christmas: unwrapping meaning

Posted on January 8, 2011


For many years, I’ve struggled with finding meaning in Christmas. A quick study of the history of the holiday shows a similar struggle around the world; among Christians (the Puritans banned Christmas in Boston in the 1600s) and governments (US Government didn’t recognize it until the late 1700s and it didn’t become a federal holiday until 1870). It is well established that the date of Christmas came from a pagan holiday but historians can’t seem to pin down which one because there are so many that it could have come from.  (For more, see

Is it a sacred, religious holiday?  or a secular, cultural holiday? Often that can be seen by the way it is celebrated. What you see is what it is, right? I think that is where I get hung up. I hear sacred and religious. I see and feel secular and cultural.

Peace on earth, goodwill to mankind cannot compete with the frenzy of the season.

A peaceful meal with friends and family seems to be dominated by honking horns and chaos on the streets and at the mall.

Silent Night is obliterated by the blaring commercials.

Joy to the World and Black Friday just don’t jive in my book.

Even though we know it is better to give than to receive, it takes a half a century or so of life for us (for me, at least) to begin to believe it. Getting those gifts is the first thing on most people’s minds.

Edgar Schein, in his research on the culture of organizations discovered a theory that seems to apply here. The external, visible things of a culture or an organization or a community or a church are seen in its behaviors and artifacts. Underlying the visible artifacts and behaviors are the espoused values (what we say we value) and underlying those are what we call core values (what we really believe). The artifacts and behaviors reveal whether those values are “espoused” or “core”. Do we just say we value something and do things that do not follow… or do we do what we say we value??? This is a question for all of life and living if we want to live a life that is authentic and undivided. There is one more level that this research has revealed. Underlying our core values are core beliefs. These reveal our perceptions, assumptions, and overall outlook on life. In college we called it our world and life view. Taking a step back and reflecting on Christmas through the eyes of our culture, our religion, our behaviors, our values, and our beliefs is an important part of becoming rooted, grounded, connected, and whole. But what I missed was this: when I look through these eyes (mentioned in the last sentence) what am I looking at? Everybody else’s life, or mine?

I had a disruptive epiphany the day after Christmas. I realized I have been searching for meaning rather than discovering or uncovering; unwrapping it. That means that I’ve been looking “out there” for meaning; when my focus must be “in here” if I’m looking for meaning for my life. I think that, just like everything else in the universe, meaning follows the concept of enfoldment. David Bohm, a quantum Physicist, has discovered that as we pay attention to (or study) something, it unfolds to us. In other words, reality is enfolded in the essence of all things. There is a lot more there than what originally meets the eye. But we have to unfold what has been enfolded into it. This is what I suddenly realized. The meaning of Christmas is enfolded in time and space and revealed to each of us as we pay attention as it meets us NOW. The present moment holds the meaning of life for us; as it waits for us to open our eyes to See it. Time (each moment) and space (each place) connects with each of us in the present moment. All of time and space comes before us giving us the chance to pay attention to what is there for us. So what is in each moment and each place that hold meaning? I like to call it Grace. There may be other words for it but it looks like these things:

  • Beauty
  • Truth
  • Goodness
  • Incidental graces
  • Acts of kindness
  • Expressions of compassion
  • The heart behind each word spoken
  • The artist behind all artwork
  • The reason behind all action
  • The Creator behind creation

All of life is really just learning to See. So then does that mean that discovering a meaningful life is a matter of learning to See also?

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” (Marcel Proust).

During Christmas, I had my children with me. For me, the meaning of Christmas is inextricably wrapped up in family. So instead of looking around for meaning, I tuned in to each moment. I followed my kids into the meaning of Christmas…

What did I find?

What did they show me?

What is important to THEM?

  • Family
  • When my parents picked us up to go to Christmas Eve, we were talking about my son Evan’s friends and what they were doing. My dad said, “Well, what would you do without your friends.” Evan said, “Aaah, I would still have Myka.”
  • When I dropped them off at their mom’s house afterward, my daughter Myka told me she loved me. Usually she says it in response to me saying it. This time, it was a stand alone statement. Very meaningful to me.
  • Watching a movie. Yep, but why. Meaning could be seen in the moments.
  • A movie where we could laugh together and cry together. They even talked about the parts that tend make them cry. (of course they had seen it before)
  • Myka wouldn’t let her brother do Facebook during the movie. She was very strict about it.
  • The together part was important.
  • Sitting on the couch together, close. (my daughter even fell asleep under her brother’s arm (and they are 14 and 16)
  • Spending time with relatives
  • Playing games together
  • Christmas music (Evan found it on the car radio and sang Christmas songs all the way home)
  • Presents? (Yeah, sort of, but not until later on)

When I opened my eyes, I could see the meaning of the season right in front of me.

“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” (John O’Donohue)

Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but the greater question is, what difference does that make? Does it change how you see everything? Does it turn everything upside down? Or does it help you “fit” more nicely into this world order? Does is just make you a better Republican or Democrat because you have re-created Jesus to be your own personal political superstar? Does it make you a better Christian because you have made your Jesus to conform to your ideas?

What is the meaning of the life of Jesus? What did He say?

“I have come that you might have life… life more abundantly.”

Abundance is before us. We need to open our eyes, see it, receive it, and be grateful for it.

“As New Year’s Eve approaches, I usually start making resolutions for the year ahead. But this year I’m not looking forward. Instead of naming what I need to make happen, I’m naming what is and has been that I’m grateful for. And there’s so much! Methinks we focus too much on achieving instead of receiving. We agitate when we should celebrate. So this year I’m not making resolutions but saying ‘Thank you!’ instead.” (Parker Palmer’s Facebook status on 12/26/10)