The Spirit at Christmas
Even in our secular culture there seems to be a widespread sense that somehow money has lead to a denigration of the Christmas spirit.
You cannot serve God and money — Jesus
What Do I Mean by Spirit?
I think that most of us experience a sense of meaning. I think most of us have the sense that some things flow from the core of who we are in a way that other activities don’t. These experiences of meaning and individuality are what I mean by the spiritual aspect of our experience.
In most religious traditions there are times and places that are regarded as more sacred, more imbued with spirit, than others. There are religious festivals (to celebrate the founder’s birth for instance) and particular buildings or parts of nature (churches, sacred mountains, and so on). These ideas of special times and places can be hard to relate to for most modern Westerners. (Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is an excellent account of the change in Western sensibility that brought us to this point).
However, even modern Westerners often do have a sense of times that are special. Childbirth is often experienced as far more than just another member of the species coming to life. Some people set aside particular times to work at a craft or for being quiet.
Secular and Profane
All these special times and place are distinguished by being different. The sacred/the holy are distinguished from the usual run of the mill. During a genuinely spiritual performance (such as a shakuhachi performance by Riley Lee) it would feel wrong to sit there thinking about the next day’s shopping — it would somehow be denigration.
One of the areas of life that is usually thought to be outside the sacred or holy is money. In my religious tradition (Christianity), this has taken many a bizarre twist and turn and lead to much injustice. There was the ‘inner worldly asceticism’ of the Puritans — for whom, to be a little unfair, it was OK to make lots of money as long as you didn’t enjoy it too much. There were all those lectures to the poor by the wealthy about how they shouldn’t be concerned with money. In our age of conspicuous consumption this can seem quaint or bizarre, or both.
Cards and Tinsel
In Australia, where I live, and in many other countries, there is something of a campaign to ‘put Christ back into Christmas’. [Historical note: the X in Xmas started out as the Greek letter ‘chi’, which is written similarly to our English “X”. The chi is still used as an abbreviation for “Christ” by theological students.] This is regarded with sympathy by many people who don’t regard themselves as Christians — certainly not practising ones. And there is no counter-campaign to denounce it as a bunch of wowser Puritans trying to ruin the fun of our conspicuous consumption. Even in our decidedly secular Western culture, there is a sense of Christmas being special in some way — that crass commercialism is somehow inappropriate at this time of year.
A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. — Oscar Wilde
Even in our secular culture there seems to be a widespread sense that somehow money has lead to a denigration of the Christmas spirit. There is a sense of two sets of values, the commercial and the spiritual, and that they clash. This was pointed out by Oscar Wilde in his witty way and Jesus in his uncompromising, and discomfort-inducing, way.
The particular aspect of spirit that is meant to be highlighted at Christmas is the spirit of giving. In the Christian tradition God is self-giving; people participate in this spirit by giving freely to others.
There is quite a difference between a spirit of calculation and that of generosity. During those special times when we are flowing from our core, those times that have special meaning for us, it is rare to find a mean-spiritedness; these are usually times of elation, openness and hospitality.
Sometimes the difference in the one individual can be quite striking. I have known a number of people who have been very gifted in an area of their lives. These areas have included things like musical performance, visual art, sport, and even raising money. Some of these people had major personal difficulties, and some of them were decidedly difficult for most people to get on with. However, when they were alive in their gift, flowing with what they loved to do, all of them were quite unselfconscious, free of egotism and generous spirited (attributes some of them didn’t necessarily have when not engaged in their gift).
For me, the spirit of Christmas is generosity. This certainly doesn’t fit with commercialism. For me, the sacred has a generosity about it, an overflowingness that is unselfconscious.
What do you make of Christmas? I’d like to hear, is it a meaningful time for you? If you are more of the ‘bah, humbug’ view I can well understand this and would like to hear from you, too. I would also like to know if your sense of spirit has a givingness about it — or whether this isn’t a factor for you. I’m looking forward to hearing from you in the comments.
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