From carols to cookies placed beside the tree with milk for Santa, ‘tis the season for all sorts of faith. When I was growing up, if someone asked if you had faith it clearly meant one thing: belief. There was no faith apart from belief. And those among us who may not truly “believe” are the poor forgotten in fairy tales and the outsiders peering through frosted glass in Christmas stories. Those without belief are the object of change in the classic stories. Consider Miracle on 34th Street, even Scrooge-like ridicule of the season, or prize in The Polar Express. But does faith need to be about belief?
Is there a space beyond belief in this season for merriment?
Although I no longer believe in a host of things I once did, I still put up a Christmas tree as well make Christmas cookies. I enjoy the occasional eggnog and even indulge in cinnamon scented pinecones for Christmas décor. I do not feel obligated to gift or go over board, but nor am I on any campaign to keep the Christ in Christmas. I am not offended when strangers wish me Happy Holidays and I gladly honor the wisdom of Hanukkah and Winter Solstice alongside Christmas.
At the same time, I do not believe that a messiah was born 2,000 years ago in December nor do I hold that if I kindle the Yule log it will literally bring back the sun. I am content to endorse metaphor when it comes to the oil in the Temple as well as many other traditional stories of this season.
Does this mean we have no faith in the season, that indeed we’ve lost the reason for the season?
Quite to the contrary, like many of you, I have faith that these small traditions have an important purpose. I have faith, or trust, that putting up the tree each year with family is a moment when we rarely gather together in the quiet of our home and remember the memory of each ornament. It’s an important bittersweet inventory that reminds me of how precious time truly is in our lives. I have faith that kindling the lights of the menorah on our annual Hanukkah service will remind me of what it is to keep the lights alive, and seeing the faces of those in our community share food and connection will do the heart good. I have faith that holding a seed in hand and welcoming the light back will give me hope as the season of night turns to day. I have trust that my New Year’s resolutions may not come true, but they are worthwhile for writing. I will belt out “Gloria” on Christmas Eve, knowing I have heard the sound of angels here on earth, in each tender human voice that offers love and compassion in this season.
This is faith in its origin, from fides, means to have trust in or confidence.
I am not without confidence in my agnostic Christmas. Nor are a great many of us in this community. We can still belt the carols with confidence that the singing does the belly, if not the heart, good. We can put up a tree, or not, and celebrate the light where we discover it. We can kindle fires with the trust that the warmth we knew just a few months earlier will return again. We can take up these traditions knowing they link us not to belief but to people and places that have a magic all their own.
It is confidence in the people, if not the reasons. Trust in the rituals that hold us through winter, and assurance through the little things now done for new purpose.
So Happy Holidays, friends, and Merry Christmas, and Happy Hanukah, and Happy Winter Solstice! May the celebrations of this season nurture your spirit into Spring.