I had a dream last night. A small, obscure medal-like object is lying at the bottom of a fish tank that contains water and some small stones and pebbles. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, those pebbles are turning to gold. I am with a fellow who realizes what is happening and is preparing, against a tight deadline, to present a scientific paper about some scientific topic relating to this, but he alone has observed the transmutation of stone into gold, and he’s frantically trying to figure out how it works in time to give a proper scientific explanation.
He shares the truth with me, asking my input. Maybe, I figure, it’s a form of electrolysis, which is gold-plating the stones. But we don’t want to take a pebble out and cut it up to find out whether it is gold clear through or only on the outside, lest that disrupt the process. The medal bears a tiny engraving that seems to be of a saint or other religious figure. It doesn’t seem that we’re going to be able to give a good scientific explanation, but the truly remarkable thing is that it is happening at all, and I feel that what is important is simply to witness it and marvel at it, as a magnificent demonstration of an amazing power that transmutes base things.
It is quite rare that I can interpret my own dreams with a sense of certainty, but I am sure I know what this one means, because as I thought about it, my associations were about several conversations I’ve had lately about Christmas and the winter solstice. I hadn’t consciously figured out what there was about this “solstice” business that seems emotionally chilling, but the dream made that clear.
The “solstice” notion is becoming very popular. Just before I went to sleep I watched the news, which was about a solstice street demonstration involving lights in Kensington Market. That made me sad, for it is intended as a way of replacing Christmas, and I think that’s not a great thing to do.
Solstice is a left-brain kind of cultural innovation, with no inspiring stories, music, or art behind it. I don’t mind adding myths, but I dislike taking any away. I’d gladly throw myself into the swing of celebrating Hanukkah or Divali or Eid (I guess, though I know nothing about that) because I want more myths, not less. And Christmas is probably the richest myth in human history. It takes a lot of work to enact it, which I sometimes resist, but in the end it’s worth it. All around the planet, societies are picking it up (even where it has no parallel in their own traditions) because it works. It’s a whole repertoire of symbols that can be drawn upon to create ceremonial events of fun, beauty, and wisdom. In Northern Exposure, the Indians add one of their myths to the Christmas mix: something about a raven who brings light to the world. People decorate their trees with ravens. I like that. The more the better.
It is possible, if a whole community agrees to it, to create a new cultural element. The African Americans have done so fairly successfully with Kwanzaa. But the dissidents' elevation of solstice is more akin to Charlie Brown’s creation of the Great Pumpkin — an invention that amusing for the limitedness of its significance.
There was a swell op ed piece by Timothy Garton Ash this week that goes something like this: He begins by saying he’s just been singing some words that he doesn’t believe. He’s been to a Christmas service with his family and, along with most Europeans, he doesn’t literally believe any of the words he sang. He says he’s an atheist, but he sure gets into Christmas. Mary and Joseph had a baby, and what a man he turned out to be! Most of the finest people Ash knows are Christians who take courage and inspiration from that myth. And the music is glorious. (I agree; it can turn pebble people into gold.)
My favorite TV show now is Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. When I find a show that’s really lovable, one that makes me feel great because its message is great, I watch it over and over. I still have three of the recent episodes of Studio 60 on my PVR, and I’ve watched the Christmas episode five or six times.
Studio 60 is about two guys, Matt and Danny, who are co-producers of a show clearly modeled after Saturday Night Live. Matt, who like Sorkin, is Jewish, arrives in one day with a small Christmas tree, which he puts onto the writers’ long conference table and tells them to produce a Christmas show. They can use snow, wassail, open fires, chestnuts, Santa Claus – the whole set of mythic elements to draw upon.
But the writers and two of the performers are resistant. They get into being literal about the Christmas story. They report that our Santa Claus was invented in 1931 by an artist commissioned by the Coca-Cola company to represent Sinter Klaus. The Bible never says how many wise men there were, but it is known that they didn’t have camels and they came only six miles. The star was probably a comet. Over one million reindeer would be required to do the delivery, traveling at twice the speed of sound. Mary wasn’t necessarily a virgin; the Hebrew word means only “young woman of marriageable age,” according to virginbirthdebunked.org.
Matt keeps saying, “I don’t care! I want a warm, inspiring, beautiful Christmas show.” Meanwhile, his partner, Danny, hears a substitute horn player down in the studio performing magnificently and asks about his background. It seems that all over Hollywood, musicians for TV shows are calling in sick and proposing substitutes to fill their slots. The substitutes are New Orleans musicians who are in Hollywood, sleeping on people’s couches. The regular musicians are giving them a chance to earn a little money to send to their families for Christmas. So Danny invents a wonderful conclusion to the show. We see five or six black horn players against a backdrop showing slides of their New Orleans. Snow is falling and they give a long jazz rendition of (I think it was) O Holy Night. It was superb. I couldn’t imagine a better Christmas show.
Now I realize that I’ve invited people to Christmas dinner who don’t like Christmas. This is going to be awkward because I don’t think they will play along with the metaphor of Christmas. One of my friends, who was invited but can’t come, is trying to teach her kids to celebrate solstice, not Christmas. Another couple, who are coming, share that opinion. And my Bosnian friends are a mixed family who live by the wife’s atheistic beliefs, instead of the husband’s Serbian Orthodox tradition. Their daughter was upset when I took her to the Christmas Story at Holy Trinity a few years ago when she was about six; she knew that she was somehow supposed to resist it and she did so, managing to hate the whole experience.
So what do I do? Normally, politeness requires one to go along with the prevailing views of the guests, but I really don’t like that idea. I don’t want to surrender Christmas. I certainly don’t believe it, but metaphors and poetry are not about literal belief, but about being transported. Anyone can resist being transported by refusing to suspend disbelief in the premise of the myth. Indeed, one must do more than suspend belief, as in watching a play; one must join in enacting the performance itself, which seems to be hard for some people to do.
Why do my friends dislike that myth so much? I don’t want to be coercive, but the Christmas dinner ritual isn’t created for practical reasons. Christmas elicits good human qualities. I want it to go on inspiring billions more people in the future, including me and my guests. That can happen only when people are willingly participatory. Fortunately, the imagination can reward itself.