Nicholas, who was following the footsteps of Christ.
How odd it seems to me that I could grow up and never know what Christmas was actually about, and could hear Santa mentioned a lot, but Jesus hardly mentioned at all. In actual fact Jesus is “The Reason For The Season.” The fact it has taken so long for me to catch on is rich with irony.
Our Creator is awesome. I, as a creative individual, look around His creation and understand there is no way I could, on my best day, creatively match something that is Matchless. (Even if I could, all I created would be created by the Creator, who created me.)
This Creator has displayed awesome love and compassion in the majesty and beauty of what He has made, but He also made us, and compared to Him I fear we are less than majestic, and tend to be like stingy Scrooge on a good day, and like hateful Hitler on our worst days. In fact, usually we are the opposite of Christmas. We make war, not love, and we take, rather than give. We make misery, and then wonder why we are so miserable. We are in need of help.
What Christmas celebrates is not us. It celebrates the opposite of how we ordinarily are, and does not celebrate what we call “politically correct” and “wise investing” and even “common sense”. It celebrates love and compassion and understanding and generosity we cannot even imagine, and also celebrates the fact our Creator took pity on us, and chose to enter his own Creation, and to walk with us and talk with us, like an author walking and talking with the characters of His own book.
And why should our Creator do such a thing? It is because His book has a happy ending, wherein we experience the joy of love and compassion and understanding and generosity, and He will achieve that ending, because He wrote the book, and is in control.