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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Christmas

I’ve been thinking about this post a bit. Most of us will be with family or friends on this day so I suspect it will be read, if at all, in retrospect, while fresh from the warmth of the holiday. Many eloquent essays have visited the conflation of commercial Christmas with the religious celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I cannot improve on them. I do have a slightly different take however that for me redeems the spirit of the day just a bit.


Christmas is the one day of the year when –even for a brief moment we stop and think about those less fortunate, take stock of our war torn, weary world and ask for peace, reunite with those we have not seen over time and are reminded of our affection for them. Well—perhaps not all of the above and not everyone but a significant number of people nonetheless.


I did a little digging into the traditions of the day—those outside of Christianity’s tenets and was reminded of a certain ritual among some Native American tribes that predates their exposure to Abrahamic religions. It is called Potlach, a word in Chinook that means to give away. Potlach celebrations serve several purposes: they demonstrate a clan or tribe’s wealth, reaffirm family and clan connections, and were often the occasion to negotiate or realign the use of resources. As with all celebrations they featured various rituals, speeches, games, elaborate jokes along with music and dancing. Sounds a bit like the Christmases I remember as a child although at least one quarrel among feuding family members was a frequent highlight.


I single out this celebration but most cultures practice some form of gift giving celebration, though the motives behind them are less clearly defined as a curious form of altruism in which one’s prestige is elevated by giving away rather than accruing wealth. Our world would be a good deal better for it if that were the common objective at Christmas time. But what of the yearning for peace, surely this must have its roots in the Christian tradition?


Again I found a precedent in the 3,000 year old Day of Nowruz, which is celebrated by over 300 million people across Central Asia the Caucasus, Balkans, and the Middle East. To quote a UN article, Nowruz ” …promotes harmony with nature and all people to foster cooperation for lasting peace.” Pre-Christian Romans also celebrated a Feast of Peace –a village festival that inspired animal sacrifices on an altar of peace. It was later adopted by Octavian Augustus and transformed into the cult of Lares Augusti.


These are just two examples I found of enduring traditions among humans that in some way persist in our modern-day mish mash of religion and commercialism. It gives me some modest comfort that the sensibilities of the season—to give away to others rather than hoard our means, to wish for peace and in many cases practice it at least for a moment in time are part of an enduring human spirit, despite the marketing and hype. If only we could capture that sentiment and extend it throughout the year. One can hope, and in the end that seems the most fitting observation because this one day, beyond all others is about hope. Hope for our fellow humans, hope for a lasting peace in our time. That might seem naïve but it is my gift. Let us all continue to hope.

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