Christmas, Hannukah, Solstice: A Thousand Years (give or take) of Resistance

I know from my facebook and twitter feeds that a lot of us are finding it hard to connect to the holiday spirit this year.  I am one of those white women who was shocked that Hillary Clinton lost the election, and while I know part of this was my own ignorance and my underestimation of the power of racism and xenophobia in our nation, I’m still often overcome with disillusionment, I struggle to sleep at night, and find myself having to withdraw from social media because it triggers me into bouts of anxiety.

Where we are is not normal.  I think it’s important to name things correctly and not be lulled into false complacency.   We are in a tenuous time and there is a legitimate hesitancy for many of us to join the revelry for fear that we will take our eye off the ball and lose traction in the resistance that is calling us to its name.

So I uncharacteristically put off decorating for the holidays.  I live in the reddening Midwest and I didn’t want to add my lights to those that voted for the President Elect.  Petty, maybe.  But it’s how I felt.

This is the thing though, Christmas is one of my favorite holidays.  I love the music, the food, the decorations, the tree, the lights.  Our family has rich Christmas traditions that I continue to follow.   I’m the girl who goes into the basement in July and opens the Christmas boxes so I can look at my decorations. So what am I doing on Thanksgiving Day, when normally I would be hanging up my outside lights?  I’m watching the Macy’s Day parade, which I dislike for a whole lot of reasons, and I say to my partner,

“You know?  I don’t think I can decorate for the holidays this year.  Can’t we just skip Christmas?”

And my partner, who barely tolerates Christmas, and only for my sake, freaked out!  “No!” she said.  “No we can’t!  Not this year!”  Then she started talking about the article Toni Morrison published in The Nation.  Morrison talks about sitting listless, depressed after the 2004 President election. She calls her friend to say that she just can’t work on her new novel, and her friend says, “No!  No, no, no!  This is precisely the time when artists go to work – not when everything is fine, but in times of dread.  That’s our job!” Morrison goes on to talk about how dictators solidify their power by going after the artists.  Artists must keep creating beauty and truth to resist tyranny.

My partner was telling me not to let the threat of tyranny take away my love for Christmas and all the traditions that mean so much to me, because that’s what tyranny does.  It separates us from love and beauty.  It separates us from history and hope.  It separates us from celebration and joy. Tyranny needs me sitting in front of the TV watching the Macy’s Day Parade in despondency.  My depression is its tool.

So my partner, bless her heart, went to bat for kind of Christmas I treasure, and what she was really going to bat for was me.  She was going to bat for us and this nation and the millions who are struggling to find joy and hope right now.

That’s what we are called to do right now, go to bat for each other.  As Toni Morrison said, “there’s no room for self pity, there’s no room for fear.” (https://www.thenation.com/article/no-place-self-pity-no-room-fear/)

So in let’s spend some time going deep into the kind of counter cultural and resistance-based hope offered by Solstice, Hannukah, and Christmas, because if you look beyond what they have become in our consumerist individualistic society, we have at our fingertips rich traditions of dissent that speak to the challenges we face today. Each of these traditions gives us strategies of resistance against empire.

Solstice – A Thousand Years of Resistance

Let’s start with Solstice, born of the pagan traditions, those forms of tribal religion existing in ancient Europe before the Roman conquest in the first and second centuries C.E.   Paganism is highly incarnationalist, meaning it understands the spirit as working through everything – every plant, every stone, every body, in water, in fires, in earth and sun and the light of the moon.  The Pagans had countless gods and goddesses, anthropomorphic projections of the human spirit moving through humanity as both struggle and joy.  There was a prominent place for priestesses, the goddess incarnate.

Not unlike other religions, paganism could be used to further political agendas.  Tribal kings curried the favor of the gods and goddesses.  Victory meant they were on your side.  Defeat meant they weren’t.  When the Roman empire arrived, bearing Christianity corrupted as a tool of empire, it felt as if the gods and goddesses had turned away.  Over the centuries, Pagan traditions were absorbed into Catholicism, the priestesses transformed into women religious under the control of the male priesthood.  Paganism was at first tolerated, then harshly suppressed, and in the burning times of the 1500s actively destroyed.   To survive this thousand-year repression, the pagan folklore, the traditions, the practices, the wisdom, went underground.  Passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter, coded in fairy tales, carried forward through midwifery, hidden in seemingly Christian rites through a long fall equinox, waiting for the time when the sun returned and it would be safe to emerge.

Some saw that return in the 1960s and 1970s.  Second wave feminism was born and with it, a desire to recover spiritual practices free of patriarchal corruption.  Environmentalists sought a spiritual base for respecting the earth.  Paganism had been taken underground to survive empire, and many saw its resurrection as a way to resist empire, the empire of America as colonial patriarchal militarized and ecologically plundering.

Imagine the patience, the persistence, the intentionality in protecting the sacred ways for centuries.  Every single person was needed – their memory, their stories, the herbal lore, their courage.  Every person bore the truths they held dear so that they would be preserved for the generations to come.

Hannukah – Never Compromise with Evil

Hannukah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that has gained significance in America as Jewish parents sought to help their children weather the pressure to do Christmas.  It has become a way of affirming your peoplehood when most of the western world is draped in red and green.

But the story of Hannukah is 2100 years old and is another great example of resisting empire.  The Greek Empire controlled most of the ancient world including Judea.  Like the Roman one that overtook Europe centuries later, the Greeks were convinced of their cultural superiority. When they conquered a people they used complete assimilation as one of their weapons.  They used enticement backed up by brutality. They set about destroying the Jewish religion and culture piece by piece.  The rewards for accepting assimilation were life itself, some hope, maybe a future, a bit more income and status, a voice in your life.  The punishment for refusing to accommodate was brutal –  death, poverty, powerlessness, eradication.

A small band of Jewish warriors, the Maccabees were not fooled.  They did not accept the new normal and refused to accommodate in even the smallest ways.  This small band of warriors took on an Empire.

Mythology says they went at it on their own.  History tells us they gathered allies – the Egyptians, the Romans.  They also knew not to take their eye off the prize and no where is this made clearer than in the story of the temple flame.  History tells us the Greeks had closed all the Jewish temples.  This band of warriors took one of them back.  They wanted to light the sacred temple flame, which indicated the presence of God.  It would would be a powerful sign that God was with them and that they would prevail. Mythology tells us there was only enough oil for one day, it would take 8 days to make more oil.  They dared to light the flame and miraculously it burned for 8 days until there was more oil.

What does Hannukah tell us about resistance?  Don’t compromise your values.  Don’t be lured into accommodating to what is wrong even in the slightest because you’ll lose the whole temple. Don’t try and resist alone. Cultivate partners.  Celebrate the small wins.  And when you have a chance to light the flame, light it, knowing you take the risk that your heart will break once more if it goes out.  You have to take risks when there is no guarantee of the outcome because there is more to lose by not taking the risk.   You never know, your flame may burn 8 days instead of 1.

Christmas – See the Signs, Dare to Celebrate

History tells us that a man named Jesus of Nazareth was born, about 3 BCE and that he died around 30 CE. This time it’s the Romans who are the occupying force.  They don’t use cultural annihilation to control the Jews.  They use an upper class of Jewish leaders who are willing to work with the Romans in exchange for political power.  This is a time of major divestment of wealth from the lower classes.  They lose their means of production as wages are falling (sound familiar?).  History tells us that any resistance resulted in crucifixion, a brutally slow way to die.  In Jesus’ time they crucified Jews by the 1000s.  Crosses lined the roads as examples of what happened if you dared resist.

The Jews were hungry for a Messiah who would save them from this horror.  This is where mythology kicks in.  Mary consented to bear a son who would be that Messiah.  Her fiancé was Joseph, a carpenter.  He got over himself and accepted both her and the child she carried, virtually unheard of at this time. Around the time of his birth, they were on the road.  Mary went into labor. An Innkeeper had pity on them and offered them his stable. Jesus was born. An angel appeared to the shepherds, considered the lowest of the low, herding sheep in fields they used to own (again, sound familiar?).  The Angels told them a savior had been born and to go see. The shepherds showed up at the stable.  So did the wisemen who come from the east in their rich robes bearing gifts most Jews would barely have believed existed in their harsh world.

The Christmas story is filled with people who dare to love.  A young woman dares to have a child in a world where it’s life is pretty much guaranteed to be filled with suffering.  Her husband dares to stand by her as she bears a child that isn’t his.  An innkeeper dares to offer sanctuary to those most vulnerable to brutal systems.  The shepherds dare to leave their minimum wage jobs to honor an unknown child.  The wisemen dare to follow a star into foreign lands.  And while they don’t yet know it, they offer their respects to a child who will grow up to be a scrapper, a master of civil disobedience that infuriates the powers of empire.  The Romans will try to squash him the way they’ve squashed everyone else and their brutality fails them because like many great leaders, Jesus instilled such empowerment in those who followed him that after he is gone, they go underground, reorganize, and come back out ready for Act 2.

So what do these rich traditions of resistance have to offer us?

  • Gather your people. We don’t journey alone.  We must organize our hope and our passion and our compassion.
  • Know when to retreat. Retreat is a time to restore, not a time to withdraw. Retreat is a time to gather our energy, reconnect with our people, strategize, and prepare for the next action.
  • We need everyone for the struggle, from the shepherds to the innkeeper to the wisemen, young and old. No one is left behind.  Everyone has wisdom and strength to offer.  We can’t afford to consider some more worthy than others.  Even those who appear to benefit from evil systems are hurt by them.
  • Do not compromise on your values. Hold them tight. Do not accommodate evil.  Learn how to see how evil is disguised to look like your friend.
  • Dare to hope. Dare to create life.  Dare to love.  Dare to trust.
  • Always be ready to celebrate. Light the temple flame.  Dance around the fire until the sun returns.  Follow a star.  Visit a child.  Accept the gifts of strangers.

So here we are in 2016, some of us reluctant to let go of the year because of what we know is coming.  Whatever you do at this time of year to celebrate, do it.  Rest, sing, gather with family, prepare and eat foods that give you comfort, follow traditions that bring back memories of earlier times and loved ones no longer with us.  Just do it. Now.  Tomorrow.   Don’t let your traditions fall by the wayside.  Let’s not underestimate how strong we are going to need to be.  We can’t afford not to take care of ourselves.  As Toni Morrison said, no time for self pity, no time for fear.

Whatever tradition is yours, Solstice, Hannukah, Christmas, know that when you celebrate, you are anchoring in traditions of resistance thousands of years old.  Let them teach us, guide us, and give us resilience and courage.

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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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