December 18, 2005
Blessings of peace, without the commerce

Merry Christmas? Happy holidays? Christmas tree? Holiday tree? The opinions and arguments have been flying thicker than snowflakes. And, like a snowstorm, they have a way of making it hard to see, in this case the difference between sacred and commercial. Over tea and scones I talked with Frannie Lindsay, whose book, Where She Always Was, won the 2004 May Swenson Poetry Award. Together we—one celebrator of Christmas and one not—discussed the annual December conundrum.

"Especially this year," said Lindsay, "I see such a dissonance between what we as people need from each other and what's being thrown in our faces at this season. When I think of myself and Jesus/God, I think of an almost overwhelming intimacy. It's humbling."

But sometimes drowning out the holiday's meaning is the flood of commerce it elicits as stores do their best to encourage all possible shoppers. As Lindsay said, "'Christ is born—time to go buy yourself a Lexus.' It hurts me to see the distance we have put between the meaning of the holy days and what we do. It's almost as if that much love, that much unconditional sacrifice is too much for us. So we go out and have a party."

Lindsay's solution would be to let everyone observe the holidays that come at this time of year free from distraction. Then later, maybe sometime in March when winter is hanging on too long and we all need a lift, we could have a national consumer day. We'd all go shopping, buy presents, decorate our homes, and enjoy a big family meal unencumbered by the need to attend to any larger meaning.

As for December, well, I'm thinking the current debates seem a little silly when you look at the actual words. In a country where people celebrate various holidays at this time of year, including one—the beginning of the new year—that we all share, why would "happy holidays" not be an appropriate greeting? And, of those several holidays, how many involve a lighted tree? Just one, by my count, making it unmistakably a "Christmas tree."

Lindsay and I both live and work with words, and so we talked about the ones we think of at this season. The dominant words in the air around us are buy and present and shop. But what she thinks of are words like humility, compassion, awe, and burden, while mine include light and miracle.

There is a poem by Richard Wilbur, set to music and sung as a Christmas hymn: "A stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky,/ The stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry/...Yet He shall be forsaken, and yielded up to die;/The sky shall groan and darken, and every stone shall cry."

"That makes me cry every year," Lindsay said. "Especially the part that talks about the little baby who is going to die for us. In 33 years he is going to die a horrible death to save us. Why does this not literally bring us to our knees? What I think about at Christmas is that the choices I make have the potential of drawing me closer to God or not. For me it is a time for taking measure. What does God need of me? What if I can't do it? What if I can do it? What if I don't do it? What if I don't know how to do it?"

And for me, it is a time to wonder what we need from each other, what we are called on to do for each other, and how our words can help draw us closer together instead of pulling us farther apart. Happy holidays to you and may our world know the blessing of peace.

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at You can see past City Type columns at

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Now begins the dailiness:

more days, if we are lucky,
than will we think to count,
piling up like shelter
at our door.
Feathered twigs and bits of string
will weave day upon day
and we will lean unthinking
on this solidness,
rest within the wonder
of this gift.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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