Saturday, 14 December 2013

Searching for the Heart of Christmas

We are well and truly into Advent now, well into the festival of light at this the darkest time of the year. How are you doing? Are you in the spirit of the season or are you struggling a little. It can be a difficult time for some folk in so many ways. It’s just so easy to get lost in so many different things. So much so that we fail to fully experience what this time is all about. We all have a bit of Scrooge within us do we not, we all have a little bit of “Bah Humbug”.

I've been thinking these last few days what exactly Christmas is all about, what is at its heart? What is the spirit of Christmas we hear so much about? I've been asking other people too and have heard some interesting views I've also had a look at what is has meant in the past too. It has not been celebrated in the same way over the years. Some of the things people complain about it today have always been present. This blogspot is an attempt to just explore what Christmas is about, what is at its heart? What is the heart of Christmas?

A friend of mine says that Christmas is a time of love and compassion of bringing to the surface our better selves. For many it is about family (however that is understood) coming together. For some it is about God’s Love incarnating perfectly in life, in the Christ child. For others it is the celebration of the end of winter and the coming of life and renewal in the spring time. I think it is all of this and a whole lot more. It seems to me that Christmas is the ultimate universal festival of the heart. It is a mixture of so many traditions and it has altered so much over time, embracing and incorporating so much of this simple spirit of light and love. Christmas is the ultimate festival of the heart, perfectly placed in the deep mid winter when we need it the most.

That said the very fact that it is a festival of the heart causes difficulty for some, if not all of us. Christmas is difficult for everyone in one way or another. Some places of worship offer what are called “Blue Christmas” services. These were begun for those who had suffered losses during the year to remember their loved ones, but this has now extended to include all who find this time of year difficult. Feelings such as grief and suffering are felt more intensely at this time of year because they stand in such contrast to what the Christmas ideal stands for; namely a time symbolising the fullness of the heart; a time when we are supposed to be at one with all that we love, with all that is love. It is important to remember this as we embrace the season with all our hearts.

Christmas is the season of the heart. It is a time to focus on the ties of the heart, the loves of the heart, the dreams of the heart; it is a time to focus on the hearts yearnings and longings; it is a time when we are called to concentrate on the heart, on what it wants, what it needs and what it compels us to be. Perhaps the darkness and the cold of winter helps us with this as through it we appreciate the light and the warmth that the heart of the season can bring. Perhaps by feeling cut off or separate from the ideals of season, by our own grief and sorrows, we can be brought closer to the true heart of it. Not because we are told me must, but because our own heart’s desire it.

We need to remember this as we rush through this season; we need to remember that for many there is pain and suffering. This is why my theme for Advent this year has about bringing that bit of light from our own hearts and souls into this season. By bringing light to the suffering of others we can bring warmth and light to our own hearts. This helps us connect to ourselves fully, to one another, to all life and to that eternal and universal spirit that runs through all life. For “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” When we light the candle within our own hearts we incarnate the Kingdom of God that is within us and we make it present amongst us. In so doing we bring that commonwealth of love to life right here right now.

The heart of Christmas is connection; connecting with best of ourselves, that of others and that of life. Music and singing aid this. People come together and sing communally more at this time of the year than at any other. We sing together; we sing “Glad Tidings of Comfort and Joy”, both of which are needed during this season. I know the power, the spiritual power of singing so well. Singing is one of those practices that bring me closer to that universal, that eternal spirit, it fills my heart to overflowing and compels me to fill the cups of others. It compels me to give my heart.

To give ones heart is the heart of Christmas. As Christina Rosetti wrote “What shall I give him, give him my heart.”This is the heart of Christmas.

Now of course some will argue, usually the “Bah Humbuggers” that this is not what Christmas, or whatever mid-winter festival they believe they are celebrating, is actually about. Maybe they are correct, but I suspect that they are not. Christmas has meant many things to many different people at many different times. It incorporates many traditions, is celebrated differently around the world and at different times in many other cultures. Some would like to see the back of it from a variety of perspectives both religious and secular, but that’s never going to happen. The power of love runs deep and the heart will always overcome the “Bah Humbuggers”. Just as lighting one candle always overcomes the darkness.

Did you know that Christmas was once banned in England. The Puritans in Parliament wanted the people to focus purely on Sunday as the holy day and wanted rid of all the other festivals, such as Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, which they considered both heathen and Catholic. Christmas was a time of rejoicing and in the eyes of the Puritans debauchery. Over indulgence and revelry at this time of year is not a new phenomena it has its roots in the Christmas tradition. The Puritans turned Christmas to Christ-tide, a day for fasting rather than over-indulgence. In 1647 they passed an ordinance abolishing it. That said as much as they attempted to enforce them the laws were hard to maintain and the people continued to celebrate these feast in the ways they always had. The measures were completely swept away following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when all legislation passed between 1642 and 1660 was made null and void.

Now of course theologically speaking the Puritans were quite right in most of their objections about Christmas and the time that it was held. That said Christmas was never a celebration of theological correctness, of biblical literalism, of doctrinal purity, of historical factuality. Christmas is rooted in the pre Christian traditions. It was originally a celebration of the returning of the sun at the winter solstice that the church co-opted. The birth of Jesus was not assigned to December 25th until the year 336 and only after much debate and argument as this was the time of year that was originally assigned to the sun gods. This included Mithra, a popular deity worshipped throughout the Roman Empire as well as the dying and rising Egyptian god Osiris. So yes they Puritans and other critics are and were correct when they said, and when they say that Christmas was created by the Roman church and was a co-option of already existing winter solstice celebrations.

Does this matter? Well to many yes it does. To me I actually think it enhances and adds to the universal and eternal spirit that is the heart of Christmas.

Christmas, as we celebrate it today, owes as much to Victorian England and the writing of Charles Dickens as to anything else. “A Christmas Carol” first published on December 1843 is the epitome of what we see as the heart of Christmas today. Dickens caught the imagination of his readers in Britain and America and did so much to create the Christmas ideal a time for family and the simple pleasures of coming together around the table heart to heart.

Christmas as we understand it today and certainly the message that lies at its heart has a deep and rich history and has been fed by many traditions both ancient and modern. This is why I believe Christmas is for everyone, in every time and place. It matters not what name we give this festival of the heart that comes alive at this time of year. It matters little to me the variety of roots that formed it either; they certainly do not diminish its power. Quite the opposite actually the universality of it actually enhances my faith in that universal and eternal spirit that I name God, that light of hope that finds a way through in the darkness of winter and warms our hearts and hearths, that runs through it.

You see the heart of Christmas is the heart itself, burst to overflowing, lit up bringing light and warmth into this season of darkness and cold. It brings hope in what can be very cynical times, as it always has. Christmas is the dream of the heart, wishing to come alive. This is why Christmas is both the religious and emotional centre of the year for most folk. Christmas is the time of the heart, which calls us to our truest nature, to be all that we can be.

This is why it is the holiest of holy days and nights. This is why I believe it is for everyone regardless of background and or faith, or lack of it. Christmas connects to something universal, something eternal in all of us which allows us to connect to our true selves, to one another, to all life and to that loving and eternal spirit that runs through all life.

“Oh I wish it could be Christmas every day”. Well it can be if we make it Christmas every day. It begins by lighting that lamp, that fire in our hearts and in our hearths.

“For it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness”

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