A reason for the season?

December 25, 2009|By Michael Cross-Barnet

Can the spirit of Christmas be found in a dining room in Baltimore where three Jewish guys are sitting around a table, drinking hot cider and singing carols?

I'll try to answer that question, but first, some background. A while ago, I began to feel dissatisfied with Christmas. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something was missing. Sure, my wife and kids and I did many typically Christmassy things. Cards were written and mailed. Seasonal foods were prepared and served. Family members arrived from distant places. At some point, a tree appeared in a corner of the living room and presents began to blossom under it - and I eventually traced my discontent to this fact.

I realized that for weeks before Christmas, my kids had been obsessing about the presents: writing and revising wish lists, rhapsodizing about how much they were looking forward to this new video game or that new iPod. For weeks, my wife and I had been scrambling and fretting, trying to find that perfect something for each other - and knowing that whatever we found was unlikely to be perfect at all.

In short, I knew I didn't want Christmas to be all about the presents. What I didn't yet know was exactly what I did want Christmas to be about.

And this, I suspect, is a dilemma shared by many of us who observe Christmas in one way or another but do not believe in the divinity of Christ. Christians have an easy response to the soul-sucking crush of holiday consumerism. They love to remind us that "Jesus is the reason for the season."

That's fine, but what about those of us for whom Jesus is not the reason for the season? To ask this is to wonder: When I celebrate Christmas, what, precisely, am I celebrating?

Seeking an answer has led me to dabble in various Yuletide-related events over the years. I've schlepped to "The Nutcracker," attended a Shakespeare-infused rendition of "A Christmas Carol," even enjoyed a traditional English-style Christmas pantomime.

They were nice, but none of them made me exclaim, "Ah yes, this is what Christmas is about." I was looking for tradition, it seemed, in all the wrong places.

There is a little irony in the fact that I, of all people, was the one leading the quest to discover the meaning of Christmas for our family. After all, I'm the only one in my household who grew up not celebrating Christmas.

When I was young, Christmas meant a long break from school, trees in the houses of certain friends, lots of people lugging packages on the subway. At about age 7, I asked my secular Jewish parents if we could have a Christmas tree, and they indulged that whim for a couple of years. Once or twice, my mom and I rode the train to Midtown Manhattan where we took in the breathtaking displays in the windows of Macy's and Saks.

But the thing I always liked best about Christmas was the music. Each December, my mother would play Handel's "Messiah" on our scratchy phonograph. It was my introduction to classical music, and I enjoyed singing along (especially the passage that repeats "And we like sheep," over and over). Even better were the Christmas carols we sang at my Quaker school's holiday festival (with a Hanukkah song or two tossed in for diversity's sake), or heard revelers perform on the nearby Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

I found that I especially liked the older songs. They made me feel connected, in some brief and magical way, to ancient times and distant places. "Good King Wenceslas" - who was he? What far-off country did he rule, where the snow lay "deep and crisp and even"? "Hark, How the Bells," with its haunting, minor key and interlocking verses, seemed somehow perfect for the coldest, loneliest days of the year.

But although I grew up liking Christmas carols, I had never been caroling myself until a few years ago, not long after we moved to Baltimore. My friend Bob invited me to his annual caroling party, and I talked my family into going.

Fortified by eggnog and homemade cookies, we set forth, Xerox-copied lyric sheets in hand. Some of us may have been a little out of tune, and the printing on some of the lyric sheets had surely faded over the years. But it seemed to me, standing there in the snow belting out "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" as an elderly couple stood smiling on their doorstep, that this came very close to what I was looking for when I thought about the spirit of Christmas. I was surrounded by people of all ages - a mix of friends, acquaintances and strangers - gathered for no other reason than to spend an hour in fellowship with neighbors and to spread good cheer through a simple activity that people have enjoyed for centuries.

The next year was similar, although with fewer carolers. The year after that, however, the weather was brutal. Only a handful of people showed up, and most didn't stay long. And that's how I came to pass a pleasant evening with two friends - all three of us of Jewish heritage - sitting around the dining room table, sipping hot cider and singing for our own pleasure.

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