Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Have yourself a complicated Christmas

with 6 comments

For those of us who grew up in nominally Christian countries, the Christmas season is an annual time that evokes memories of every previous year of our lives. Christmas is like a string on which the beads of all our years are strung together into a more or less coherent whole. Having lived through the better part of sixty-five years and gone through just about enough transitions, I find my thoughts and emotions around Christmas are pretty complex. Let me try to tease some of them apart.

  • Silent night, secular night. I grew up in a pretty secular family. We celebrated Christmas by putting up decorations, sending out cards, exchanging gifts and drinking eggnog and eating turkey. As a child I was always moved by the story of Joseph and Mary trying to find a place to spend the night, and I loved the idea of a baby being born in a pile of straw in a barn, surrounded by gently lowing cows and bleating sheep. It seemed a perfect start to life. And of course I also knew how the story ended with the tragic execution by Romans of the man who had once been an innocent babe in the manger. The story moves me no less now than it did when I was a child. In fact, it probably moves me much more now, because I am much more aware than I was then of the kinds of suffering people can go through between the time of their birth and the time of their death. The birth of Jesus symbolizes for me the birth of every innocent child who will someday face challenges and trials that shatter innocence and leave wounds that never quite heal. So Christmas has been, and continues to be, a time of joy mingled with profound sadness. It is a time to reflect on what it means to be human.
  • All is calm, all is light. As a young man living and worshiping with Quakers, I developed a deeper appreciation of Jesus the rebel who listened to his own inner voice and followed his own light. The Quaker conviction that we are all in possession of the same inward light of the holy spirit that inspired Jesus made me look to Jesus as a model of uncompromising and fearless integrity, a man who did what was to be done and was never intimidated by the reactions of those in positions of power and authority. As a young man who saw the fullest realization of the teachings and actions of Jesus in the writings of Karl Marx, and especially in the advocacy for the poor, the weak, the oppressed and the downtrodden, I saw Jesus as an angry and persistent champion of those who were being held down by social, political and economic forces, and Christmas was a time for reflecting on all that. Reflecting on all that had the effect of turning me more and more against the commercialism and consumerism of modern Christmas. Nothing was a better symbol of the enemy of all the Marxist-Quaker Jesus had stood for than the modern image of Santa Claus, which had been fashioned by the advertising companies that promoted Coca-Cola, a company at the vanguard of the shameless commercialization of the Christmas spirit.
  • Christ the bodhisatva is born. My discovery of Buddhism, which in an odd way was a by-product of my explorations of Quakerism and Marxism, was a discovery of the teachings and practices that became the beacon of my adult life and led me to see the limitations of angry rebellion against the powerful classes. Buddhism gradually turned my personal picture of Jesus into a bodhisattva who selflessly healed the sick and injured, who rescued women from angry mobs bent on stoning them to death for adultery, who enabled the blind to see (which I always took as a figurative expression for enabling the foolish to become wise). For others Christ might be a savior, but for the Quakerly Buddhist that I had become, Christ was still the model of a life well lived, the Socratic examined life, the Buddhist life of wisdom and compassion.

Everything I have ever been, I still am, although in transformed ways. At Christmas time all those images of Jesus from Christmases past come fully to life. I walk around with tears in my eyes. Tears of joy, tears of rage, tears of hope, tears of despair. Secular, humanist, Marxist, Quaker, Buddhist tears. Human tears. Complicated tears. Wonderful tears.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 14:47

Posted in Meditation

6 Responses

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  1. […] in religion by Grad Student on December 20, 2009 Once again, Mr. Hayes has written a beautiful post, this time about what Christmas means to him. For those of us who grew up in nominally Christian […]

  2. Substitute college classes in science for Quaker years, and you have pretty well covered my experience of xmas too. Is this a Western thing — Western hemisphere or Western continent?

    Jim Peavler

    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 08:23

  3. thank you for this.


    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 11:10

  4. Amazing,

    Me to. Secular family but childhood love of Christianity. Followed by years as a Communist, and then attendance at Quaker meeting and, after moving to Asia, eventually Buddhist refuge. And still that love of the Christmas story.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful piece of writing (which I found via the Monkey Mind blog).

    With palms together,



    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 21:32

  5. I found you via the Words and Numbers blog. Thank you for this post. It resonated with me because of my own background: I also came to Buddhism through a background that mixed Christianity, Marxism and generic secularism. What strikes me is that despite the similar backgrounds, the significance of Christmas has been quite different for the two of us. I blogged a few weeks ago about my own experience with Christmas, in which it’s been valuable as a secular tradition in North American society, with the Christian dimensions decidedly secondary. You might find my experience interesting in the light of your own; I think the comments on that post do a lot to highlight the comparison.

    Amod Lele

    Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 12:33

  6. […] humanist, Marxist, Quaker, Buddhist tears. Human tears. Complicated tears. Wonderful tears.”Richard Hayes […]

    Christmas Wisdom on the Web | Monkey Mind

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 13:07

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