Buddhism at Christmastime
An Essay by George Boeree
When people find out that I'm a Buddhist, they always have these cute little questions like, "Do you celebrate Christmas?" Well, I've always loved Christmas a lot, so the question kinda throws me every time.
First, they make the mistake of assuming that Christmas is a purely Christian holiday, and of course it's not: It has roots in the winter solstice celebration common to northern people, and many other roots. Christmas trees, holly branches, mistletoe, candles, feasts, gift-giving -- all are older than Christmas "proper."
Some will point out "it IS called Christmas, you know!" I (playfully!) point out that Easter is named after Eostre, goddess of the dawn (the east)! I do get some pretty dirty looks.
Santa Claus is a particular favorite of mine. He derives from the Christian Saint Nicholas, of course, but he's slowly become a more archetypal creature. It strikes me that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Pu Tai (Hotei in Japanese), the cheerful fat monk with the big hemp sack full of gifts for children. He is considered to be an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha.
I have a little statue of him on a table next to my favorite chair, and he smiles at the various Santas on my Christmas tree -- and they smile back!
Some people ask me why I let my kids believe in Santa, only to disillusion them later. But I think Santa is actually for the adults, teaching us unselfish, anonymous generosity!
Even the nativity is a wonderful story. I see it more as myth than reality (the same way I view most Buddhist stories) but it touches me anyway. Beyond all the centuries of accumulated superstition, Jesus seems to have been another enlightened being, serving a different people in a different time.
The nativity story is like a parable that illustrates the wisdom of such expressions as "the meek shall inherit the earth." That's always sounded so "Buddhist" to me -- I wonder if there is a parallel in the sutras?
Mary particularly touches me (though, raised a Protestant, I was taught not to "over-value" her like Catholics do!). She has a nice counterpoint in Kuan Yin (Kwannon, or Avalokiteshwara) in his/her feminine aspect: She, too, hears the sorrows of the world. Buddhism, like Christianity, comes out of a male-dominated culture, and both need that feminine touch!
Really, what could be more "Buddhist" than a holiday that celebrates giving, compassion, and human warmth! Here's a little "present" for you, a quote from a 16th century Italian monk:I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not;
but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.
And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
--Fra Giovanni, 1513
Quoted in Tasha Tudor's "Take Joy! The Tasha Tudor Christmas Book" (Cleveland: Collins World, 1966).