by Rabbi Nancy Kasten
In 1870 Ulysses Grant signed a bill establishing “December 25th…commonly called Christmas Day” as a federal holiday, along with January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and the Fourth of July. Christmas was celebrated by both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, so Grant felt that the day represented reconciliation, unification, and peace for a country that had just been torn apart from the inside out.
To date, the law of this land upholds the constitutionality of Christmas as a national holiday, making a distinction between the religious nature of the holiday and the more universalist intention with which it was established. Rob Boston, senior advisor at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, offers a way to see Christmas as an opportunity to exercise our freedom of religion:
“How wonderful it is to have the choice (of whether and how to celebrate Christmas)—and we have it because in our country, unlike some other nations, the government does not presume to tell us how, where, when or if we ought to worship. That means what we do on Dec. 25 is left to individual conscience, which is exactly where it belongs.” (Source)
At this time of year most of us choose to make a special effort to connect to our family, our faith and our community, whether we celebrate Christmas or not. But many of us may be finding that harder than usual right now. Differences of opinion have become existential arguments. Fear and anger rule the airwaves, incessantly calling on us to respond in kind, not in kindness.
Joy Harjo, the first Native American named Poet Laureate of the United States, offers an analysis and an antidote for our current affliction in her poem, “Once the World Was Perfect.”
Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.
Today we feel ourselves bumping into each other in the dark. Lines are being drawn between allies and foes, and it seems harder and harder to differentiate between the two. There is a lot of light being lit on lawns and in shopping malls during this season, but not so much in our hearts and souls. The bigness and brightness of light displays are beautiful, but they don’t leave us with the feeling of safety and comfort that we are yearning for. For that, we need empathy and compassion—a spark of kindness.
As we approach our national holiday on December 25, we at Faith Commons are sharing some gifts with you. These videos, webinars, and other resources highlight how some of the organizations and individuals we admire and/or partner with are building ladders by bringing people together to listen to one another and to affirm the humanity of one another. Watching and listening to them will require time, and likely some discomfort. But reconciliation, unification and peace are not accomplishments or aspirations to be achieved once and for all. They are practices which individuals and groups must engage in repeatedly, in varied times and under varied circumstances, not just when it feels natural, but most especially when it does not. We invite you to practice with us, in this holiday season and in every season.
May your homes and hearts be filled with light, and may you share that light with a world that needs it desperately.