Posts Tagged ‘spiritual’

“Silver and Gold” by Burl Ives

December 5, 2012

My favorite song from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which I watched last night, is “Silver and Gold.” The song seems almost tacked on to the whole program, and I had no interest in it whatsoever as a child. In fact, the entire Yukon Cornelius subplot of Rudolph (which provides the song with its tenuous incorporation) bored me to tears.

But as time moved on and I began to take more notice of lyrics, it was this tune that began appealing to me most, with its simple and beautiful message:

“Everyone wishes for silver and gold

How do you measure its worth?

Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth

Silver and gold means so much more when I see

Silver and gold decorations on every Christmas tree”

I started to treasure “Silver and Gold” as I began to face some harsh realities about adult life. No matter how much you have, it is never enough. You can be making $500, $5,000, or $50,000,000 a month, but always something will be out of reach of your pocketbook. And no matter how much you have, how much you buy, you’ll still be yearning for something more.

Things, more things, better things–they serve as distractions. They are ways to pass time, to externalize internal dissatisfactions. At the holidays, consumption can become all-consuming. Kids worry over what they will get from Santa. Adults agonize over what to buy one another. I myself fall victim to the excesses and pressures of holiday gift-giving. There have been times I’ve felt resentful that I am obligated to spend more money when my budget is already stretched. Other times I’ve wondered whether others will ever really appreciate the effort and energy spent on finding unique or special presents. And as soon as Christmas is over, I am being urged to splurge on New Year’s events, Valentine gifts, and President Day sales . . .

The tradition of exchanging gifts is an imitation of the Magi giving gifts to the newborn Jesus. When I was younger and would read the Christmas story, I would sometimes wonder what happened to those items of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Mary and Joseph were poor. I’m sure they could have made desperate and understandable use of the Wise Men’s offerings. Did they trade them for food and necessities? Did they use them to help Joseph improve his carpentry business? Or maybe to help educate the boy Jesus when they took note of his prodigious gifts for preaching and teaching?

At some point I accepted that what happened to those gifts had no relevance. Jesus’s teachings were based on the idea of salvation being attained by separating ourselves from material things, by placing no emphasis whatsoever on earthly goods.

So why is the story of the Wise Men included at all? Maybe we need to consider it from a different angle. Here’s some perspective offered by one of my literary heroes, Mr. T.S. Eliot:

“And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.” (From The Journey of the Magi, http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070)

Three men saw a sign. They accepted it as true. Despite being men of learning, comfort, and occupation, they put aside everything to embark on an arduous journey. At that time, in that place, their beliefs led them to prioritize acknowledging a birth and paying homage to a child. Nothing mattered more than showing outwardly their wonder and great happiness over this event.

Upon their arrival, they found a child lying in a manger–a newborn human, who had no comprehension of their appearance, no appreciation of their efforts, let alone their actual presents. But somehow they intuited that in and from this little baby, gifts existed that neither they, nor any of us who would attempt to mimic their path, could ever fully return.

So, this season, as I hand over parts of my own earnings to but gifts for loved ones, I will try to remember the importance of what lies behind the outward gesture, and perhaps the message, the ongoing present, that the Story of the Magi offers to me:

  • That I care for these people enough to put money aside for them
  • That they mean enough for me to sacrifice not only my money but my time
  • That, even if only for a few minutes, they are important enough to occupy more room than usual in my mental space, so often focused exclusively on my own wants and needs
  • That, yes, these other people would be worth, to me, a journey similar to that made by the Wise Men
  • That people I love always, without question, are worth more than all the world’s silver and gold
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“The Most Wonderful Day of the Year” by The Misfit Toys

December 4, 2012

Tonight is the annual airing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and today is the first of two posts of songs from the program.

Most people recognize the 1960s as turbulent. I never really expected this to be reflected in the holiday specials of that decade, but if you do a quick time line of its four shows that have endured, you can discern the overall mood of the era. Rudolph came first, in 1964, and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the program as a plea for tolerance and pluralism. The following year, A Charlie Brown Christmas cast the spotlight on spiritual and neurotic angst, which Lucy and Charlie recognize as the “fear of everything.” Then came How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966, in which the holiday is rescued at the last second from just plain and outright meanness.  By 1968, writers didn’t even bother to develop much of a plot for Frosty the Snowman. A bunch of hippy-ish kids and a magic bunny dance around with Frosty until a weirdo magician steals back his own hat. This is all a prelude to Frosty melting before our very eyes, damaging the psyches of generations to come.

I realize that the writers of Rudolph were trying to illustrate certain points, and that, for children of all times, such points are easier to understand if the terms are well defined and clearly demarcated. In other words, no nuance necessary. But every time I watch Rudolph, I am struck by just how narrow-minded and unpleasant so many of the characters are. Even though the message behind the show is one of learning to accept others, the society of the time obviously tolerated behaviors and attitudes that wouldn’t even be considered watchable if proposed in a children’s show today. This program would never pass muster with 2012’s network executives. I can just picture a meeting among them about it and the many reasons Rudolph would be rejected as unfit programming:

  • You have the oppressive Elf-in-Charge who harasses Hermey into trying to be someone he’s not (vetoed for blatant and unpunished bullying).
  • There’s Donner, who forces his son to wear a fake nose to hide his perceived defect and basically sends Rudolph the message that he’ll never amount to anything (vetoed as an example of borderline child abuse).
  • Then there’s the sports coach (Comet) who bans Rudolph from Reindeer Games and Santa’s Flight Squad simply on the basis of appearance, despite Rudolph’s superior athletic skills (vetoed for obvious and unchecked discrimination).
  • There’s all the misfit toys with their clearly identifiable flaws, save for the weepy doll, whom the producer of the show identified in 2007 as having been exiled to Misfit Island because she was depressed (thank God for Wikipedia!, and vetoed for mocking those with physical challenges and mental illnesses).
  • One would think you could rely on Santa to behave sympathetically, but even he shows no pity for Rudolph, nor for the elves who work hard but fail to impress him with their song, nor for the misfit toys that he’s been ignoring for Lord knows how long before Rudolph finds them (vetoed for overall misanthropy, which goes against every other depiction of Santa in history).

We often idealize the past. Particularly at Christmas, we can fall victim to a nostalgic desire to return to an earlier time, when life appeared simpler, people seemed kinder, and the pace of life was deemed less hectic. But if we consider Rudolph as an artifact of its time, it becomes a little more difficult to continue to believe in yesterday.

I fully recognize that social progress never ends and, as many recent events have underscored (at least for me), there is still a long way for our country to go. Despite what some people truly and earnestly believe, our society still contains marginalized and oppressed groups. We still have people treated like outcasts and misfits because of how they look and how they want to live. Gaps continue to exist between young and old, bosses and workers, parents and children.

Certainly, it is possible to err too far in the other direction. A society in which everything is tolerated and no one ever is criticized may cause its citizens to be too soft. And maybe in our attempts to correct past excesses, we now overcompensate and, almost like Charlie Brown, live in constant fear, although now the fear is of unintentionally causing offense over everything.

Despite this, in how we consider those who are “different,” some progress has been made since the 1960s.

And if one believes that such consideration is directly related to portrayals in the media and popular culture, part of that progress may be, even in a small way, thanks to the influence of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

“O Tannenbaum” by Nat King Cole

December 1, 2012

Today is the day we start decorating for Christmas at my house. I like to decorate for all the various holidays of the year, but if I’m being honest, I have to admit that the other decorations are substitutes for those linked to the big event that has now arrived.

Unearthing lights and beads, opening boxes holding beloved treasures, gazing at ornaments imbued with special meanings–in many ways, decorating for the holidays is a foreshadowing of the big day itself. When the holidays are over, I always dread the dismantling of the decorations–storing away so many beloved figurines and items that symbolize beautiful memories. It seems almost cruel that these things (which I know are just things, but still seem more alive than regular things) hide away for 11 months of the year. I do realize that their limited duration contributes to their special importance. Still, part of me wishes I could just keep everything in place all year round. (In fact, we do keep a few things out for the entire year to serve as ongoing reminders of the Christmas spirit and to tide us over until the next year’s noel is upon us.)

Of course, the centerpiece is the Christmas tree. The most beautiful tree I remember was not from my childhood or one that I myself had in any of my grown-up homes. For many years, I worked in a different part of the city than I do today, and I used to pass through a building that always had the most gorgeous tree. Every year, the first day that I walked into that building and saw that tree back in its place in the middle of the huge atrium, my eyes would fill and my heart would skip a beat.

I remember seeing that tree the Christmas when I was several months along in my pregnancy with my son, gazing up at it and knowing my life was about to undergo major changes and wondering what the following year would be like. And I remember showing it that following Christmas to the little baby who was too young to really understand but was fascinated by it all the same.

Life has moved on since–I no longer work near that building and don’t know if they still put up that gorgeous tree. The little baby is now a boy of almost 9, clinging by a thread to childhood. In a similar way to how I wish I could preserve Christmas all year round, part of me wishes I could freeze my life to be a repetitive loop of now. It’s been hard enough to let go of my own youth. With every year that progresses, my link to that youth through my own children becomes more tenuous.

I learned this summer, when I fought turning 40 with every fiber of my being and lost, that I cannot stop time or preserve the present. The best I can do is maintain in my heart the spirit of wonder, anticipation, appreciation, expectation, and hope that I had as a little girl. I see today these qualities in my son and his young friends and so want them never to lose them.

Certainly, the religious symbolism of the Christmas tree — its representation of an eternal life beyond this world — is obvious. For me, the tree embodies the overall elusive qualities of Christmas and part of the holiday’s wondrous appeal. Both the tree and the holiday remain forever alive, always in bloom, eternally holding promise, never growing old.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us!
They are green when summer days are bright,
They are green when winter snow is white.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us!”