Two Kinds of Christmas, Both Good (an essay)

Here we are, in the shortest days and longest nights of the year. It’s cold and getting colder — a dark season with less life about it, in some ways, than the warmer, greener months. But we don’t hibernate, and most of us don’t fly south for the winter, though by February we may wonder why not. What we have — Christians and non-Christians alike — is the Christmas season.

There are two basic versions of Christmas, sacred and secular. A few people openly oppose both and do their best to erase them from our public life. Some folks embrace one version but not the other, and are either uninterested in or disdainful of the opposite choice.

I’m here to suggest that both versions are good.

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Vertical and Horizontal Thanksgiving

A day to be grateful to all who bless our lives and for every way in which they have done so? If Thanksgiving Day were only that, it would be an important secular holiday. But what if it’s more?

(If you’re certain it should not be more or unwilling to consider that it might be, please just accept my earnest wishes for your happy Thanksgiving. You may not wish to read the rest of this.)

looking at stars

What if Thanksgiving is also a day to be grateful for everyone who blesses my life – that is, grateful to a higher power of some sort, who has caused my life to intersect with these people and their many generous acts and quiet virtues? What if today is for thanking a deity who put me in a place and time in which I have food to eat and work to do, some freedom to enjoy as I’m doing it, some faithful friends around me, and a comfortable place to lay my head?

What if this is a day to invite humility, gratitude’s plain and less socially acceptable sister virtue, to our happy feast?

What if Thanksgiving is inherently a religious holiday?

Tokens of Thanks

One of my first conscious acts on this Thanksgiving morning was to pull a folder from my file cabinet and thumb through it. It’s a file I started years ago. It’s full of thank-you notes people have sent me. (And yes, thanking me is the reverse of this day’s proper theme, but it leads there in its way.)

Many of them are from my years as an LDS (Mormon) bishop in American Fork, Utah, or from my time in a similar role in Ithaca, New York. This is not because bishops are the least bit more wonderful than anyone else, but because a pastor’s relationship with his or her congregation naturally includes being conspicuously involved in the difficulties of their lives, in both public and private ways — and because we get a lot of credit for splendid things done by others.

Some of my favorite expressions are not written at all. One man with whom I worked, as he endured severe, long-term trials, gave me a four-pound specimen from his petrified wood collection, because he wanted to give something but couldn’t think of anything else he had to give. Another gave me a wool hat which an Afghan tribal leader (I say warlord, to impress people) gave him as token of thanks for service to him and his people.

Thankful Reflections on an Interesting Year

Today is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays – and perhaps you’ll forgive me if I parse that word as holy day. If we raise our aim above the purely horizontal, thanksgiving – or gratitude, if you please – is one of the highest acts of worship.

Usually on this holy day, I think of the big stuff, from infinite grace born of God to the spilled blood of patriots and the wrenching sacrifices of their loved ones. All of that is still there, still here, still the object of daily gratitude. But as this holy day has approached, I have reflected on smaller, more personal things. I hope this doesn’t sound too self-serving. In any case it has been an interesting year – and I know it’s not quite over yet.