In Search of A Season

Like most of you, I love Christmas. Unlike many of you I also love winter, both for its connection to Christmas and for its intrinsic beauty. I delight at the first snow and don't tire of it till well into mud season.

In many places these days it's as hard to locate the season of winter as it is the spirit of Christmas. Global warming has winter on the run. Street vendors can't sell mittens in Moscow. Alpine skiers gaze out on green slopes.

As the earth warms, weather grows extreme; drought in China, floods in Europe. On the Pacific coast it's blizzards one season and fires the next. It's so confusing: One day you're sipping summer drinks out on the deck, the next you're sleeping on an airport floor waiting for the runways to be plowed.

When winter isn't extreme it seems altogether absent. Still, we search for signs, in the skeletons of trees, the smell of pine, the slant of the afternoon light, and are grateful for what we find.

Christmas too is subject to extremes. Remember the war on Christmas? While there's no formal truce -- to save face, Bill O' Reilly still fires off a round or two at night -- it's essentially over. On its behalf, let it be said it was the shortest of the Bush wars and the one with the fewest casualties.

When I was a boy, the sisters at Saint Justin's conducted an annual campaign to "Keep Christ in Christmas." But their point was to examine one's own heart, not the hearts of others; to observe, not impose tradition. In a neighborhood that was also home to three synagogues and two Protestant churches, it was how we all got along. I've since learned that any true spiritual path starts with taking one's own inventory.

Christmas enfolds many traditions, not all Christian, or even civilized. As Christianity conquered the Roman Empire it absorbed its religions, adapting their deities and festivals. The first recorded observance of Christmas wasn't until 354 A.D., about the time the Roman God Janus took early retirement.

Christmas co-opted the solstice rituals it displaced, including their music, greenery, lights, drinking and carousing. (The office Christmas party is a lineal descendant.) Christians who wax proprietary about the day should tread carefully; one day the pagans may want their wreaths back and who knows what else.

Oliver Cromwell thought Christmas so debauched he banned it. So did Massachusetts Puritans; from 1659 to 1681 you couldn't cook a Christmas goose in Boston. It wasn't till the 19th century that Christmas took on the trappings we know, owing much to the publication in 1823 of Clement Moore's "A Visit from Saint Nicolas" and in 1843 of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

A Christian of no certain theological bent, Dickens got closer to the heart of Christmas than any writer since Luke. He saw that a world awash in wretched misery can be transformed by the gentling of the human heart. If you've read him and not believed, try again. As he showed us, not Tiny Tim or even Scrooge himself is immune to being saved.

Dickens' world and ours are too alike in their poverty, greed and general lovelessness. The reigning ideology then -- that the victims were the true culprits and all ill fortune derived of ill character -- was much like ours. We have, it seems, everything Dickensian except a Dickens of our own to hold up a mirror that we may see ourselves better.

After Moore and Dickens came many others: Tchaikovsky, Dylan Thomas, Frank Capra, Irving Berlin. Each believed different things about Christmas yet grasped its universal meaning. I'm a patsy for them all. So are most folks. It's why the war on Christmas crowd picked on retailers rather than authors, composers or actors. Better to battle Wal-Mart than Bing Crosby, George Bailey or the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Some leaders of religions and even some politicians think the task of separating out the sheep from the goats falls to them. I'm no theologian but I remember the endless parables of love and inclusion, wherein prostitutes, lepers, Samaritans and tax collectors were all let in and loved without condition. He never once said judge thy neighbor.

Can there be any greater folly than a war fought over religion? Is it so much easier to fight for our principles than to live by them? According to a wise priest I know, "Jesus didn't ask to be worshipped; He asked to be followed, which is harder." We search for signs of winter and Christmas, and settle for what we find until at last we look within.