It’s Christmas. (In case you hadn’t noticed.) Which, especially this year, seems to mean it’s time, in the best spirit of seasonal love and peace, to harangue each other for our beliefs about what it all means. Even the name of the season is a point of contention, such that I daresay I’ve set somebody off on a rant simply by typing the word ‘Christmas’. So I’m here today in my self-appointed role as referee of this philosophical slugging match, to call time on the fight. Secularists, atheists, humanists, whatever you call yourselves – yes, we know. We know that Christmas is a borrowed festival, shoe-horned by the Romans into old pagan rites to encourage people to convert people to Christianity. But let’s face it: the religious elements you dislike aren’t going to go away anytime soon just because you made a few snarky comments on somebody’s well-meant ‘Merry Christmas’ Facebook message, or retweeted something clever that a celebrity atheist said.
For that matter, Christians: knock it off. Yes, you’ve been on the scene for a long time now and deserve to be heard. But you don’t own festivals that celebrate light coming into darkness. Jesus may be the reason for this particular iteration of the season, but he didn’t invent it. And do bear in mind that there are at least two narratives of his birth presented in the New Testament which just about flatly contradict each other*, even to the point that it’s not even clear he was born in Bethlehem (Nazareth seems more likely). Whatever purpose these stories were written for, it’s unlikely to have been as factual historical accounts. Try focusing less on what supposedly happened, and more on the deeper meaning that lies beneath and you may discover a more radical, less divisive Christmas.
Maybe all of us are wasting so much breath fighting about what our cultural institutions mean that we forget to sit back and enjoy them for what they are. In other words, by obsessing over meaning and narrow ideas of what truth is, we ironically forget to live in any true, meaningful way at all. Which leads in a roundabout way to what all this has to do with birds.
Consider the robin. Most would agree they’re pretty festive. Yet unlike us, they don’t have to try too hard to play their seasonal role. The robin needs no philosophy degree nor even attempts to think through the whys and wherefores of what he does. And he doesn’t need to be given any present, for that’s where he already lives. Hour by hour, day by day, the robin gets on with being a robin, and does so magnificently. And when he sings it’s ever so Christmassy: rich and sweet, fully alive, yet tinged with a deep, barely heard sadness that speaks of troubles ahead.
Consider also the pileated woodpecker. The last time we spent Christmas day in Bowie, Maryland, one appeared to us high on a tree out front of the house, gamely hammering away for its festive luncheon. And what should have appeared on a tree at the end of the driveway yesterday morning, noisily removing chunks of bark whilst we packed our own dinner into the car? Why, a pileated woodpecker of course! Two years to the day since I’d last seen a pileated from the house, indeed almost the exact same time too, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same individual on each occasion. If that isn’t a Christmas miracle to warm a birder’s heart – and it’s worth recalling that when birding, miracles do happen – I don’t know what is. So all that remains is for me to wish you and all whom you love, whatever your beliefs or lack thereof and however you will be celebrating, an exceedingly merry, bird-filled Christmas.**
*You can have shepherds, and you can have wise men, but you certainly can’t have both at the same time. School nativity plays take note!
**I am aware that this post is a little late for the big day, but would only point out that over nine of the full twelve days of Christmas remain. Three French hens today, isn’t it?!