There, I’ve said it…right there in the title of this blog entry–Christmas songs make me cry. I sit at the piano and play a stirring rendition of O Holy Night and I bawl like a baby. I hear Do You Hear What I Hear on the car radio–even that cheesy Whitney Houston version–and I’m bound to get to wherever I’m going with tear-streaked makeup. And I’m an agnostic. I don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God any more than I believe that there really was a Fred Flintstone who drove a car operated on foot power. So why the reaction to songs that are clearly Christian?
The honest truth is that I love the Nativity story. I was raised Christian, so I grew up believing that an angel appeared to some frightened shepherds and bid them go to Bethlehem and take a knee so as to properly worship the newborn king. I have always loved the idea of the baby Jesus asleep in the manger while Mary and Joseph and even the stable animals watched on in love and awe. I am intimately, achingly familiar with the story of three wisemen traveling a great distance, following a special star, to bring Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The mythology is as beautiful to me today as it was when I believed that every word of it was truth. My own evolution as a person hasn’t affected my love of a good story, and the Nativity story is as good and as touching as they get. It’s not particularly original (if you’ve studied mythology or if you’ve read up on Joseph Campbell and The Hero With a Thousand Faces you can see how this is true), but it’s still my favorite.
Many of our beloved Christmas traditions aren’t rooted in Christianity–they’re rooted in pagan traditions which the Christians later adapted as a celebration of Christ’s birth. And why not? The pagan Yule festival, celebrated on the winter solstice, included many wonderful activities such as decorating a Yule tree, hanging mistletoe and holly, ringing bells (more to drive away evil spirits and push back the gloomy Winter darkness in the Northern Hemisphere than to “make a joyful noise,” but still), singing songs, feasting and giving gifts. But the most profound thing, at least to me, is the reason for the celebration; and that reason is the same across many cultures and religions–light.
The pagans celebrated (and neo-pagans still do celebrate) the return of light to the earth at Yuletide. The winter solstice marks the longest, darkest night of the year. It is indeed a night to chase away the shadows and ward off what might be perceived as looming there, unseen. It is the perfect night for ringing out the bells and lighting candles and Yule log fires. It’s a time to celebrate because although the night of December 21 (or thereabout, depending on the solar calendar) will be long and bleak it marks the turn of the tide. After the solstice the days gradually lengthen and the light returns. Each progressive day grows a little bit longer, and by early Spring we start to notice that it’s not so dark. The dark, cold winter has done its work–helping plants through necessary dormant stages and, in some parts of the world, insulating the earth with winter’s white blanket–but the sun will warm us again, and life will renew itself as it always does.
Pagans celebrate the returning light of the solstice. Christians celebrate Christ, the Light of the World. Jews celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Across many cultural boundaries, light is a recurring theme, symbolizing hope and the promise of rebirth. I can think of nothing more profoundly beautiful than the many different stories used to spread that promise and germinate that seed of hope.
And that’s why I cry when children light candles and stand in the cold singing Silent Night. It amazes me to see that no matter how different we are, under the surface our stories are much the same, and our needs resonate with one another. We all need light. We all need hope.