The Meaning of Christmas – Teachings for the New Year

blogimage2Looking out upon yet another snow squall from the window of my farmhouse office I am reminded, as I am each day, how much human life depends on the forces of the world of Nature. Indeed, deepening my appreciation of the natural world is one of the primary reasons why I chose to relocate from a metropolis seven years ago and live immersed in the countryside, surrounded by fields and woodlots inhabited by a variety of wildlife. Late December rudely awakened many thousands of Canadians – particularly in the cities – to the darker forces of Nature. The onslaught and aftermath of ice storms altered the tranquil vision of `white Christmas’ as a celebratory event characterized by the gathering of families and friends to share store-bought and home-made gifts.

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Gifts of a different type, I suggest, also are being offered to us – as teachings – whenever what provides comfort and convenience disappears, suddenly, and the activities to which we have become accustomed are sorely disrupted.

In the spirit of Christmas, at the best of times, for me the teachings are remembrance, gratitude and kindness. So I believe it is, as well, in these uncertain times.

Remembrance of loved ones who have departed to the world of Spirit is an important element of celebrating life. The sharing of storied memories about family members and dear friends no longer with us is one of the sacred practices that establish bonds among family relatives and deepen other relationships that we cherish.

My friend Kevin Hart, who is a United Church pastor for the Saugeen First Nation community, told me about a special `Blue Christmas’ service that he would be offering, as a separate event prior to the customary Christmas service. For the special Blue Christmas gathering, he invited two traditional First Nation spiritual elders, a husband and wife, who each would contribute rituals to honour those who have crossed over, and also the surviving family members.

For the Blue Christmas service – aside from my friend’s chosen sermon – the First Nations woman would offer a drum song, while her husband prepared a ritual fire outdoors and keep vigil there. During the religious service participants could safely express their grief, and then place their tear-filled tissues into a bag. In the closing ritual, this bag would be placed in the sacred fire, for each person’s sorrow – energetically and symbolically – to be released to the Creator through the upward wafts of smoke.

Gratitude is another teaching, even as it is interwoven in the web of remembrance, namely, remembering to be grateful at all for everything – and everyone – who contributes to our well-being. At the best of times, how do we measure our well-being?

Do we get swallowed up by the exchange of material goods in our consumer-driven society, and express gratitude only for the “presents received” or instead, more importantly, for the “presence of” caring individuals?

As for the teaching of kindness, to whom do you bestow kindness? Is your generosity limited to a select few individuals, or sometimes include total strangers, locally and globally?

Can you recall particular moments in life when you received unexpected kindness, possibly from a total stranger? I invite you to see one of my own stories in a blog post a year ago titled “Spiritual Teachers Among Us in Unexpected Places.”

My first cousins have a tradition, practiced among the adults through many years. Instead of exchanging gifts with each other, they give money to their respective selected charities at Christmas season. This year, for example – to my delight – my cousin Patti donated money to my portal page on the Canadian Red Cross website for the Typhoon Haiyan Appeal. All donations are anonymous, so that I only found out when she told me at the Christmas Day gathering at her home.

Throughout December I focused my volunteer energy on fundraising for the Philippines. My previous blog post outlines the film event that I organized.

Despite a car accident while distributing 100 flyers in two rural counties, I continued to do so, white-knuckled, in a much smaller rental car (and without snow tires). Sadly, when the event day arrived, only three people showed up, likely because of a pending snow squall. Regardless, I pursued further fundraising in emails, directing potential donors to my portal page.

Social and environmental recovery, as well as economic, is long term for the Philippines. The catastrophe, of course, went off the news radar, superceded by ever-unfolding news stories, from the passing of Nelson Mandela (one of the great heroes of our time) to the more recent news of extreme weather events closer to home for Canadians.

Yes, Christmas this year for many Canadians was upsetting, understandably, when both the exchange of gifts and the presence of loved ones was disrupted, even terminated, by severe ice storms across several provinces. As well, in Alberta, a number of families still remain without homes, after record-breaking floods that happened months earlier.

Kindness, nevertheless, is a human possibility through all that befalls us, and a quality that bonds the human family. Indeed, the kindness of folks towards each other during this destabilizing extreme weather – close to home and across the world – could be the most notable, remembered gift from this 2013 Christmas season, long after it has ended.

At this historic moment, I genuinely believe that we are called to a transformation of consciousness, a societal transformation that needs to develop from the grassroots seeded by the human heart rather than be bureaucratically imposed from above, the latter merely limited to political and economic expediencies.

We are fully capable of doing so. What essentially is required from each of us is an act of will as well as a caring heart. Forget finger pointing, and blaming, various levels of authorities in regard to their limited resources. Yes, we can speak out and demand better.

Yet, what fundamentally is required to address the enormity of our uncertain planetary future is to take back more personal responsibility, such as wiser choices in our lifestyles, developing our humanity more fully, and more actively caring about each other and the life support system of the planet – to safeguard the future for the children to come.

En route in driving several hours from my cousin’s home to my farmhouse, I dared to stop in a large shopping mall to look for long underwear. Usually I avoid shopping on Boxing Day like the plague. Could I cope with the throngs of people packing the aisles of stores to get a good deal? I just wanted more woollies for the next power outage (which I confronted sooner than anticipated upon arriving home that same night).

News reports told us how thousands of Torontonians remained without power for a week. Thousands more folks, regardless, were populating the malls on Boxing Day, weighted down with numerous bags of goodies. I wondered how many of them were grateful simply to have a roof over their heads; for I could not help contrasting the excesses of a North American mall with the destitution of the Philippines people.

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Who among the shoppers had extended their well-being to strangers, locally or globally, through donations or volunteerism in the weeks and days leading up to Christmas, or perhaps during other seasons, if at all?

In a recent email I was delighted to hear from an affluent friend who spent two days serving holiday meals to older street men. He wrote: “It was humbling to see their pleasure at a plate heaped high with food and other treats.” Although this friend characteristically downplayed his kindness with the subject title “Humbug time,” he genuinely has a good heart. He shows it through a simple act of caring for him yet one which has a profound outcome for the destitute recipients.

In other words, my friend’s act of caring represents the spirit of Christmas that can be carried forward into the new year, and be expressed in a multitude of ways. They range from types of outreach to improve the well-being of the homeless in our midst to engaging with the wider world, and assist the restoration of a sustainable existence for fellow members of our human family whose lives have been devastated by natural, and industrial, disasters.

As a closing note, I do not know how much longer my own portal page will continue online. Whether going there or directly to the Typhoon Haiyan Appeal page of the Canadian Red Cross, please know that the names of any willing donors are anonymous and protected. Alternatively, I appreciate that your heart might be more closely aligned to other causes.

Hope resides not in what the new year brings to us yet rather what we bring to the new year, in co-creating a more loving world together.

PHOTO CREDITS: Ice storm in Toronto taken by Aaron Vincent Elkaim, The Canadian Press; and Typhoon Haiyan image by Erik de Castro, Reuters.

 

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