Once upon a time, back when I had free time to just sit around and write songs, I got it in my head that I wanted to write a song that would encompass both Chanukah and Christmas. After thinking about it for a while I came to the conclusion that the thing both holidays had in common was a miracle of light. Chanukah has the menorah, which remembers eight days of light on one day’s worth of oil; and Christmas has the star of Bethlehem, which guided the magi to the baby Jesus. Of course light is such a great metaphor, representing truth, illumination and revelation, and the acceptance of the miraculous puts things in proper perspective with regard to our position relative to God (that is, God is God and we are not!). So I wrote the song Miracle of Light. Just to round things out, I started with a verse about the rainbow, then a verse about the menorah, then the verse about the star. If you’d like to hear the version of Miracle of Light as recorded by my group, Remember Rome, it’s here on my website – just click on the audio file below the picture of Coco Bean wearing antlers.
The song has taken on a bit of a life of its own in the last couple decades. A version of it is featured in a Christmas musical I wrote called, Treasures of the Heart. And it was later included on a compilation CD called Catholic Christmas. Most recently, I posted it on my website for the Chanukah/Christmas season. I finally got the nerve to ask for an honest opinion from a dear friend of mine (one of my best friends from college) who is now the cantor of a synagogue in the Chicago area. Do I need to point out that this friend of mine is Jewish? I was nervous about having my friend listen to the song because I was afraid of offending any Jewish believers. What if I got the essence of the Chanukah story completely wrong? What if the fact that the song ends with the Christian verse was taken as supersessionist? (Really, it’s just done chronologically – Jesus came after the Maccabees.) Anyway, this friend of mine had nothing but good things to say about the song, except that it seemed somehow wrong to place Chanukah on par with Christmas. That’s because, as we all know, Christmas (the incarnation) is a big deal for Christians, but maybe you didn’t know that Chanukah is actually not one of the major Jewish holidays. According to my friend, if Chanukah came in July we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So Chanukah has become a bigger deal because it coincides with Christmas, and has become, in a way, the “Jewish Christmas.” So here’s my Jewish friend trying to protect the integrity of Christmas!
What’s really behind all this is, in my opinion, the realization that the same thing that happened to Christmas is happening to Chanukah. It’s become commercialized. In fact, as my friend pointed out, there’s no biblical reason to give gifts on Chanukah – that’s a tradition that developed in response to the fact that Jewish children felt left out of the whole “you’ll shoot your eye out” experience. Now I could go on and on about how Christmas (and now Chanukah) has been co-opted by consumerism, but you’ve heard it all before. Though I will say that if I hear the term “door-buster” one more time, I’m really gonna bust somebody’s doors off.
A more recent song I wrote called, Be My Strength has the following lines:
So many gods, so little time
Every shiny thing catches my eye
So many new things they want me to buy
That I forget to get down on my knees and sigh
That’s the trap, the temptation to define yourself or your life by what you have. We even define our relationships by the gifts we give each other at Christmas. I don’t know about you, but I feel like Christmas has spiraled downward to the point where giving gifts has become an obligation rather than a joy. Even writing Christmas cards has become a burden. I’ll be honest with you, sometimes my wife and I have actually gotten into arguments over Christmas cards. On the surface, it’s because I feel that the only way to resist the consumerism of the holiday is to get cards that are specifically about Jesus. I want a manger in-your-face, frankincense up the wazoo Christmas card. Susie wants something fun and happy, but I’m looking for the card that says, “He came to DIE for your sins” on it. OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme. I swear I’m really not the guy with the John 3:16 banner at the football game. But underneath the argument about how Jesusy the cards need to be is the reality that it’s just really stressful to pick them out, get the address list together, write something personal on each of them (yeah we tried getting away without that one year and we were scolded), and getting them stamped and sent out on time. I really do love getting Christmas cards, and I really do hate sending them out.
I’m not saying we’re all just trying to buy happiness. In fact, I assume the people reading this blog really do get it – you Christians understand the meaning of Christmas, and you Jews and Muslims – you also get the importance of preserving sacred traditions from getting watered down. So what am I saying? Well… I’m not just giving you the old, “money can’t buy happiness.” Actually I think it can. Yes, you read that right. I believe money CAN buy happiness. And if you don’t think money can buy happiness, it just means you’re shopping in the wrong place.
I think it was Clement of Alexandria who said that the bellies of the poor are the storehouses of God. In other words, if you want to store up treasure in heaven (Luke 12:33-34), make a deposit by giving to the poor and the hungry. So, yeah… YOUR money can’t really buy YOU happiness, but it sure could buy happiness for someone else. But the bigger picture here is the art of living more simply. It’s not about collecting things (on that, see my song Look at the Sparrow). And it’s not just about giving, if by giving we mean people who have everything they need trading stuff they don’t need. I’m sick of that kind of giving. Call me Scrooge, but I’m tempted to tell everyone that what I really want for Christmas is not to have to give them something. Let’s figure out what we’re going to spend on each other, and then let’s just give each other the cash, and then let’s just realize we don’t have to because the equal amounts of cash cancel each other out.
So what’s the point of this Christmas rant? It’s futile to think we can get away from the worst of what “the holidays” have become. Every time I turn on the TV, Santa Claus is desperately trying to jump start the economy by convincing me to go further into debt. I guess I’m just going to pray that I will be able to focus on the important things, like spending quality time with people I love and being a generous person motivated by gratitude, and simplify my life rather than complicate it even more.
Now, at the risk of eclipsing that important point, I will mention that I’ve written a lot of helpful stuff about simplifying your life in the book Spiritual Blueprint, and that the book would make a great Christmas gift. Yeah, I know… it’s a shameless and opportunistic plug, but I have to make my own commercials – Santa Claus is too busy.