It is Christmas Eve and there are so few cars in my neighborhood it feels like there’s a plague. Surely everyone has purchased any gifts they are going to give so the stores are closing one by one as if blowing out candles on a Menorah. Me? I’m about to go to church and finish getting ready for the community to gather.
Denim Spirit is not a religious column but it does have subliminal spirituality woven into it from week to week. You may think that the title refers to casual clothing but what I intended when I named it was a reference to the sacred hiding in plain sight — as in the presence of the holy in everyday, ordinary events that we miss unless we are looking for it.
While Christmas Eve is still one of the biggie events on the church calendar, fewer folks will be attending than just a decade ago. All over the nation religious communities are shrinking, almost universally across the board in terms of denominations and religions. As a result, the bridge between the culture’s celebration of Christmas and it’s religious nature was washed out more than a generation ago. For GenZ and Millennials, Christmas is mostly a winter solstice thing rather than the birth of Jesus thing. I am not complaining, just an observation.
Most of our cultural celebrations have become disconnected from their moorings. We celebrate Independence Day with parties and fireworks but very few seem to be celebrating our nation’s birth and its history. Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are not very solemn, and cherished more for the days off of school and work than an opportunity to focus on the history of sacrifice in this country. The same is true with MLK Day: more often truly observed in the Black community than among other racial and ethnic groups, and even within the Black community, more by the Boomers and older generations. I can’t speak for Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, or Eid al-Fitr but I suspect secularism has taken it’s toll on them as well. According to Gallup, for the first time fewer than half of Americans consider themselves members of a religion.
This change is a two-edged sword. The shrinking of religion, especially Christianity, means that religious institutions have a declining influence on public policy and culture. Given religion’s history, that seems to me a good thing. Conservative Evangelical Christianity’s fierce clinging to Trump is a measure of its desperation to hang onto power and influence. Eventually it will fail.
But the other edge of this change is the loss of community and common ritual. Gathering with an inter-generational group of people you may otherwise have nothing to do with, is a boon to the participants as well as the culture. Sitting in silence with them — some praying others centering in the moment — and even singing next to someone you may not know well, is healing in a way that cannot be articulated. Doing it weekly can open the mind and grow the heart a size bigger.
Tonight the lights will grow low, hand candles will be lighted, and the once-a-year-words of “Silent Night” will be quietly sung in an otherwise hushed space. It is a ritual that cannot grow rote because it is just once a year, and it’s power rests in doing it together.