“Am I too late for breakfast?”
“Nah, you’re fine. Actually, I think you’re just too late, period!” He has two eggs cracked and scrambled in a bowl by the time he says this. “Nah, I’m just tranna be a smart-ass!” he adds. His wagon is on a desolate stretch of 8th Street between Vine and Spring Garden, with no one for custom or company but Teamsters--striking the Red Cross--and poor saps emerging from traffic court. He is ready to talk.
“I think the whole god-damn world is too late for somethin’. The Jews say Jesus ain’t God, the Muslims say the Jews ain’t the chosen people, the Buddhists say it’s all bullshit. Christmas is comin’. You heard about the banks? Payin’ back all that bail-out money so they can give themselves their bonuses. It’s all about the money; the whole world is all about the money.”
By this time I had my eggs and cheese on a roll, and as I ate, I realized that this culinary philosopher had pretty succinctly described a phenomenon that the Vedas call maya-- a word that is usually translated as “illusion,” but which more broadly denotes the fundamentally busted condition of a world that does not perform as advertised, and all the contradictions and perplexities it gives rise to.
Ecclesiastes, whose near-pagan direness makes it arguably the edgiest book of the Hebrew Bible, (it concludes with an editorial insertion advising the reader to “go no further than this,”) captures this sense of futility:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; everything is vanity! All the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea is never filled; the sun rises, and sets, and hastens to the place where it rises. What does a man gain by all the labor at which he toils under the sun? All is vanity and chasing after wind.[i]
Christmas both mutes and heightens this impression that something under the sun is ferhoodled. On the one hand, people are often more civil and decent to each other. On the other, anything painful or ugly stands out more glaringly against the festive background, even taking on a tint of moral injustice. If people die in June, it’s sad; if they die in late December, it’s “a shame.”
One especially wants the season to be magical for children, and this desire for things to be a certain way intensifies the disappointment when the world just goes on being itself. In Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie and Neely Nolan go at midnight on Christmas Eve to a neighborhood tree vendor to take advantage of the local custom of throwing unsold trees at people; whoever is not knocked down may take the tree home for free. When the vendor sees the two kids, eight and ten years old, with “starveling hollows” in their cheeks but their chins still “baby round,” he undergoes “a kind of Gethsemane.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ‘em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ‘em go. What’s the tree to me? I can’t sell it no more this year and it won’t keep till next year…But then,” he rationalized, “if I did that,…next year nobody a-tall would buy a tree off of me. They’d all wait to get ‘em handed to ‘em on a silver plate. I ain’t a big enough man to give this tree away for nothin’…I gotta think of myself and my own kids.Ultimately, the spirit of maya trumps the spirit of Christmas.
“Oh, what the hell! Them two kids is gotta live is this world. They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and take punishment. And by Jesus, it ain’t give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world.” As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, “It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!”
In spite of the rottenness, or maybe because of it, I still cling to the Christmas season--can still smell, on a good day, the incense from the Ghost’s benedictory torch. And whatever else I may have failed in as a Dad, I am proud of how my children love Christmas: as a whole month-long global experience of carol singing and Christmas-book reading and cookie-baking and Advent-wreath lighting. Sophie sat on the couch this morning, singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to herself while looking at the pictures of each day in a book.
I can still vividly see my two-year-old firstborn opening a gift from my Dad and flapping her little arms in excitement when she saw the Fisher-Price toy nativity scene in the box. “KWAYSH!” she crowed, her face beaming. They still play make-believe games together with the figures, improvising little midrashes on the Holy Family’s adventures. (The puppy chewed up a sheep this year; in fact, one of the sheep in my parents’ crèche has a missing leg for the same reason; we had to lean it against the side of the stable throughout my childhood.) More than once I have come downstairs and seen Clare with her chin on her hands, staring at the traditional crèche my parents gave me when I left home. It brings me up short; I stand before me as a living child.[ii]
When we are children, we can enter the story with abandon, but as maya does its number on us over the years, our inner vision is clouded and we lose sight of the star. We can no longer find Jesus in the manger, so we stop looking for Him in the office, the street, our homes. The baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” fades from our intention, and eventually even from our awareness. We become tourists in our own faith.
As it turns out, the Christmas story, in its historical detail, may be largely spurious. So what, then, is the point of telling it? Does it matter that Jesus was almost certainly not born in Bethlehem, but rather in the backwater hill-town of Nazareth where he grew up? That by his time, peoples’ understanding of prophecy had devolved from the speaking of God’s word to an erring world to soothsaying and fortune-telling, and that the later Gospel writers felt the need to place His birth where Isaiah seemed to have “foretold”? The writer of the earliest Gospel—Mark’s—didn’t even think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth worth recording.
And it won’t do to use the story as a means of obviating the pain of human life. By all means, have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be bright—but your troubles aren’t going anywhere. So why keep repeating the same incantation against the darkness if the darkness just keeps coming back?