Growing up as a Christian, Christmas was always more than gifts and decorations and sugar cookies. There was a deeply spiritual aspect of it as well, one that grew in importance as I matured. The season of Advent led me steadily toward a solemn contemplation of the extraordinariness of God being born as a defenseless infant, in a stinky hay-filled stall no less.
The activities of church competed with the activities of the “season”—the joyous camaraderie of the “greening” of the sanctuary and polishing of the brass; the celebratory hubbub of the packed pews at midnight mass on Christmas Eve; the quiet contemplative air of the sparsely populated pews on Christmas morning. These continued to be cherished memories and colored my experience of the month of December after I stopped attending church a couple of years ago.
It was one year ago that I realized I had become a Buddhist, shortly after Christmas. Perhaps then I was unwittingly feeling what I am quite aware of now, and what is making me wonder what this holiday is all about for someone who is not Christian.
When the Christmas displays began popping up in stores and the carols started playing on the radio, something felt off. It took me a couple of weeks of puzzling over why I wasn’t being caught up in the Christmas spirit before I realized that the something missing was that deep spiritual aspect of Christmas. Feelings related to beliefs and a faith no longer central to my spiritual life were gone, and I keenly felt the loss. And the feeling was heightened by a greater awareness of what was left—the singularly spirit-devoid secular aspects of the holiday season.
Don’t get me wrong: the holidays are certainly spirited. But the mass consumerism of the season seems soulless to me and leaves me sad at feeling divided from the majority of those around me who are bright and bubbly and full of Christmas cheer. I’m not being judgmental. This is not about the behavior of other persons, it’s about feeling unanchored in a maelstrom of materialism.
What is left for me in the December holidays? Putting up a tree and decorations feels…weird, for lack of a more precise word. Why are we exchanging gifts? Why are schools and businesses closing? What’s the point? It all seems empty and meaningless to me now. I am going through the motions without independent thought as to why.
I haven’t yet resolved this quandary to any great extent, and welcome anyone’s thoughts. In the meantime, I am focusing on making this an occasion to act on compassion, to seek out opportunities to support causes and activities devoted to helping the needy and disadvantaged. It seems like a good time to invigorate what should be a daily practice as a new year fast approaches. Hit the compassion ground running (giving?), so to speak.