If you haven’t heard of Kent Nerburn and you’re interested in US history and various Native American tribes that have been victimized and marginalized by said history, I recommend that you to look him up. I follow him on Facebook (I’m an author who works in the fields of spirituality and the bridge between Native and non-Native c), which is where he mentioned a post last December entitled Christmas Thoughts. I wasted no time in clicking on the link and reading it. Here it is in its entirety.
We fight hard to retain a sense of the sacred in our contemporary lives. What was once belief is reduced to myth and passed on as story, holy awe comes in only through the occasional cracks in our busy, practical lives, and the embarrassing desperation of capitalism is laid bare in all its tawdry venality on the very occasions where we should be bending a knee to mystery.
Christmas may be the worst of all in this regard. We’ve killed the magic of Santa in order to sell cars and dish soap, and if we had just a smidgen more courage we’d see Jesus in robes sitting in the front seat of a Lexus or some toothy salesperson hawking the new deluxe manger model of the tempur-pedic mattress. Coming soon to a holiday near you.
This angers me for its crassness, but, more than anything, it saddens me for what it steals from the children. What once was entrance into a magical time is now just a blip in the ordinary centered around the acquisition of more stuff. We do what we can to keep traditions alive or to manufacture new ones, but we know it is an uphill battle. The sheer brute force of commercialism is an almost invincible adversary.
I remember the struggle with belief around the reality of Santa, where the older kids, having learned the “truth,” tried to shove that truth down the throats of their wide-eyed younger siblings, and how parents struggled with “the conversation” about Santa much as they would struggle with “the conversation” about sex a few years later. You can say that the removal of this story is just a worthy demythologizing, but, in fact, it is the also the killing of magic. And all of us, especially the children, need a little magic in our lives.
The one place where the magic remains is around the gathering of family. We can tell it has magic because it has an air of anticipation about it – even though it does not always go the way we wish — and we feel, in some corner of our hearts, a pain for the loneliness of those who have no one else and are left sitting alone during the holidays. When you are aware of the pain that the absence of something causes, you know that its presence represents something special.
We can kill Santa, we can reduce the crucifixion and the resurrection to the hunt for Easter eggs, and we can turn our backs on buckle-shoe Pilgrims as colonizing marauders (my bold) — and all can be seen as inevitable, if not legitimate, evolutions of our awareness and understanding. But the baby is sliding out with the bathwater. When the myths are all drained, the magic is gone.
We need to find a way to up our awareness of the sacredness of family. No, it’s not Leave it to Beaver any more. It’s not the Waltons or the Brady Bunch or any of the more current sit-com realities about which I am blessedly ignorant. It is tensions, it is political disagreements, it is gender configurations that boggle the mind; it is out of control kids, it is some disgruntled relative sitting alone in a corner; it is a drunk uncle holding court. But it is also people thrown together by blood and circumstance for a short time on this planet, and the memory of those who are no longer with us and the thoughts of those from whom we are separated by distance. In short, it is family.
You can sense the whiff of magic by what lodges in memory as a moment in time. The holidays, denuded of myth and belief as they are, still have the magic of family. Somehow elevating and consecrating this may be the challenge of our generation. The institution of small rituals, the larger and more willing embrace of intractable differences, the shining of light on the children in a way that celebrates who they are rather than what they are getting — these are the things we can do. Indeed, the things we must do.
We owe it to the children, and that is the greatest responsibility of all.
It’s an insightful and spot-on post with one glaring exception, the reference to buckle-shoe Pilgrims as colonizing marauders — and all can be seen as inevitable, if not legitimate, evolutions of our awareness and understanding. But the baby is sliding out with the bathwater. When the myths are all drained, the magic is gone.
I believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny as a child. Those beliefs and the ritual of leaving out milk and cookies for Santa to consume after a long, tiring sleigh ride of delivering gifts to children around the world and our festively decorated baskets for the Easter Bunny to fill with candy were magical. Another Christmas story was that my stuffed animals came alive when Santa visited. As a child who later become an academic, I always checked their “before” and “after” positions to see if that was true.
Yes, the white lies, came to a sad and upsetting end when we found out (or were told) the cold, hard truth, but it was part of a mostly happy childhood for me. I didn’t feel betrayed by my parents and other adults only temporarily disillusioned.
I’m afraid Nerburn is mixing historical apples and oranges when speaking of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the settler colonizers who arrived off the coast of Patuxet (Plymouth) in November 1620 in the same sentence. It’s inconsistent with his work and what I assumed was his world view. Santa and the Easter Bunny are harmless myths that brighten an already magical time of year, the secular side of Jesus Christ’s birth and resurrection. The two are not mutually exclusive, they are simply two sides of the same coin, one religious, the other secular.
I have the greatest respect for Kent Nerburn, who is an astute observer and gifted writer. It’s fair to say that he’s one of the more knowledgeable white men when it comes to Native American history and culture(s), especially those he’s taken the time to research. He’s the ultimate participant-observer and a supremely talented ethnographic researcher. But, in this case, he crossed a line that should never be crossed. In a phrase, he should know better. For me, it was the realization, which is confirmed time and time again, that most people are inconsistent and therefore a disappointment, in this respect.
The first two are childhood myths; the third is part of an oppressive US cultural mythology. As a late baby boomer who was taught the standard litany of lies about the Pilgrims and the early days of what became the USA, I felt angry yet liberated when I eventually learned the truth as a high school and university student. (This intellectual liberation aptly illustrates the saying, The truth will set you free, in Latin, Vēritās vōs līberābit.) As a whole, the Mayflower passengers, who became residents of Plymouth, and those who followed them in great numbers were, in fact, “marauding colonizers.”
As I wrote in a 5,000-word essay last December entitled From New England to Vietnam: Settler Colonialism in Cross-Cultural Perspective. that was both therapeutic and cathartic, this ignominious history is not only academic but also intensely personal, as I am both a permanent resident of Vietnam and a direct and collateral descendant of settler-colonizers, both saints and strangers, who arrived in their New World in 1610 and 1620. If they hadn’t been there at that fleeting moment in history, I wouldn’t be here in this unique genetic form. That said, it is a painful reality that gives me pause.
Keep the offending quote about the buckle-shoe Pilgrims in the back of your mind while reading it. Where’s the magic in persecution, torture, slavery, and genocide? Isn’t that a myth worth draining? One of the obstacles to progress in the US is the cultural mythology that surrounds the founding and expansion of the country, a 400-year-old story built on lies that forms the bedrock of US nationalism.
Postscript: Christmas in Viet Nam is probably similar to the Christmas of which Nerburn speaks.
Shalom (שלום), MAA