Here in the LA area, as in the rest of California and across the globe, the secular Christmas season (what we Western Christians call “Advent” and the Easterners name “Nativity Fast”) is in full swing. The Hollywood Christmas Parade duly took place, Las Posadas will soon start on Olvera Street, and the Los Angeles County “Holiday” Celebration will once again take place on the day of Christmas Eve.
One of the ongoing events of the season throughout the United States is the annual struggle best expressed by a note left on my Facebook page: “A more naïve generation sought to keep Christ in Christmas; we have to fight to keep Christmas in the Holiday.” All too true. But my heart has been warmed in a truly Dickensian manner by events in Rhode Island, and I shall ever wish everyone a Merry Christmas, given that I do not celebrate Hanukkah, solstice, or Kwanzaa.
There is also the oft-repeated mantra that Jewish people, atheists, and other non-Christians feel excluded by Christmas. As regards the first-named group, I can only cite comedians Jackie Mason and Evan Sayet. The former sage (an ordained rabbi) led a parade in New York in favor of saying Merry Christmas, and the latter opined that “anyone who is offended because you hope he has a pleasant 25th of December is a moron!” [emphasis decidedly his]. Atheists should bear in mind that H. P. Lovecraft, one of the best known practitioners of their faith, was a decided fan of Christmas and wrote one of his longest poems in its praise.
As the American Christmas has become ever more secular, it has correspondingly come to rest more firmly on “feelings” and nostalgia for relevance. The problem with things such as A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and innumerable TV holiday episodes is that this sort of “holiday magic” does not pierce the gloom for many who are lonely, hurting, hungry, or afraid. If any of those qualities apply to you on Christmas Eve, you will no doubt wake up with them on Christmas Day. The knowledge that Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey will have their problems sorted out will not help; it may even make things seem worse.
With Christmas, as with anything religious in origin, you only get out what you put in—no one will do your work for you. Faith is a gift, but you have to want it to get it. When my family came out to Hollywood in the mid-60s, Christmas seemed very sad to me. All of our relatives were in New England and New York, The Broadway department store’s Christmas displays were nice but could hardly compete with Macy’s and the rest, and worst of all, there was no snow!
But my father was an alchemist—he could turn misery to joy by focusing on what we had rather than what we did not. There were the same tree ornaments we had had back home (some of which survive to this day at my brother’s house), and the same nativity scene; we attended the aforementioned Hollywood Christmas Parade (then called the Santa Claus Lane Parade); the four of us sang carols, and the Midnight Mass at Hollywood’s gorgeous Church of the Blessed Sacrament in those pre-Novus Ordo days was magnificent. The next day, there were presents under the tree and proof that Santa had arrived in the form of soot marks around the fireplace.
A few years later, in response to what I heard kids saying at school, dad and I had The Talk. No, not that one—that was later still. I mean the Santa talk. A little of it was in the “Yes, Virginia” vein. But most of it was about the real St. Nicholas, whose stories and legends turned out to be far more exciting than those of Santa Claus. Dad pointed out that since I was a born New Yorker, St. Nicholas was my special patron, and he gave me an American Heritage article on the topic to read. This was the start of a lifelong love of the saint. His shrine in Bari is one of my favorites, and one of my most prized possessions is a vial of his “manna.”
This was the secret of my father’s oft-displayed talent for celebrating Christmas in the midst of adversity: a) rooting it deeply in religious belief; b) enjoying the secular aspects as tributes the flesh occasionally gives the spirit; and c) making the most of local observances, wherever one might be. Christmastime travel has led me to savor Yuletide experiences as diverse as luminarias in New Mexico; Menudo and Tamales in El Paso; Midnight Mass at St. Louis Cathedral and reveillon at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans; the Christmas Festival of Lights in Natchitoches; and a Colonial Christmas at Williamsburg. If you cannot be with loved ones this year, savor what is around. Enjoy others enjoying themselves.
Now that I no longer travel at Christmastime, I have rediscovered the local celebratory scene. Los Angeles’s ethnic and religious diversity offers a dizzying array of possibilities, from traditional Lessons and Carols at St. Mary of the Angels to meditating on the Twelve Holy Days with the Anthroposophists. On a more secular level, the same area destinations that trap tourists for Halloween do so for Christmas: Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Knott’s Berry Farm. There are incredible light displays and historic home celebrations. But however you manage it, have a Merry Christmas.
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