So sings Kermit in “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” On the one hand, we hear the word “magic” and we rational humans relegate it to the trash heap of irrationality. On the other, we’re hoping it’s real and that we can recreate that magic through our traditions. I propose a third option, built around that liminal space, the threshold, between the longest night and the shortest day.
I don’t remember growing up with any specific Christmas customs. There was the year dad drove mom and the three of us kids, all under the age of 9, from the farm to an AA Christmas party in town. This was long before car seats and seat belts. Mom held the cake on the floor between her feet and my toddler brother on her lap. After dad was ticketed for drunk driving when he rammed into the stopped car in front of us, flinging my older sister and me into the back of the front seat, mom wasn’t up for partying. Dad turned around and drove home. He died the next year in a farming accident, and traditions went south after that, with mom stopping after work at our small town’s only drug store on Christmas Eve to pick through what no one else wanted. One year it was a manicure kit. The next day, when friends asked that dreaded question, “What did you get for Christmas?” I listed its contents individually, beginning with: “Three bottles of nail polish…” and quickly redirected the conversation to, “And what did you get?”
I wanted to do better for my own children—true, the bar was pretty low.
My parenting books said family customs were important. I bought a book on traditions and sought easy Christmas ones, other than the tree. The authors suggested Lighting Advent candles. As a family we were living in Peshawar, Pakistan, working with Afghan refugee repatriation the first year I did the Advent candles and before Internet existed. My book pictured a DIY Advent wreath shaped out of wire, encircling four apples with four candles. The instructions said to partially core the apples to hold the candles. Wire, apples, and candles were easily obtained in Peshawar. I can do this.
Two days into the first week and the apples began rotting, each candle following its own tilt trajectory, candle number one now a looming fire hazard and dripping wax. Not to be beaten by rotting apples, I melted wax into each hollowed apple to hold the candle. The rot only grew in size, with greater slopes. I poured in more wax. Yes, I could have replaced the apples, but we’re talking moral philosophy here: I’m rotting apples to share the Christ story with my sons while refugees beg for food on the streets.
And I always struggled with the whole Santa/Jesus thing. We lie about Santa, but yet let’s sing about God’s birthday and celebrate that because that is real. And I discovered years later that the latter also is an untruth. Theologians agree that no one knows what year or date Jesus was actually born. Pope Julius 1 in the 4th Century officially designated December 25 as Jesus’ birthday in order to Christianize the Pagan festivities already occurring around the Winter Solstice, OR the god Saturnalia, OR Mithra’s birthday the Iranian god of Light, OR the unconquered sun god of the Romans Sol Invictus, OR Egypt’s god Ra—take your pick. Because of these roots in paganism, the Puritans outlawed all things Christmas in Boston in 1659.
Ignoring Julius’ papal injunction, today’s conservative Christians claim the season as their own. Steeped in conspicuous consumption, they angrily protest against a supposed war on Christmas because Starbucks changed its holiday cups to solid red. They’d do better to celebrate the Christ as a symbol of light.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. Persian poet Rumi
Over the years I’ve kept my “Bah! Humbug!” message mostly to myself. After all, I reasoned, many people find so much joy in this season (and many do not)—there must be something to it. My two adult sons and their families have great fun with all of it—the food, the ugly sweaters, the decorations. My father-in-law grew up with the extreme deprivations of the Great Depression of the 1930s, so my husband wasn’t too much help in the tradition department, but he now creates his own magic for the family with paper airplane throwing contests and races with windup toy cars, wearing funky holiday clothes. And I do sit mesmerized by Christmas tree lights on a darkened evening—as long as they aren’t musical nor manically blinking.
A couple of months ago a Christmas mug at a thrift shop caught my eye. It’s the ubiquitous red, but the handle is an elf dressed in green, peering over the edge into the inside of the cup. I carry the Irish gene for pointy ears, so I’m partial to elfishness. This gene supposedly skips a generation, and my granddaughter shares this family trait.
Spotting that mug, I felt the joy that propelled Carol Kane’s character as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Bill Murray’s “Scrooged.” She flits around—“A Christmas party! I’m so glad I wore my pretty dress!”—her fairy wings smacking Murray, who plays the part of a contemporary Scrooge. Deciding not to overthink my intuitive reaction to this mug and being mindful of my body’s energetic response, I bought it.
This year I determined to put to rest my conflicted Christmas judgements. I wanted to look at those, to see if I could find a way through them and a way forward that would bring a measure of peace. I sat mindfully in my darkened office one early morning during sunrise, another liminal space, the wood stove warming the room. I sat contemplatively with those symbols that evoked something within me, that stirred an energetic/emotional response. Kermit’s magic. Carol Kane’s effervescence. My elf mug holding my morning coffee. I thought about the significance that this time of year holds for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere as evidenced through our holidays: Hanukah, with its eight candles; Kwanzaa with its seven principles, Christmas, Zoroastrianism, the New Year. Long before the birth of Christ, our northern ancestors brought evergreen branches into their homes for spiritual protection.
And I thought about the winter solstice, with its shortest day and longest night and the promise of the light to return. And back to liminality: that space between dark and night, the threshold between one cycle of time and another, one year and another. Maybe a wormhole does exist there, maybe there is a thin space there, a portal between universes, a crack, between the spiritual and physical worlds at this longest night and shortest day. I felt myself drawn to that fissure.
Maybe there is a crackling and sparkly energy in that liminal space, that crack in the world.
All through our history, humanity has evoked magic to explain the unexplainable. As science has revealed more and more of our natural world to us, magic no longer explains an eclipse of the sun or moon, or a comet streaking across the sky, or two planets coming close to each other looking like a bright star.
Maybe there is a crackling and sparkly energy in that liminal space, that crack in the world. Maybe that’s what Kermit felt. Maybe magic is still the best word to describe that fissure, that convergence of light and dark, until humanity evolves enough to experience that energy. Maybe we do feel it but reject anything that doesn’t resonate with our physical senses. We respond to it in the only way we can: by physicality. We shape traditions and belief systems to capture this energy. We feel the need to go inward, to hibernate, to cook thick soups served with warm, crusty bread; of hot apple cider steeped with cinnamon, cloves, and anise; of hot chocolate with whipped cream sprinkled with peppermint flakes—or whatever food brings with it that sense of comfort.
We also simultaneously move outward, to create moments of love and caring, not only for family and friends but also for strangers, and thus we move into the light.
Belief partners with science and math
Later I watched Netflix’s 2020 holiday movie, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.” Its Victorian protagonist, played by Forest Whitaker, along with his daughter and granddaughter are inventors. Mathematics and science equations float across the screen. But the script writer throws in some implications of quantum mechanics: belief partners with those equations—and these inventors create an observer-influenced reality. “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend,” wrote Canadian novelist Robertson Davis.
Summarizing, many holidays coalesce around the Winter Solstice, that time of year marking the pivot point of the longest night and shortest day. Maybe the mystics among the spiritual sensed some crackling in the air; they didn’t have the distractions of us moderns with social media and television before that. We get caught up in the frenzy of the season and our own traditions—religious or otherwise—doing what we believe will create that magic and then are disappointed when it fails. Maybe what we need to do instead, without abandoning our traditions, is to sit mindfully with what already exists around the Winter Solstice, remembering that humanity’s trappings around this fissure are secondary ways to capture this magic. Maybe we don’t need to do much of anything, but stay present to this place of liminality and experience what is already there.
Sometimes grief hits me and I wonder what it would have been like to have had a more “normal” childhood. I felt it watching “Jingle Jangle,” and then a wise woman tells our protagonist: “But the magic isn’t just in what you lost. It’s in what you still have.”
So true. And I have so much to be grateful for—and that’s where I turn my focus.
About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working, and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her spiritual connection at People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.