Beautiful December: A Holiday Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Earlier we heard Martha Dallas’ Christmas story about the Bicker Family. Martha Dallas is a Unitarian Universalist religious educator in Burlington, VT. The story really gets rollin’ when there is apparently no Christmas present for Old Father Bicker. Honestly, I’m not sure he cares all that much, but he certainly puts on a good show of being grumpy. “Christmas is ruined,” he complains. When somebody sarcastically suggests that baby Amelia might have his present, he picks her up and asks, “Baby Amelia, is there something you have to give me?” She smiles. He smiles back. And then everyone starts smiling. Then Baby Amelia starts giggling. Old Father Bicker giggles. And then everyone starts giggling. Pretty soon they’re all laughing.  And old Father Bicker says, “Thank you, Baby Amelia, for giving me a smile. And thank you for giving this family the happiest Christmas moment I can ever remember.”

Christmas is saved.

We can all take a lesson from Baby Amelia. We can all bring light and joy into others’ lives—not just in this dark, mid-winter season, but in every season. A smile, a giggle, a laugh can make a difference. Our caring actions and support for those who are suffering and struggling can make a difference. Our witness and our actions on behalf of a more peaceful, just and loving society can make a difference. We can bring light and joy where it is needed most in any season.

I recently read a Hannukah blog post from the Velveteen Rabbi, one of my favorite spiritual writers, which makes this very same point. Reflecting on the Hannukah story and the practice of lighting the menorah lights in December, she writes, “We are all of us afraid of the dark. At night, anxieties suppressed or repressed come swimming to the surface of consciousness: am I safe? Am I loved? Am I needed? Is there meaning in the world, or is it all, ultimately, just a swirl of chaos?”

“Judaism does not ask us to ignore this darkness and the sense of doom it might [draw forth from] us,” she says. “On the contrary, it asks us to face them squarely, and then, ultimately, to defy them. But how?… “The soul of [humanity] is the lamp of God,” the Book of Proverbs tell us (20:27). What this means is that ultimately, our task is not to light candles, but to be candles. We have the potential to be the bits of light that help bring God back into a world gone dark.”

I like this notion: we can wrestle with our own challenges, with our own anxieties, with whatever it is in our lives that frightens us or orients us towards despair by being a light to others—smiling, giggling, laughing, caring, supporting, bearing witness, taking action. Our task is not simply to light candles, but to be candles.

Christmas in the Christian tradition celebrates the birth of Jesus, the birth of the messiah, the king, the peacemaker. In the book of Luke the angels announce his birth, proclaiming peace on earth, good will to all. We’ll read and act out this story on Christmas Eve. In our liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist tradition, we acknowledge that peace and good will don’t just come. The potential for peace and goodwill is always there, but for them to become a reality requires the addition of human hands, human hearts, human caring, human love: our hands, our hearts, our caring, our love. If there is to be peace on earth and goodwill to all, we must play a role. We cannot simply light candles. We must be candles.

December is beautiful for so many reasons. The first snows are beautiful. Frozen ponds are beautiful. Evergreens, standing alone against the backdrop of a grey afternoon, are beautiful. Flocks of Canada geese heading south in great, precise vees are beautiful. And lights kindled like beacons against the gloom of long, dark mid-winter nights are beautiful, just as the sun returning on the solstice is beautiful.

But lighting lights has never been enough. We must be light. We must smile, chuckle, laugh. We must find the lost, heal the broken, comfort the afflicted, embrace those who mourn, feed the hungry, house the homeless, release the prisoners, challenge injustice, dismantle oppression, speak truth to power when power is unresponsive, demand change whenever change is necessary, and bring more love into the world everywhere and always, everywhere and always, everywhere and always. We must be light. December is beautiful because it inspires us, in every season, to be light.  May we be light!

Amen and blessed be.

Rejoice! (A Defense of the Holidays as They Are!)

Gaudete! Rejoice! If you hear me say nothing else this morning, hear my          invitation to rejoice this midwinter season. Gaudete!

I am rejoicing over something that technically has nothing to do with the   holiday season but just happens to be occurring now. The United States war in Iraq has formally ended. The remaining U.S. troops left Iraq this morning. Although I don’t want to imply in any way that the work of rebuilding Iraq is finished—it is not; or that US leaders who brought us into the war ought to feel their actions have been vindicated—they have not; I feel, nevertheless, that the formal conclusion of this war—the formal conclusion of any war—is a reason to rejoice. Gaudete!

There are many traditional religious reasons to rejoice at this time. We are mindful of the central Biblical story of Christmas: an angel bringing tidings of great joy to shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem, news of the birth of a savior, a message of peace on earth and good will to all. We are mindful of the story of Hannukah—which begins on Tuesday—the story of the Maccabees’ resisting Greek rule, liberating the temple in Jerusalem, recommitting to their ancestral religion, purifying and rededicating the altar and the temple, and celebrating! As it says in the Book of First Maccabees, “Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days.”[1] These stories are in the air. Gaudete! Rejoice!

But let’s imagine, just for a moment, that the traditional religious reasons for rejoicing in the midwinter season don’t really speak to you. Those old stories don’t hold any real meaning for you. You cringe when you hear people take seriously the notion of a war on Christmas. And you think, I know there’s a deeper meaning to the season and Rev. Josh and Vicki try really hard to tell those stories in a more universalistic way so that they speak to everyone—that’s their job—but messiahs and angels? nahh. Peace on earth, good will to all? I’d like to think so, but I’m a bit too cynical. And really what I like about the season is shopping, and getting or making gifts for people (and maybe a few for myself) and spending money, and just relaxing with friends and family, and perhaps overindulging in food and drink a little more than I should. That’s OK, isn’t it? I know none of you actually think this. But let’s pretend for a moment that you do.

Are you pretending?

OK. Good. I think you’re onto something. In fact, I’ve said it before, but I haven’t said it in a while (maybe I’ve just been too serious these past few years): We can’t get to the true or the deeper meaning of the season without the shopping, without Hallmark cards and a trip to Macy’s, without the food, without the festival and the spectacle of the holidays, without the gifts—both useful and useless, practical and luxurious—without the general excess and over-indulgence, and without, dare I say it, the commercialization of the season. The season is not only about peace and good will; it is also about fun. It is also about rejoicing just for the sake of rejoicing. We need the glitz and the glam, as corny and as tacky and as crass as it often seems. As long as people have celebrated the return of the sun at the darkest time of the year, they have done so with a certain amount of irreverence, with a certain amount of excess. They have always let down their guard, gotten a little raucous and taken themselves a little less seriously. And there have always been people selling things to draw a profit from the season.

I’m not just saying this. I’m taking my cue from the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt whose wonderful book, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays,[2] reminds us that under Puritan rule in the New England colonies there was no Christmas. Puritans were Biblical literalists; and because there is no mention of an annual celebration of Christmas in the Bible, it wasn’t their practice. Later European immigrants brought midwinter and New Year traditions of partying and gift-giving. That’s where the holidays as we know them today began.  There wasn’t necessarily a deeper religious or theological meaning. It was partying and gift-giving which, over the years, became associated with Christmas.  The business world always saw the potential for profits and commercialized Christmas from its earliest days in America. Schmidt’s argument is that businesses like the big urban department stores (such as Philadelphia’s Wannamaker’s) actually drove the development of the Christmas holiday in the late 19th century and gave us Christmas as we know it today. Only much later did more devoutly religious people start reminding the country of a “deeper” meaning.

Don’t get me wrong: the deeper meaning is important. Peace on earth and good will to all are immensely important and we ought to rejoice when we encounter this meaning in this season. But not all the rejoicing needs to hang on this meaning. I can barely believe I’m saying this, but who says a holiday can’t be a little materialistic? And as Schmidt points out, a common feature of festivity is to overindulge, to eat, drink or spend to excess. The surplus of gifts, the over-spending, the conspicuous consumption (ultimately within our means, to be sure) associated with Christmas gives expression to a kind of festival excess that is fundamental to celebrations and holidays.[3] That is, there is something inside us that really needs the partying and gift giving, really needs Santa Claus and Rudolph and Frosty, really needs mistletoe and evergreens, really needs to go shopping, really needs to visit with family and friends, really needs to sing holiday music and really needs to take life more lightly for at least a few days.

And maybe, just maybe, as the celebration of the holidays fulfills these needs and reverses the normal patterns of our lives for a time, a new openness to generosity and spirit is created in us that isn’t there at other times of the year. And maybe, just maybe, the deeper meaning of the season, the message of hope and peace and goodwill, becomes just a bit easier to hear. So rejoice friends. Gaudete! Rejoice!

Amen and blessed be.


[1] 1 Maccabees 4: 59a.
[2] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) pp. 6-7.
[3] Schmidt, Consumer Rites, p. 8.