Each year at this time, I set up a little shrine to dear Santa and gather around him all the woodland creatures who live in the North Woods -- or at least as many creatures as I can find models of. Of course, many of these creatures would be hibernating at Christmas time or would surely be prey for the predators among them, but we trust that Santa's love for them has cast its spell of warmth and peaceableness over them, so all would be safe and well. Since I last posted this scene on my blog two years ago, he's acquired a few new friends: otter, skunk, beaver, snowshoe hare, cottontail rabbit, bobcat, snowy owl, bald eagle, and (highly improbably!) one tiny little penguin, who must have hitched a ride on Santa's sleigh as it passed over the South Pole. The penguin and the rabbit and the Mallard hen were all gifts this year from our friend Jennifer, who also gave me the canoe-toting Santa many years ago, when she lived next door to us and saw me toting my canoe to the river almost daily. So this is a shrine to friendship, as well as to Santa-the-spirit-of-giving and also to all the woodland creatures who represent the amazing diversity of life on our fragile planet.
Of course, because it is Christmas, I also have another shrine set up to honor the birth of the Child whose entry into human existence has transformed human history. I would guess you don't have to believe in Jesus' divinity to acknowledge he had such an impact. Or to marvel at the stories that tell of his birth. I composed the following meditation on these stories a few years ago, and I share it again this year.
Yes, Virginia, There Really WAS a Baby Jesus
Christmas Eve. The time has arrived to deck the halls and light the lights and arrange the creche sets in their places of honor. What a beautiful story they tell, even to those who cannot believe that Jesus was divine, or even to those Christians (like me) who turn to these infancy narratives more for their symbolic truth than for any historical fact.
Here's a tale about how God comes to us wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Whether Mary actually gave birth in a stable or not, it doesn't matter. We who have endured the duress of childbirth can imagine how terribly stressful that would have been. My creche sets show Mary all clean and combed, with her flowing robes pristine. How was she able to take a bath in that barn? Our hearts go out to her -- and to all who suffer, frightened and filthy and far from home. And what does the image of baby Jesus, lying there where the animals feed, tell us about where God can be found? Right there (right here!) among the earthiest of all God's creatures, in whatever kind of shelter we can find.
Religion and its accretions have prettied up this narrative so, that I think we forget what low-lifes most shepherds were at the time when Jesus was born. Pretty much the dregs of society, no doubt, and they probably smelled bad, too. (Like the homeless guys who hang out in the library, getting warm.) The notion that God would send angels to them, that they would be the first to know about such a miraculous thing -- it's just too unlikely, isn't it, to be believed!? Unless God was trying to tell us something about the least of our brethren.
And what about those Three Kings? Can you imagine how surprised they must have been, to find not a prince in a palace but a little babe in a humble home? They came all that way for this? And what use could the infant Jesus have possibly had for gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Could it be they were symbols of the wealth and power and pomp that the grown-up Jesus had no use for, either?
As I said before, it's a wonderful story -- even better, I think, than the one about Santa Claus, the Santa that one little girl named Virginia was once reassured was real. Well, I love the story about Santa, too. So I have a little shrine set up for him as well -- albeit with a few accretions that reflect my own heart's desires: note his lightweight canoe and abundant woodland friends.
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May the peace and love that we celebrate in these Christmas stories be with you and yours not only at Christmas, but all through the year.