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The colors of Christmas

For many, suffering from heartache or hard times, the holidays aren't the festive, heartwarming time our windows full of green and red suggest. But in the nativity story there is precedent for facing a blue Christmas with grace.



The traditional colors of Christmas are red and green, “the holly and the ivy” of the English Carol. Then, of course, there’s “white,” of the “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” variety. And black as in the “Black Nativity” — the popular production of Langston Hughes Nativity story, now playing at the Moore Theater.

What about blue? That’s another color for Christmas, made popular by another king, Elvis, who sang, “It’s gonna be a blue Christmas without you.”

These days “blue Christmas” has taken on a life of its own as an increasing number of religious congregations offer Longest Night/ Blue Christmas services or programs, on or around December 21, the longest night of the year.

The idea of the Blue Christmas or Longest Night service is that not everyone finds Christmas the season “to be jolly.” For all sorts of reasons, people may find themselves feeling lonely, wistful, grief-laden or sad in the season of gladness and cheer.

I was recently contacted by an editor who’s thinking ahead to next year and suggesting topics for a book of seasonal reflections and meditations. She wanted to include both sides, or perhaps all the colors, of Christmas, including blue. So her list of topics for reflections/ meditations was, I thought, suggestive and interesting:

“Dreading Going Home”

“I Don’t Have Money”

“I’m Not Invited to Any Parties”

“I’m On a Diet”

“I Hate to Decorate My House”

“It’s My First Christmas Without _______”

There really are lots of things that may trigger a special sadness or grief this time of year and cast a blue shade over things. And I suspect many of you readers can easily add to the list. Another that comes to mind is, “We Just Had a Miscarriage.” And certainly the list ought to include, “I Don’t Have a Job.” Or, “The Office Christmas Party Just Sucks.”

The value of the Blue Christmas/ Longest Night services is at least two-fold. One, it gives people who are experiencing struggles around some of these issues a place to remember and be remembered, a place and time to “tell it like it is” without cover-up or pretense.

The blue Christmas tradition also reminds all of us that there are all sorts of reasons that this season can be hard; that some of the expectations and experiences that bring cheer to many, trigger different and more complicated feelings for others.

The other night I was with a group of carolers who stopped in to sing first at a retirement home and next at a low-income residential facility for people with chronic disabilities and mental illness. Christmas isn’t all good cheer in such settings. Its mixed and often poignant.

But perhaps it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the first Christmas wasn’t all comfort and joy either. The Christmas story is a nuanced and complex one. It’s not a cover-up of all that is hard in life. It is rather perceiving an outline of grace amid life’s pain and tragedy.

Take the opening lines of Luke’s version of the Christmas Story, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Joseph and Mary made a difficult and ill-timed (at least in some ways) journey, because the absolute and oppressive power of an occupying empire and its army compelled them to do so. Moreover, shortly after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary found themselves refugees fleeing to Egypt (this in Matthew’s Gospel) to escape the pogrom Herod had launched aimed at all Hebrew newborn boys. Their story is mirrored in that of contemporary refugees crossing danger zones and hoping to find a safe camp.

Then there’s the fact that Mary is pregnant without benefit of marriage. Initially Joseph planned to divorce her, which was what, according to cultural norms of the time, an upright man ought to have done. But Joseph decided, probably at risk of sanction and embarassment, to stand by the woman to whom he was engaged. Must have been hard for them both, in different ways. Who knows how their families reacted to it all.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Dec 15, 5:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Tony,
Thank you for sharing these reflections about Christmas. They brought to mind some words that the German Lutheran martyr and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote during his imprisonment:

“From a Christian point of view, a Christmas in a prison cell is no special problem. It will probably be celebrated here in this house more sincerely and with more meaning than outside where the holiday is observed in name only. Misery, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something entirely different in the eyes of God than in the judgment of men.

That God turns directly toward the place where men are careful to turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because he found no room in the Inn—a prisoner grasps that better than someone else. For him it really is a joyous message, and because he believes it, he knows that he has been placed in the Christian fellowship that breaks all the bounds of time and space; and the months in prison lose their importance.”

Collin

Tong

Posted Thu, Dec 15, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Tony. Especially for those of us who are aging, the season brings thoughts of family, loved ones, and former colleagues departed or ill.

Talking with childhood friends, I find that we in our Depression-born generation invariably associate Christmas with the poverty of that time
and the tragedies of World War II. My fondest memories are of the gifts I received from my parents---always one, used item. A used table-model radio, a used volume of Grimm's fairly tales, a used desk for my room. We shared, until World War II, a crate of Japanese tangerines. Those small things gave great joy and make today's have-it-all purchases seem obscene.

How to avoid the blues? There is joy in the health and company of family and friends. I also find satisfaction in helping gestures. My father, out of work as a young man, often stayed at Salvation Army shelters.
I make an annual contribution to the Salvation Army and also take used clothing there. There are other causes and charities which do not eat
money in overhead or staff costs. And then there are the countless volunteers who help the poor, sick, dying, hungry, and homeless without recognition. They are the ones with true holiday spirit.

The story of Jesus' birth and the manger is a Christian story. But each
major religion has a similar story from which to draw lessons. Keep writing, Tony.

Posted Thu, Dec 15, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

The problem with Christmas (and with Christianity generally) is that a 2000-year layer of cultural and commercial sediment has obscured any sense of original meaning. All we see now is the surface muck.

For starters, there is of course no historical evidence that Jesus was born in mid-winter. Christmas historically was a convenient adaptation of traditional pagan solstice celebrations. The birth of the Divine Child is the point where darkness turns the corner back toward the light. This offers a valid emotional connection to the cosmic cycle, although our removal from direct contact with nature has made it a less conscious experience. On a deeper level, the rebirth of light reminds us of the possibility of rising up from the bondage of physical existence -- the essential Christian message.

But as for the evergreen trees, holly, mistletoe and so forth -- European pagan relics one and all.

woofer

Posted Thu, Dec 15, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

The dead of Winter is by its very nature depressing. Many people die this time of year (as have most of the members of my family of the preceding two generations). Given that, it's not surprising that for countless thousands of years, people have brightened the season with celebration. But it's a mistake to assume that Christmas will make you happy. It won't. It's up to you to make Christmas happy.

dbreneman

Posted Sun, Dec 18, 1:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Tony, and thank you Crosscut. A moving piece.

kieth

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