Last year I had, better than an advent calendar: an advent chain. Little presents for every day before Christmas for each boy.
Last year I told them the Christmas story, read it out of the Bible, made them listen before I would let them open gifts.
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This year I have been thinking. It was my son, the skeptic, the non-believer, whose constant calm disbelief in God, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy has me remembering how I too had a constant calm disbelief as a child -- in everything but God.
Oh, how I wrapped myself up in that one whole belief. Oh, how I agonized over what to believe and how to sin or not sin and whether everything I was doing was right or wrong. When I did not go to church I yawled from one Sunday to the next in growing horror, that not only was I living a life in iniquity but I was also resisting the one thing that might save me. When I did go to church I spent Sunday mornings wracked with all I had not done for God, all I had spent not on him but on my own hungry self and, as time went on, my hungry children. I never tithed, instead standing up Sunday mornings singing hymns and making rationalizations for my incomplete gift.
While I have, many times, spent hours while wretched in prayer and it has comforted me; while I have, again and again, sung hymns to the Lord and they have uplifted me; I sunk lower and lower, I questioned more and more. Finally it was the Bible itself that skewered me. Its poetry and many of its sentiments were lovely and worthwhile. I was glad I had memorized so much of it. But how can anyone come to terms with its inconsistencies? How can a god at once be omniscient and full of grace and let genocide happen? Come to think of it, what about the old testament god who ordered such acts? Who told his peoples to rape the women and slaughter the men, and their animals too?
Give to God what is God's and to Milton what is Milton's. Give to Shakespeare what is Shakespeare's and Pope what is Pope's. Give to Homer, give to Ovid, give to the almighty Plutarch.
If there is a god or gods, he or she, they have been muted by men. Men who took the documents inspired by gods and translated them and handed them down, who blacklined and extemporanied and whitelisted. If I think the publishing industry is marked by gatekeepers who often are ruled by whims of personality and quixotic judgment of a market desire: how much more must have the publishers of the Bible guarded the gate!
I have Wikipedia-ed and listened to scholars expound. Easter comes from a pagan ritual, along with All Saints' Day and its predecessor, Hallowe'en. Christmas is the pagan-ist of them all.
Gather 'round, then, the hallowed tree, pagan symbol of fertility, on the day (or thereabouts) of the birth of the unconquer'd sun. The god Mithra will come lumbering out of his stone womb on this day and we will give fruits in hopes we'll meet the favor of Saturnalia. Santa is a trick; he's the rebirth of Odin, who flies through the night in a great hunting party in the sky, his nightmarish eight-legged horse collecting carrots and straw from the children. Mistletoe? A druid's offering, delightfully redolent of witchcraft: "five days after the first new moon following the winter solstice, cut down with a golden sickle."
Shepherds did not watch their flock by night on the feast of Saturnalia and caroling, of Celtic origins, has been banned again and again by the church. No one man, god or beast is the reason for the season. The season is a mishmash, a hodgepodge, a Pollock-painted holiday. Throw it, see what sticks.
And what, then, of me.
I, not pagan but also of some undetermined faith, a faith in patience and love and kindness, a faith in melody and words and art, a faith in trees, certainly; a faith in birds and spiders -- what is left for me? Too many paper chains lay, faded and wrinkled, in basement boxes. Too many strings of electric lights lay tangled in shopping bags. Too many dollars have been spent and I need my dollars for this magazine. I do not know, what, why? How can I go to a mall or even Fred Meyer on supersaver day when I cannot even get all the LEGOs separated from all the little cars?
I want to write.
I want it to snow. I want quiet and -- yes, perhaps, the smell of fir branches and the wink of lights or even a fire -- I want long lazy days in which to eat ham and pickles and puddings, things made with walnuts and winter squashes, things made with maple syrup and cream. But I do not want to make ornaments out of salt dough (even though, in some ways, I do); I do not want to pick up the cuttings from snowflakes on my dining room table. I do not want to drink vodka with cranberry juice or kahlua.
I want to write. I want to read. I want celebrate the season as a season. As the mystery of the shortest night of the year and the years just after it -- that incredible quiet time just after the busy-ness of harvest and (for me) the harvesting of readers and the canning of tomatoes and the putting-up of turkey stock, from the bringing-in of pumpkins and the peeling and the milling of those hard-skinned fruits. After we have wound down our studies for the year and are hibernating, like bears or pregnant women, before the lengthening days that harbinge the cold, brilliant new year. The coming spring.
So will I celebrate birth? I will. I will celebrate the ever-greenness of the pines and firs and spruces that people my home. I will glory in the coming of the night and I will eat things stored and preserved and cured. I will drink cider and nog and spiced tea. I will sit with my boys on the couch and read things: the Bible, yes, but also Madeleine L'Engle and J.K. Rowling and Carolyn Haywood and Jane Austen.
And I will write.