According to Gallup pollsters, 95 percent of Americans celebrated Christmas in 2010, including 80 percent of nonbelievers.
Gift-giving and visiting friends and relatives is near-universal, even among those who skip religious services, the pollsters found. The war on Christmas is over, and the materialistic culture has won. That's not all bad. I call it giftmas, and I celebrate those I love by giving presents and gathering with as many of them as possible over the weeks around the day.
The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek of the Unitarian-Universalist Society: East says: "The season is not only about peace and good will; it is also about fun. It is also about rejoicing just for the sake of rejoicing. We need the glitz and the glam, as corny and as tacky and as crass as it often seems. As long as people have celebrated the return of the sun at the darkest time of the year, they have done so with a certain amount of irreverence, with a certain amount of excess. They have always let down their guard, gotten a little raucous and taken themselves a little less seriously."
It's also a rare time in our culture when compassion is celebrated -- when giving to others is as important as getting, when we're aware of those who have-not and we feel an urge to share what we have. There was a lovely trend of people paying off the layaway balances for families at Kmarts around the heartland. Shelters, soup kitchens, assorted nonprofits get more awareness and donations than at other times.
Again, not new. In ancient Rome, they celebrated Saturnalia: It was an offense during this period to punish a criminal or start a war. The meal normally prepared only for the masters was prepared and served first to the slaves, and in further reversal of the normal order, it was served to the slaves by the masters. All people were equal.
Now, I might wish that we could spread our goodwill out throughout the year, that we gave more attention to changing the structures that result in inequity and hardship for most Americans than to making sure poor kids get presents and a healthy meal one day of the year, but any awareness is better than none. It could be a seed to be watered and brought to fruition.
Beside, we need roses as well as bread in order to live flourishing lives. Hearts starve as well as bodies.
We need to acknowledge joy as well as suffering -- or we won't know why we want to alleviate suffering. Joy walks hand in hand with compassion; it protects our hearts from the bitterness that might arise if we see only suffering. And together they take us to equanimity -- the ability to find balance with whatever comes up.
Joy, which gets sung about a lot at this time of year, isn't just happiness. Joy comes from the deeper well of knowing that we're OK even when we're unhappy. From knowing that others are inherently good even when their behavior is bad. And seeing that while we work to bake the bread for all to share, we also all need to smell the roses.
To hear more on this, come to IDP on Dec. 26 for my talk on Appreciative Joy, the third of the Brahma Viharas.