Finding a 'Merry Christmas' in the irreverent

This story appears in the Christmas 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Mariam Williams

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I recently watched a beleaguered man in a Santa suit step off of a public transit train into 70-degree December weather and thought to myself, "This may be the worst Christmas ever."

Personally, I'm far more chipper than I normally feel at this time of year, when commercialism and crowds exhaust my soul, but the state of the world and country troubles me. As I think of the past month's news headlines, I see people from Nigeria to France to Lebanon continue to forge a life as they mourn loved ones kidnapped and murdered by terrorists.

I see Syrians fleeing extremists only to be greeted on new shores by bans, threats and suspicion.

I see a country in denial of its racism, xenophobia and history, as a candidate who formerly was the top choice of white nationalist groups gains popularity among mainstream whites who believe they are entitled to a standard of living that they believe blacks and immigrants have stolen from them, and among black pastors dazzled by the candidate's riches.

I see my pro-choice friends and other women's advocates consider guns for their safety after another homegrown terrorist executes people in a Planned Parenthood.

I see one mass shooting committed by a couple believed to be radical Islamists erase the magnitude of every other mass shooting committed by a violent intimate partner or by a white man who was a quiet loner who distrusted the government.

I see a U.S. Supreme Court justice openly question whether black students accepted into top-ranking universities deserve to be there.

I turn away from a video showing a police officer empty 16 rounds into a knife-wielding black man walking away from him.

And on a corner in downtown Philadelphia, a Santa-clad man wipes sweat from his brow in the 70-degree heat as world leaders in Paris debate their nations' role in climate change.

Merry Christmas.

At times like this, I normally seek nourishment for my spirit in music, and the perfect group to fill me performed in Philadelphia recently. I'd had Sweet Honey in the Rock's concert on my calendar for months, but I didn't go. As a student, I bet on discount tickets as much as possible, and the competition for student rush tickets is fierce, but with tickets at $10, often worth it. So I made a plan to arrive at the box office two hours before the show and hope that a seat was available.

The morning of the concert, however, I decided to open myself up to possibilities. There were competing activities all day -- holiday parties, Christmas shows and the event that ultimately won my attention: "The Book of Mormon." When I found out, that morning, that there was a lottery for $27 tickets in front row seats to a performance of "The Book of Mormon," I arrived at the box office two-and-a-half hours prior to curtain and placed my name in the lottery bin. When my name was called, I accepted the win and said goodbye to the chance I might have been able to spend the evening listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock, live.

I find it ironic that, at a time when my spirit needed to be refreshed, I ended up at an incredibly irreverent musical satirizing not just Mormonism, but any person of any faith who "just believes," and who accepts his/her/their religious tradition's text as fact rather than metaphor. And that I ended up there instead of at a gospel, folk, activist music concert. And that I found meaning in the irreverent.

First, I was reminded that laughter is good and that the collective laughter of hundreds of strangers gathered in one place for one purpose is magical.

Second, I remembered that especially in times like these, it is healing to seek and find and tell yourself the stories that give you hope.

Third, we can find more joy in the metaphorical interpretation of those stories rather than in strict adherence to law and rule. One way gives us timeless guidelines for how to live, treat others and find internal peace that radiates out. The other way demands death, severe punishment and societies that never progress. As religion historian and University of Pennsylvania associate professor Anthea Butler suggested earlier this year, much of the horror we're currently witnessing on domestic and foreign soil is the result of radicalized religious fundamentalism.

According to Dr. Butler: 

The same people who want to ban abortion in America, who want to tell you that you don't need birth control, are the same people who don't want you to have an education in Nigeria and the same people who don't want you to drive a car in Saudi Arabia. It's all fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is about, we don't want the world to go forward. We need it to stay as it is so we can remain in control and be a patriarchy. That's it.

Finally, open yourself up to possibilities. You may find joy, peace and laughter there. 'Tis the season.

[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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