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Any Meaning in Christmas?

Is there any meaning left in Christmas? The Christmas season in Canada seems battered by commercialism, by secularism, by multiculturalism and by an onrush of bewilderment. What on Earth is Christmas supposed to be about in this switched-on, economically driven day and age, especially in an ethnically eclectic place like Metro Vancouver?

I set out on a search for meaning in Christmas by inviting some diverse British Columbians — an atheist, a Christian, a Sikh and a Chinese-Canadian — to sit at a table to see if we could make sense of this major holiday, which is rooted in a religious tradition.

The lively dialogue participants began by airing some sharp differences. The atheist basically gave a thumbs-down to almost all that goes with Christmas. But the Christian, Indo-Canadian and ethnic Chinese resident generally gave the season a thumbs up. With reservations.

In a multifaith and consumer-oriented country like Canada, we explored how Christmas comes with a dizzying array of hard-to-measure meanings. Some are deep. Others are superficial — unless you can find profundity, as the participants laughed, in the Santa Claus song, All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.

The person who acknowledged having the most at stake in Christmas was Lynn Szabo, head of the literature department at Trinity Western University, a Christian school in Langley. Szabo found deep religious truth in the Christmas story of God becoming one with humanity through the birth of Jesus, acknowledging she embraced the traditional belief in Jesus’ virgin birth (which many liberal Christians do not).

But Capilano University philosophy professor Stan Persky, who is gay, had trouble with how Christianity and its often-conservative members have at times thrust their values in his face at Christmas. Persky said he finds orthodox Christian theology strange.

Rajvir Kaur Basra, a Surrey-raised Sikh in the community relations business, started off joking that at Christmas she “celebrates commercialism.” Most Indo-Canadians have fun with Christmas trees, Christmas dinners and giving presents at this time of year, she said. But mostly they like a few days off work.

Ed Shen, a Hong-Kong raised Vancouver psychologist who informally follows Eastern forms of spirituality, has nevertheless sometimes found satisfaction in sitting in on a Christmas service. As a psychologist, Shen maintained that Christmas has become a “canvas” on which people project their own meaning. Some love to be with family. Others look inward. Some celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom they consider the Messiah. Others make a “religion” of shopping. Is one better than another?

In a strongly secular culture like that in British Columbia, Persky aired the views of many when he started off by saying there are at least two great “myths” around Christmas. They revolve around Santa Claus and Jesus. As a non-observant Jew, Persky said he can see why people are drawn to Christian faith. But he doesn’t understand the logic of conventional religious “truth” claims, including that Jesus was the literal “son of God.”

Just as children grow out of believing in Santa Claus, Persky suggested adults should grow out of believing in God and a divine Jesus Christ. “It’s very unlikely there was a virgin birth in an obscure Jewish backwater of Palestine some 2,000 years ago — and that that virgin birth represented God’s incarnation on Earth. It seems a bizarre story.”

Persky said he champions rationality. So when people wish him “Merry Christmas” or “Seasons Greetings,” Persky will cheerfully reply: “Seasons Reasons.” Although Persky, a former Vancouver Sun columnist, said there is “much to criticize about capitalism,” he wasn’t more appalled by the often “vulgar” way it “commodifies” culture at Christmas than it does at any other time of the year. “I don’t get anything out of the festive season. I don’t have any experience of Christmas. And I don’t care whether I’m home alone or at a Christmas party, although they’re hard to avoid,” he said.

Still, Persky stressed he is not a nihilist. He does find meaning in existence. “I think the source of joy is elsewhere than most of what is generated in society. I have a very strong feeling there’s meaning to be made in the world. In that sense I’m a naturalist.”

Szabo’s Christian theology leads her to focus intently on the season as a time to seek communion with the divine. The story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem represents to her “the incarnation” of God on Earth. It was, she said, a “moment in time which opens the path to seeking union with God.”

Even though Szabo teaches at an evangelical university, she attends a moderately conservative Anglican parish called St. Helen’s on the west side of Vancouver. She also follows the radical Trappist monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, who was a peace activist during the Vietnam War. Szabo’s form of Christianity, which blends conservative and progressive elements, illustrates the diversity of the faith in Canada.

Polls by Reginald Bibby in The Boomer Factor show two out of three Canadians believe Jesus is the divine son of God. However, only one out of three Canadians (and just one out of five British Columbians) feels loyal enough to actually attend a church service once a month or more.

Szabo strives to be a serious follower of Jesus, but in a “post-Christian” and multicultural society where corporations rely on making a lot of money out of Christmas hoopla. She doesn’t mind. That’s in part because, despite all the hype and confusion around Christmas, Szabo still thinks it can bring out the best in people, regardless of whether they’re Christian or not. “No one wants to be the Christmas grinch,” she said. There is a cross-cultural emphasis at this time of year on “bringing out one’s better self” — to be polite, generous and forgiving. There is also a lovely seasonal emphasis on enjoying “beauty,” esthetic experiences, Szabo said. “The Vancouver Sun is full of listings for concerts, recitals and organ concerts. And I like how children have a chance to be festive in schools, to learn about other belief systems and families.”

Basra and her extended Sikh family have already had their Christmas dinner — they did so in early December — because many were flying off to visit their Indian homeland on Dec. 25. Many Indo-Canadians, including some fundamentalists, enjoy having a feast, putting up Christmas trees and lights, exchanging a few presents and enjoying the secular mythology of Santa Claus, she said. Basra called herself “more of a spiritual person than a religious one,” which caused Persky to remark: “That’s how we grow them here.”

The Surrey-raised community relations specialist attends Sikh temple only occasionally. Even then, Christmas for her is not a particularly spiritual time. “Mostly I think about how I get three days off and I want to relax. Most Indo-Canadians just join in the happy, family times of the season.” Still, Basra said she had a sudden realization when she heard Szabo, the Trinity Western instructor, acknowledge how she could tolerate the sacred aspects of Christmas being overshadowed by Santa and commercialization. If the tables were turned, Basra said she would be offended if North American culture turned the Hindu-Sikh religious festival of Divali into little more than a secular consumer event. “Christmas is a religious holiday, but then they added Santa Claus and lights. The Christmas season should be about more than asking, ‘Have you done your Christmas shopping? Have you seen any bargains?”

Shen was exposed to both Eastern and Western thinking when he grew up in Hong Kong, where Christmas is a statutory holiday and his parents sent him to a Catholic elementary school. “My family was quite traditionally Chinese. But they still put up a Christmas tree. My parents pretended to be Santa Claus. They bought each of us a single present. I was shocked when I came to Vancouver and found parents give sometimes 10 or 12 presents.”

Although Shen is not a Christian and believes in a kind of Taoist “higher order” rather than a supreme being, he says sometimes at Christmas he’ll attend a Christian mass. “Two years ago when I felt a bit lonely during Christmas I went to a midnight mass on my own. I liked the feeling. That’s all I was after — that feeling of being in church with other people. We were singing, everybody was joyous. To me that’s the meaning of Christmas: Joy.” Since he is a psychologist on the west side of Vancouver with both ethnic Chinese and Caucasian clients, Shen found it interesting that few people who come to confide in him mention a religious sense of Christmas. “They talk about going on trips. They talk about what presents to buy,” Shen said. “Many Chinese people look at Christmas as just another day off. A chance to go to the outlets in Seattle to grab bargains. That’s what some people live for.”

All in all, however, Shen positively compared Christmas in Canada to Thanksgiving or the Chinese celebration of winter solstice. “They are all occasions when the whole family gets together and enjoys each other and forgives each other for past misdeeds, and are thankful for what they have.” As a non-Christian, Shen said he found it revealing when he once wished a store clerk “Merry Christmas” and she abruptly replied: “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” Shen laughed as he said it, but also acknowledged, “Actually, I was a little ticked off. Because I was thinking when it’s Chinese New Year and I say, ‘Happy Chinese New Year,’ or ‘Gung Hey Fat Choy,’ I’m not asking anyone to change their calendar. To me it’s no different than saying, ‘Have a nice day.'”

Shen, Basra, Persky and Szabo expressed different perspectives on whether the multicultural nature of Canada added to the meaning of Christmas or took away from it. While all four celebrated how Canadians are free to mark Christmas almost any way they want, Basra wondered whether multiculturalism might have contributed to Christmas becoming more commercial, and less spiritual. The hyper-marketing that takes place at Christmas, many participants added, has probably made the Christian holiday a more in-your-face event than it would have been if it had just remained a holy Christian season. At the same time, they agreed it was a good thing that multiculturalism and secularism have made it no longer possible for Canadian Christians to act at Christmas as if their religion should be culturally dominant.

Persky didn’t want the Judeo-Christian tradition to get off the hook for the way it has sometimes promoted belief in a “monstrous,” violent and judgmental God, as has been argued by authors Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. “My objection begins when any religion prescribes how other people should live. I bridle when religions tell other people how to make babies, whom to have sex with and what to eat.

“If any Christians came up to me at Christmas and told me they’re against homosexual marriage, I’d make a custard pie and smash them with custard.” However, the Capilano University professor offered that, in contrast to much of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament at least emphasized the “good news” of “the theology of love.” Still, Persky added: “Of course we would like to have a lot more real Christians around than we do.”

Szabo, the Christian professor, agreed with the secular philosopher that the world needs more “authentic” Christians, acknowledging she has to accept some responsibility for a Christian history that includes wrongdoing. For her part, however, Szabo said the New Testament clarifies that an authentic spiritual person is to be known by the degree to which they display the fruits of the spirit, which she defined as “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, endurance, graciousness and self-abnegation.” Persky liked that definition of Christian authenticity. And, for her part, Szabo agreed that atheists can be highly authentic.

Appreciating the give-and-take of the Christmas dialogue, Basra, who is an assistant to the West Vancouver police chief, said the downside of a multicultural society like that in Metro Vancouver may be that “it’s really hard for us to really mix.” So Basra welcomed any chance for mixing to happen, as she said it can during the shared experience of a winter Christmas holiday.

There were more hints of common ground among the participants when Shen, the psychologist, said one of the meanings of Christmas is that it tends to bring people together — just as the five of us came together for this dialogue. Shen compared Christmas in Canada to an artist’s canvas on which people can project almost whatever they want. “There are no rights or wrongs to whatever you want to project on to the canvas. Maybe the meaning of Christmas is exactly what we’re doing now. We didn’t know each other. But there was an idea that had something to do with Christmas that brought us together so we could have this dialogue. Maybe that’s what Christmas is about. Bringing together people who are very different.”

In the end, in the name of clarity, I crassly asked each participant to rank Christmas in Metro Vancouver on a scale of one to 10. A one would mean they felt Christmas in B.C. was a terrible thing and should be abolished. A 10 would mean they found Christmas season to be the best thing imaginable.

Persky said he’d give Christmas a three. And he drew gales of laughter when he said he was being generous. Persky summed up he doesn’t like a holiday that’s “so artificially taken over by the selling of things. And I don’t believe that the myths proposed by the particular religion behind this holiday are true.”

The other three all ranked Christmas in Metro Vancouver as a seven. Basra, even though she has mixed thoughts about seasonal shopping mania, liked how Christmas is a time when people come together and often reflect on the good and bad on the year. Even though she is Sikh, she also wished everyone a “Merry Christmas.” Szabo ranked Christmas as a seven partly in appreciation of the freedom to celebrate it as a Christian without being persecuted. “I also love the generosity, the beauty and the familial aspect of Christmas — and I don’t just mean my family, but the human family.” Shen said he wasn’t a big fan of the religious side of Christmas, but he valued the way all people, including his Chinese and Caucasian therapy clients, could make their own meaning out of the season.

Shen’s view may have been the closest we came to a conclusion. “Some people see Christmas as a very solemn time to profess love for God. Others see it as time to party. Or exchange gifts. Or show good will. Or be grateful,” Shen said. “Whatever the case, it’s a beautiful time — for all of us to express ourselves as we truly are.”

Vancouver, Dec. 20, 2008. Originally published in the Vancouver Sun. Doug Todd is the Sun’s ethics, philosophy, and divinity beat chief. Dialogue participant Stan Persky is a dooneyscafe.com co-editor.

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