Although my wife and I don’t formally celebrate Christmas in terms of traditional Christian beliefs, we both love this season and the many good associations we have with this time of the year. Some of this is carry-over, no doubt, from our Christian upbringing, but looking past the outward forms of celebration, I think there’s something that’s older and more ancient than a Christmas holiday that we can connect with, whatever our beliefs or non-beliefs.
It’s seeing a deep interrelationship that joins all of us in love, brotherhood and sisterhood, and in family, in the widest and deepest sense of that word. It’s what Dar William sings about in the song you can listen to at the end of this post in her delightful “The Christian and The Pagans.”
When I think about the outward forms of Christmas celebration, I think of how “empty” they are—in the Buddhist sense of the word. “Emptiness” in this Buddhist sense doesn’t mean “nothingness” or a vacuum or a lack of light. In Buddhist terms, “emptiness” means nothing exists independently of anything else, that is, nothing has intrinsic or inherent unchanging being. The insight of emptiness is that if we look deeply into the nature of things, we see that all things are interdependent and thus are constructions or cause-and-effect fabrications that depend on causes and conditions and on everything else in order to exist.
To illustrate, ask yourself this: just what is intrinsic about the celebration of Christmas? Think how differently Christmas is celebrated not only family to family, but country to country. What if Christianity had been founded in the Southern Hemisphere? Think of how many of the things we here in the Northern Hemisphere fondly associate with Christmas would be utterly different!
First of all, Christmas would be a mid-summer celebration, as it is for half the world. We probably wouldn’t think of Christmas trees, snow, sleigh rides, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and a thousand and one things we associate with Christmas because the Northern Hemisphere founders of the Christian church decided to have the celebration of Jesus’ birth coincide with the pagan celebrations of winter and winter solstice. (If my memory serves me, the best scholarly estimates for Jesus’ actual birth point to some time in the spring.)
The point is, wherever we live, every single thing we associate with celebrating Christmas is utterly arbitrary and dependent — a mental construction due to history, culture, and countless human decisions and contingencies. The celebration of Christmas is what we make it, not what we might believe it intrinsically is from its own side. The fact is, Christmas doesn’t exist from its own side, but exists dependently on causes and conditions, both historical and immediate.
I’m not saying this makes Christmas less worthy or meaningful than any other human fabrication, or construction! All the great, wonderful, and marvelous creations of human life — great art, great music, great architecture, all the great ideas and creations of humanity — are due to the infinitely complex interplay of cause and effect and conditions. The liberating Buddhist insight is that “emptiness” and interdependency are actually the nature of things. To see the contingent, inter-dependent nature of all things can help us not get “stuck” with wanting or needing things to be a certain way in order for us to be happy. We begin to look for and develop a happiness that isn’t so dependent on persons, places, or things being a certain way.
So if we feel ourselves “stuck” in various forms of stress, suffering melancholy, or depression about the holiday season, maybe we need to consider that the problem isn’t intrinsic to us, but to how we look at things. Seeing to what degree our personal, familial, and cultural associations with Christmas are fabricated and contingent on memories and expectations that often can never be humanly met, we can break through holiday blues to actual happiness, which is always to be found in the here and the now of this present moment.
All kinds of studies have shown that at this holiday season human stress, suffering, and even suicides increase. There’s so much commercialism, materialism, greed, and lust associated with this time of the year, as our capitalistic system pulls out all the stops to induce us to extravagant consumerism. And this depraved systems tries to push every single “button”—all the buttons of our Christmas cultural conditioning—to get us to buy and purchase, and to feel guilty if we don’t have all the material things we are “supposed” to have according to the sellers of these things. No wonder people feel so empty, in the negative sense of that word, at the holidays!
Add to this consumerism all the messed, complex up emotional stuff that many (most? all?) families create around Christmas time, and is it any wonder many of us think there’s sometimes wrong with us because we feel so emotionally empty—deadened and burnt out instead of happy and joyous, let alone “merry!”
But if we look deeply into Christmas, and begin to see how much of a fabrication it is—individually, familially, culturally, and historically—maybe we can learn how to let go. We don’t have to have this fabrication called “Christmas” carry so much heavy weight and meaning with us. Maybe we can see that no human fabrication can’t possibly carry all that weight of hope, expectation, and purpose. Maybe we can see that what matters most is the condition of our own hearts in relationship to the spirit of Christmas and of what we make of the holiday season.
For the Christian, wouldn’t that mean, as is often said, putting the Christ back in Christ-mas? If Christmas as a celebration is to have any enduring meaning, surely that will be in getting in touch with the deepest meaning of love itself and of our relationship to a love that is beyond all conditions and that is not fabricated. Whatever we may finally choose to call that ineffable love matters not merely so much as to know it and feel it and express it in ourselves and to others!
With compassion, and wisdom born of looking deeply into our longings and into what we cling to, we can decide for ourselves how we define Christmas. We can decide for ourselves what “Christmas” or any other “season” means to us in terms of the very best in us—not what our individual and familial and cultural conditioning say it “should” be. When we see Christmas as being “empty” in this way, then Christmas can be full—full of the love, charity, goodness, compassion, and the happiness that we bring from our hearts in loving and sharing with others.
If we look deeply into the real “emptiness” of Christmas, we can see it as being wide-open the unlimited possibilities our hearts. We can see the holidays as a special time to wake up and to bring more loving-kindness, compassion, and wisdom to all our relationship. Free to make the celebration of Christmas what we make it, we can redeem the holiday season for ourselves. Free of compunction, blind drives, and insatiable hungers that no fabricated celebration can ever possibly meet, we can feel the “holy spirit” of mindfulness, of gentle presence, of seeing our loving relationship to all things. Surely this is the true spirit we all want, whatever our religious beliefs, or non-beliefs!
The true spirit of Christmas celebration naturally co-arises with the arising of unselfish love in our hearts. It’s light emitting light! In the words of the Buddha, our great work is to find happiness in “identifying with all sentient beings, encompassing the whole world with a mind of friendly loving-kindness, with a wide mind, vast, refined, unbounded, cleared, exalted, pure and bright, free from all hate and ill will…”
A tall order? No doubt! But because we are not suck with some unchanging, intrinsic “self” that cannot progress, there’s not a one of us who cannot evolve and break free of whatever binds and limits our hearts. To identify “with all sentient beings, encompassing the whole world with a mind of friendly loving-kindness, with a wide mind, vast, refined, unbounded, cleared, exalted, pure and bright, free from all hate and ill will…” is the very happiest way to live. We all have the potential and ability to live this way. And it is the happiest way to live, not just at this holiday season, but throughout the years of our lives.
In the spirit of true ecumenicism, I can think of no better way to end this post than with the music of Dar Williams and her wonderful song “The Christian and The Pagans” from her Immortal City album:
May all beings awake to the power of loving-kindness, of compassion, of wisdom, and of equanimity to set free the heart and bring an end to suffering!