Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Oh Santa, Baby!

I'm having a Charlie Brown Christmas. I'm losing my faith, and the feeling is all too familiar. In fact I called my mom today on my lunch break at 11am, having heard "We Need A Little Christmas" at least three times since the store opened at 8. "Mom!" I cried, "Santa's not even real! Macy's made him." She was silent for several moments. "Kristin," she told me, "have I mentioned how thrilled we'll be to have you home for a few days?" Now there's a saint if I've ever known one.

It all started the weekend of the feast of St. Nicholas. Pat's school had a huge Christmas party that Friday on their campus, but he was two papers into the 6-paper home stretch, and so naturally, I went alone. (I once heard a fellow classmate gripe, 'Why do they always schedule Christmas right in the middle of finals?!?') However, I did meet up with a friend while I was there who goes to my church, St. Paul's and also happens to be an alumnus of Patrick's university. "They do this every year!" he trilled. And it was quite a sight to behold: tents and tables full of hot chocolate, face-paints, and cookie decorating, multi-colored spot-lights illuminating a stage upon which several bands played various Christmas melodies. People everywhere wearing wacky costumes: Santa hats, pajamas, those old puff-ball Christmas sweaters that were embarrassing in high school but are somehow cool this year. My friend beamed like a six-year old, his smile caught in the glow of a giant white-light Christmas tree reaching nearly thirty feet in the air. "This is Christmas!" he told me, and having never celebrated the holiday with gifts or hullabaloo in his home growing up, I can see that this is true. He looks at the puff-ball-sweater-clad crowd and sees something he can't quite name or explain, and yet it feels sweet and true. It is as much about mystery to him as it is to one who, like me, grew up with the thrilling mixture of fear and feverish pleasure that the same dead bolt I desperately prayed would hold fast every other night of the year would somehow this night give way to an old, overweight man who- God only knows how- knew precisely how to gift me with perfect joy. Even now as I glance into my living room and see the lights winking on my tree I feel a thrill of joy mixed with fear in my stomach. Oh Santy.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

It was this Friday night that I thought on behalf of my friend, 'What is Christmas?' If a thousand songs don't immediately pop into your head at this question, I'd say you are one of the lucky few who has missed the onslaught of overplayed Christmas smut piped from some holiday muzak factory into millions of shops, malls and grocery stores all over. Called to my mind are stories like Charlie Brown's. In his self-titled Christmas film, he spends the week before the big day asking each of his friends for the real meaning of the holiday, constantly wondering when and why it has gone so commercial. In the end, someone reads him "the Christmas story" from Luke, and his heart blooms with peace. Ah, the real meaning.

But as I look towards my wonderful non-religious friends this holiday season, I see a crowd of merry-makers who find that their Christmas joy leads them far from the manger. And I don't think the story of the shepherds and the baby is the one I'm looking for. What defines the experience of the non-religious? The lights, the chocolate, the music: (in the words of the Tim Burton's Jack, Pumpkin King) What IS this? Why are we here? And why do we sell six varieties of miniature trees and spice nog cakes and Christmas hams?

That Sunday St. Nicholas- donning liturgical robes and carrying a staff- processed down the aisle at our church and we all snickered at the false pomp of this 'visiting saint' and saluted him by standing and scooting our kids down the aisle after him to receive oranges and tiny cakes. That's when it hit me. Christmas may be the time in the church year that we Christians carve out to think about God's entry into our humanity, but how it functions on the world outside is something very different. And on that Sunday morning, I had the sneaking suspicion that it started with that old man carrying a staff and a basket of oranges.

So I've done a little reading and the results have been enlightening. St. Nicholas, as it turns out, is most famous for his gift, not of oranges, but of bags of gold to a family so poor that they could only hope to sell their daughters into prostitution. In order to avoid this damning act, Old St. Nick left bags of a gold on their doorsteps to use as a dowries for their weddings instead. That's it. That's the whole story.

And though I spent a few scary hours this morning convinced that Macy's created the rest, further reading has allowed me to accept that all the charming details surrounding the Santa Claus myth have evolved quite naturally over time, pin-balling between artists, poets, and yes, advertising agencies, but for the most part similar to the evolution of a great many mythical figures of our culture. And yet it is hard to deny that Santa as mainly grown up and out, sinisterly reflecting the more embarrassing of our 21st century values. How did this gift to those in desperate need translate to the piles of packages awaiting the child Christmas morning, typified by the media? And, by the way, when's the last time you received a bag of gold?

Growing up Christian, I had an easy time of it. I could spend December thinking of my birthday and obsessing over our family traditions and then let myself get caught up in the story of Jesus and the manger and those angels and shepherds, tear up a little at the thought of the Incarnation and then go back to basking in the brilliance of sweet familial glow. When I first started questioning my Christian roots in college, my experience of Christmas obviously shifted in some minor ways. But now something catastrophic has occurred: I'm losing my faith in Santa! And finding it, on the whole, a death much more difficult to manage.

Now turning to another childhood companion, I hear my worries voiced in the character of Big Bird in 'Christmas Eve on Sesame Street' who earnestly fears that without his understanding of Santa's ability to fit down a chimney, the actual task of fitting down a chimney will not be possible. After exhausting his best attempts at research (with the aid of kermit, oscar and a slew of adorable kindergarteners who offer their wisdom), Big Bird decides to solve the problem of Santa's physical inability to fit in a chimney not by helping him, but by watching him do it! Ah, Big Bird is a lot like me; you see, for him it is his own understanding that is the condition of possibility. I take comfort in knowing that I am in good company.

In the end, Big Bird falls asleep and wakes up furious with himself for missing the big show. Devastated he returns in doors only to find that Santa has still come somehow and that his friends and family are all around to bear witness: not to the feat but to the joy of being safe and together at Christmas.

So here's to hoping that like Big Bird I can take the time for a mental nap this holiday season and find that, in the end, the magic of Santa, the kindness of St. Nicholas and the joy of togetherness and family somehow squeeze themselves into my small experience of Christmas even if I can't see or understand how.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Revisioning the World Outside

Two eggnog lattes from Allegro's, two days in a row, and something weird is happening in my head and in my closet. I've started digging: specifically, at my old college binders. I once lamented that when college finally ended, all that I would really have to show for it would be these flimsy little folders- now that I've rediscovered them, however, they seem quite adequate, in fact a little overwhelming if truth be told.

So many wild, obsessive feelings I charged through, belting my findings to anyone who would stand still. I wrote a piece of creative nonfiction almost every semester, a tedious blow-by-blow commentary of my world of faith and life, all my doubts about religion and my woundedness re: old boyfriends, well-meaning professors, the godhead, etc, etc...

And journals! Five my sophomore year alone! And I only started December first. Which is today, four years ago. Amazing.

As I skim through it all, I can't help but wonder what has changed. Of course, I'm still spilling my guts and sloughing through my faith and feelings. I have become a teensy bit less religious, but I have also become a teensy bit less engaged also, so its quite hard to know for sure.

In October of my senior year, 2007, I visited a monastery and had to write a paper about it. My eyes were immediately drawn to that particular piece simply because of my recent (and bizarre?!?!) longing to join up as quickly as possible. But, surprise. I write:

"In many ways, the monastic life is drastically uncomfortable for a young female student like me. I am fascinated by their historic emergence, and intrigued by the ascetic lifestyle, but I am also bothered and muddled with unbidden visceral response: confusion, envy, resentment, and also a curious desire to belong. I have found existence on the outside to be troublesome, often rocky, always chaotic, but richly rewarding and graceful above and over all things: authentic at the very least. The cloistered life of the monks, however, feels safe, too safe and my skin prickles each time I hear them talking about their calling to 'come apart' from the world, to change their names, to exchange their goods and to don the cloaks and habits that mark their separation."

This passage makes me feel about myself the way one might feel about an elderly family member who keeps forgetting your name. Dear old thing, you might think and pat her sweetly on the head. What business did I have summing up "life on the outside" as if there is a homogeneous non-monk experience? No wonder I found life "troublesome, chaotic, but richly rewarding and... authentic..." I lived in a tiny college town, for crying out loud, in southern IL in a cornfield. I never drank; I hardly knew anyone who did. 90% of the people I interacted with on a daily basis believed the same basic things I did about the world. And I was skeptical of the monastery!! As if my place wasn't just as safe!

And now, in this big crazy (is it even that big?) city, alone as a fish in an aquarium, I can't help but ask, what the devil is so bad about being safe? Bring on the cloisters! Bring on the bells!

I used to weigh the merits of a life lived within the rhythms of prayers. Sure, its good for you to attend morning, afternoon and evening prayer, I thought to myself. It keeps you safe from the tendency to forget about God or forget about those who are in need. It reminds you of what you believe in; it reminds you of things you should do. But now something very different tugs at my subconscious and causes me to long for prayer with my entire being. What I didn't understand in college is that life is not safe- but not because you might die or get so sad that you curse God or break the law. Life is unsafe because all you really have to do is try and pay the bills and get some food and sleep. You can so easily stumble from place to place, seek your comfort, and watch the years pound on and on and on. Hobbies, skills, people to meet at parties, these are all wonderful things. But we are more than comfort-seekers as human beings; we are meaning-makers also.

I'm not necessarily talking about our specific Christian religious stuff: there is a God, and that's how the world was made, etc. I'm referring to the most foundational of meanings, for example: the sun at this particular position means its morning; this morning means its Sunday; this Sunday is Easter Sunday. Without order of some sort, I've learned firsthand that morning can be noon- it can be 4AM. Thursday can be 'your Sunday,' and Easter is just another day to bump up our orders at the grocery store. I'm not trying to say that Christianity is the only means through which to make meaning of our time or that working at the store is not a noble, fine profession. But I have discovered that these are the central issues at work when I miss prayer or the rhythms of my life throughout college. And I love and miss Christianity for this same very odd reason: because it saves you from floating, working just to pay (and sometimes not pay) your loans, electricity and rent, and then coming home to crash until work requires you show up again.

I want to act as if I believe work is valuable in and of itself, whether I'm on the track or cleaning shelves or coaching with Girls on the Run. So I'm reconsidering how I see her now. I'm thinking about grad school, and I'm not putting away those old flimsy folders just yet...