I’ve been wanting to say something about the meaning of Christmas for some time now. I’ve gone through so many transformations about it and I know others have too but they say nothing about it unless asked. They’re kind of embarrassed because they know they’ve “sold out.”

I know that for a fact because, when I’ve engaged certain people about what Christmas means, a goodly number submissively admit they succumbed, that is, sold out to the marketplace.

But anyone who makes a judgment that someone has sold out Christmas has to come up with some kind of definition of what Christmas means and what selling out means and — it might sound tautological but I’ll add it anyway — what a true Christmas is. It’s a shame but today that emphasis “true” has to be added to everything.

In this age of ersatz democratic participation — where every kid who runs a race on Memorial Day gets a ribbon that says he or she’s a winner — it would seem that one definition of Christmas is as good as any other but that is not the case, I repeat “not.”

Let me start out with the manger scene: Mary and Joseph are looking for a place for Mary to have her baby. They can find no Holiday Inn with a vacancy so the child is born in a stable and placed in a manger kept warm by a wrap of swaddling clothes.

This is not the exact chronology of the nativity story but some shepherds show up for the birth and angels arrive and sing songs that are played on the radio to this very day.

Earlier in the story, the gospel writer says an angel appeared to the mother-to-be and told her: Lady, you will give birth to a revolutionary, don’t worry, it’ll be OK, it’ll be a new way of doing business and it’ll outlive him two-thousand fold.

But the angel was not telling the whole truth about revolution. She did not reveal that, if you refuse to sell out, you will find great joy in life, in fact will find life eternal but you have to give your life for it. A very complex promise and a very big leap of faith.

So what does selling out mean? It means, first and foremost, you will never create “fake news,” you will never base any life decision on what you do not know to be true and never say anything that is not true. Later in life, the aforementioned revolutionary,when put under the gun by questioning authorities, quipped back: You guys have no idea what Truth is. The actual wording is: quid est veritas?   

To get to the truth means you have to get to words before the marketplace does, before the nation-state does, before institutionalized religion does, which means a person has to go to where words are born, to the very font out of which words flow and come into being. You have to become a midwife of words and thereby breathe in the untainted word as it comes out of the womb of silence.

Christmas then is a story about the well of silence where the words are born and about believers camping by that well so they can hear silence speak truth to power.

This is a tall undertaking because it means a person must commit to silence, which requires a certain stripping down of the elements of “noise,” a big part of which in the United States these days is lying about reality, about what sits right before the eyes.

It’s the old Social Psychology experiment come true: A group in on a secret “forces” a person to deny what the person sees before his eyes. The stooge sees a 7 and calls it a 5 because that is what the others said.

The poet in us, among us, does not succumb to this kind of spiel because poets sit by the well of silence and wait for words to be born. It’s what they do for a living; they refuse to succumb. It’s a daunting way of life and one that requires great discipline. It’s not Donald Trump spewing realities that do not exist, that never did, and never will.

But most people think poets are useless, that they waste their time fiddling around with words when, in fact, the opposite is true. They are bringing the revolutionary message of Christmas unprejudiced by, unhindered by, any sectarian creed. For poets, a 7 will always be a 7 — no more, no less. They would never confabulate that Hillary Clinton was involved in a sex-ring trade. Every word the poet writes contains the forceful truth of the Law of Gravity because it is a word born directly from the womb of silence.

Thus the true Christian message is: If you wish to be free, if you wish to share in the revolution Jesus spent his life talking about (and living), you must embrace a life of poetic consciousness that entails taking the life of silence seriously, listening to each word as it’s being born: daily, hourly, by the moment. It’s a radical shift in consciousness.

It’s life lived in a manger — and why so many poets died destitute — where nothing counts but the word being born, of its own accord, untainted by marketplace, State, and institutionalized religion.

The fire of that message is so great that the person on fire is compelled to sacrifice his or her life for it, like Jesus did, through a life of unparalleled service. Destitution and death are mere annoyances.

The Catholic Worker revolutionary, Dorothy Day — whom some have put up for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church — knew about that sacrifice. She wrote a book called “The Long Loneliness” in which she speaks about the price a person has to pay listening to and recording what silence has to say.

I sometimes imagine a big Christmas store where there is nothing but a small well of silence in the center where believers come to gather, and sit, and quietly listen.

Some listen for years and do not hear anything but their commitment to silence does not wane. Even in despair I’ve heard them sing the words to Merry Christmas, the first verse of which says no one will be happy until the needs of every human being are met.

The second verse speaks about “the 1 percent,” keeping their foot directly on the throat of humankind so that meeting the needs of all is mocked from behind a golden plate of caviar.

Oh, when I first got into this stuff, I never realized how much the Christmas revolution had to do with making people happy, as in each and every person having the same income, regardless of anything, and receiving the same care for body and mind as the richest among us — from the day they’re born to the day they die.

Boy, that’s my kind of Christmas. But I cannot say anything more, I’m sitting by the well of silence here, waiting for my next mission impossible.

An 1867 map shows the telegraph lines in operation, under contract, and contemplated, to complete the circuit of the globe.

Marshall McLuhan — the great assessor of the impact of mass media on our lives — wrote an essay in 1963 called “The Agenbite of Outwit.”

He said that, when humankind implemented the telegraph in 1844, it radically altered the state of human consciousness because it had projected its central nervous system out onto the world. Every conscious neuron was thence connected by immediate-information-giving utilities to every other.

McLuhan was aware that human inventions involved extensions of the body into space: the wheel an extension of the foot; the hoe, the arm; clothing, the skin; and the book an extension of the eye.

But with humankind’s global connection through its nerves, the axis of reality shifted radically; it created benefits of course but it also created a new set of obligations because no neuron could deny the presence of every other.

The late great contemporary composer John Cage took a liking to these ideas. It was not that they flipped reality on end but more that they presented opportunities for living more sanely. They redefined the concept of sharing so that it now includes sharing not only the benefits but also the burdens of others — fully supportive of the axiom: People are happier when dog no longer eat dog.

In his classic, “A Year From Monday,” Cage says (and I paraphrase, you can see the original on Page ix): it is now incumbent upon humankind to implement globally the disciplines people traditionally practiced to be at peace, at one with themselves — meditation, yoga, psychoanalysis, and every related modality.

When such disciplines are practiced globally people recognize that others are not threatening and greedy by nature. They are better able to see the needs of others (people are more inclined to speak of them) and moved to take steps to meet those needs without resentment or derision. Such is how an effectively working planet-wide central nervous system operates.

For a long time, Cage was interested in producing a list of utilities that connect us to each other (e.g., the telephone, radio, Internet) whereby we come face to face with every language, custom, and ritual situated along the spectrum of humanity.

In “Agenbite,” McLuhan said that, since the world contracted to the size of a tribe or village where everyone knows what’s going on everywhere, the human community feels compelled to participate. Participation is the democratization of happiness.

Understandably McLuhan has long been thought of as one of the inventors of “global village” but a village free of zenophobia. Zenophobes fear diversity, it contradicts assumptions about self and other that thrive on a divide-and-conquer ethic.

Anyone interested in anthropology knows that people living in pristine tribal cultures — there are a million studies on it — find it impossible to think of themselves as an “individual” or “independent” operator.

Of course “primitives” recognize differences — some folks are faster, smarter, stronger, and more efficient in amassing prized money-shells — but the faster do not tax the slower to enhance their prestige. A consciousness wired to every other induces genuine humility and compassion.

For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church tried to promote global connectedness through the concept of a “mystical body” asserting that through Jesus all Christians share a mystical, spiritual bond that cannot be broken.

And Alexander the Great proposed a similar idea in his “homonoia,” a universal union of hearts, a “brotherhood of man” but, in his brotherhood, brother does not share the burden of brother.

Though we continue to reap the benefits of a fully-operative global nervous system, the human community still has not faced up to the task of putting flesh and bone on those nerves, that is, of creating a political economy designed to meet the needs of all, one that fits the complex of nerves.

And needs-based means providing not only full health care for everyone, from the day we’re born to the day we die, but also housing, daily sustenance, old age care, the works — the opposite of a deserts-based, dog-eat-dog, tribal mind.

Thus the potential for achieved well being is no longer limited to Christians or Macedonians or any other sect but extends to every physical, neurological, consciousness in our global home.

Disbelievers in this connectedness are at least willing to acknowledge that what happens in China (and Mexico, Vietnam, and Japan) affects the quality of our lives in the United States. They acknowledge globalization but only in so far as it relates to money, trade, power, and deserts-based benefits.

Otherwise their battle cry is for walling off the self and nation from what exists on the other side of the synapse and for siphoning off “differences” among populations into “ghettos.”

This is nervous-breakdown thinking and explains why at any moment some group somewhere can rise up and terrorize the world, claiming their dreams were shattered through demonizing, exclusionary, needs-denying practices.

Quite astoundingly, two of the 2016 presidential candidates in the United States are calling for revolution: one for “political revolution,” the other for a guilt-free battering-of-the-weak-without-reprisal revolution based in an ideology that stigmatizes difference.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard predicted this would occur when his “The Concept of Dread” appeared the same year the telegraph was born. He was addressing the dread of connectedness, the dread of facing up to a needs-based political economy that being linked neurologically requires.

Pope Francis recently said that people who wall themselves off from others, who classify and divide, are destroyers of the mystical body and cannot call themselves Christians. They tear away at the limbs of a universal needs-meeting body.

Which brings us to the true function of the computer. People might use the machine to Google cheap flights to Spain or find a good house at the shore but the computer exists primarily: (1) to inventory the needs of every neuron in the cosmic system; (2) to inventory every available worldwide resource (every kind everywhere); and (3) to find the best way of getting what’s needed to those in need without charge or delay.

We do know of course that in every Eden people steal, cheat, rob, and raid your cache — sin is a given — but in the meantime, in this era of our neurologically-connected needs-based revolution, every person on the planet is treated like the richest person on earth.

Now that’s a revolution of dread.


The presidential candidates are out on the trail again and the topic of “family values” is back on the agenda, if only slightly. I like that. I like talk about the family.

Mister Rogers wassailed every day his program aired in hopes of bringing forth a crop of worthy neighbors.

In the Fall of 1957, the ABC television network aired a new game show, “Who Do You Trust?” It was a follow-up to a show that ran the year before, “Do You Trust Your Wife?”

In the new format the host, a young Johnny Carson, gave a contestant a category of questions and told him he was going to ask a question from it. The man had to decide whether he would respond or wanted to call his wife (waiting off stage) because he trusted her to know that part of life better.

The show could have easily been called: “How Well Do You Know the One You Love?”

Such shows spark viewer prurience because, as the contestant is deciding what to do, the viewer is wondering what he would do in the situation, that is, how well does he know his own wife?

A postmodern version of the show — in societies where people often arm themselves with automatic weapons and head to a movie theatre or holiday party to blow people to smithereens — might be called “How Well Do You Know Your Neighbor?”

Unlike the prototype “Who Do You Trust?” where winners walk away with a few dollars, the neighbor show is high-stakes stuff involving light-flashing ambulances and emergency rooms filled with bloody limbs.

Of course what comes to mind is the mass killing that took place in San Bernardino, California earlier this month when 28-year-old Syed Rizwan Farook and his 29-year-old Pakistani wife, Tashfeen Makik, went to Farook’s place of employment and “took out” 14 and sent more than 20 in emergency vehicles to the hospital to have their discombobulated bodies made whole again.

In terms of a game show, what the families knew about those folks is enigmatic at best. Nobody saw they had lost their minds to the belief that violence is an efficacious problem-solver — called “radicalization.”

If the relatives were on the game show “Do You Know Your Neighbor?” or “Do You Know the Ones You Love?” they’d have walked away with nothing while the community had been assigned the task of picking up mops and pails to wash away the stains of blood.

Farook’s brother-in-law, stunned by the event, said he was “baffled.” He said Farook was a “good religious man,” “just normal,” “not radical”; he and his wife were a “happy couple.”

When Farook’s sister, Saira Khan, was asked whether she noticed anything, her eyes glazed over, so soaked in disbelief was she. She said the couple was married, they had a child!

Feeling guilt over what occurred, she told CBS interviewer David Begnaud, “So many things I asked myself. I ask myself if I had called him that morning or the night before, asked him how he was doing, what he was up to. If I had an inclination, maybe I could have stopped it.”

“Inclination” is the operative word, which means “I knew nothing.” In response to her statements the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump publically called her a “total liar.”

But the collective’s pool of predictive measures told us nothing either:

— 1. Neither person had a criminal record;

— 2. Neither was on a government terrorist watch list; and

— 3. The government had no concrete evidence (inkling) that something was going on.

Of course in retrospect, when 150 million FBI agents are put on the case, a few critical facts will turn up, such as those folks were engaged in big-time subterfuge (advocating violence as a problem-solver) for quite some time.

Though government officials are not allowed to take part in our game shows, we have to admit the FBI would score high on a show called “We Know a Lot About Your Neighbor — Retrospectively!”

We have to laugh at the “profilers” (sadly) who people the television screen after such bloody events, boldly stating that we need to be on the lookout for this or that. But, if their prediction tables are so good, we’d see scores of suspects being arrested while you’re reading this.

A headline in the Jan. 16, 2015 edition of “The Atlantic” reads: “To Reduce Gun Violence, Know Thy Neighbor” with the tantalizing subtitle, “How a sense of community can help stop a bullet.” The premise, of course, is a truism: If you know the people around you, you have a better chance of knowing what’s going on around you.

The author of the article, Andrew Giambrone, points to a recent study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program on “neighboring” where the researchers found that a majority of their interviewees said they knew little about what went on in their neighborhood.

Scads of books and articles have been written on the loss of “social cohesion” and “social capital” — “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” jumps to mind first — the glue that holds the species together, the collective wherewithal we bank on to move us into the future with minimal blood and violence.

With all the talk these days about building walls — physical and psychological — around racial, ethnic, and religious groups we want to keep at nation-boundary length, is it not feasible that members of some communities, worried about whether newcomers into their neighborhood are latently violent, will pay real estate agents to administer a battery of psychological tests to screen out the potentially violent?

If we’re ignorant about the current people we walk among, perhaps we can classify potential neighbors into the “good,” the “bad,” and the “ugly.” A kind of psychological redlining in the interest of building walls around our worries.

In a few hours, the New Year will be upon us. In some quarters, the champagne will flow like mad as revelers waltz across the ballroom floor subconsciously wondering how different things will be in 2016.

Me? I’m going to do two things. First I’m going to sing the traditional anthem, “Auld Lang Syne”:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

and never brought to mind ?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

and auld lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my dear,

for auld lang syne,

we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.


And, while I sing this sad reflective song, I’ll raise a cup of kindness and give thanks for the collective good will and tenderness that have brought us this far. Then I’ll sing a wassail song under the guise of the famed Mister Rogers.

In the cider-producing parts of western England this time of year, neighbors sing and brandish toasts to awaken their apple trees to scare away the evil spirits that threaten loss in the harvest to come. Mister Rogers wassailed every day his program aired in hopes of bringing forth a crop of worthy neighbors.

Perhaps you’d like to sing along with me:


It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?


It's a neighborly day in this beautywood,

A neighborly day for a beauty,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?


I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,

I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.


So let's make the most of this beautiful day,

Since we're together, we might as well say,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Won't you be my neighbor?


Won't you please,

Won't you please,

Please won't you be my neighbor?

Eso es todo, no hay más. ¡Feliz año nuevo!


The first Christmas card extends the parable of love in Greek Scriptures as well the parable of transformation found in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”

When I was 12 and an altar boy at St. Mary’s of the Assumption Church, on my way to serve midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, I looked intently at the winter sky in search of the Star of Bethlehem.

I learned about the Star in catechism class and grew to believe that it returned every year and that, finding it in the darkness of night I, like the Magi of the first Christmas, would find the heralded child born in a manger.

The Christmas carol, “We Three Kings,” which my family sang and was played incessantly on the radio, said so:


O star of wonder, star of night,

Star with royal beauty bright,

Westward leading, still proceeding,

Guide me to thy perfect light.


“Still proceeding.” It meant the star came every year for every believer to see.

Within 10 years, in college courses on the Greek Scriptures (the New Testament), I was introduced to concepts such as “form criticism,” “redaction criticism,” and Midrash.

These methods exhorted that, in reading Biblical texts, it was critical to define the literary form and historical context of biblical passages in order to understand how the redactor (editor) shaped the narrative to express certain theological truths and reveal the purpose of his writing.

In the case of the narrative of Jesus’s birth, I found out there were two stories, one by Matthew the other by Luke, and that they did not put forth the same facts, in fact contradicted each other. I was disedified: How could there be a discrepancy in the Bible?

I was told the stories were parables — as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan explain in “The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth” — stories that might not be factual but nevertheless contain deep truths. A Joe Friday “Just the facts, ma’am” approach would not get at the truth.

In examining the Christmas stories critically, I had to conclude there was no manger, there were no swaddling clothes, there was no “star of night” to lead me to the “house” or “stable” — the two gospels differ on the location of the event — so I stopped looking for the Star of Bethlehem.

But there was a subversive quality to the new thinking in that, when the seeker of truth hears the angels (metaphoric) sing “peace on earth,” that person feels called to become a person of peace, which might include taking a stand against corporate, military, and religious institutions that initiate, thrive on, and profit from war.

In singing carols such as “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” the person of conviction receives the truths contained in the Scriptural narrative and elects to chase away the darkness without fear, indeed becomes the announcing angel singing, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

The great joy is that another soul has chosen to live a different kind of life, to create a different kind of world, one in which poverty and injustice are confronted and steps taken to eliminate them.

A while back, it struck me that that was what Dickens was talking about in “A Christmas Carol” — my favorite (and only) childhood book — when the Ghost of Christmas Present forces Scrooge to look upon two emaciated children, a boy called “Ignorance” and a girl called “Want.”

The spirit warns Scrooge, “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.”

But ill-sighted Scrooge could not accept personal responsibility for erasing the conditions that gave these children currency, exclaiming in write-off fashion: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

As the night progresses, as lovers of the story know, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come projects for Scrooge personal destruction that will occur — the death of Tiny Tim — without his involvement in the lives of others. Scrooge of course undergoes a transformation and becomes Tim’s “second father.”

The 19th-Century novelist Margaret Oliphant described this book of metamorphosis as “a new gospel.” claiming that it did in fact make people better.

“A Christmas Carol” came out in 1843 and reflected Dickens’s real-life experiences with the poor and downtrodden. The book’s plot was conceived during the author’s three-day stay in Manchester, England witnessing the poverty and human degradation inflicted on the “dregs” of the citizenry.

I do think it more than coincidental that during 1843 the first worldwide commercial Christmas card was produced. Inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned artist John Callcot Horsley of the Royal Academy in London to design a card that people could send to family and friends to wish them Merry Christmas while reminding them of what the December birthday stood for.

In its own right, the card is a kind of gospel, a parable that tells a story far more complex than the cards bought, signed, and sent today.

In the Horsley original, a family has gathered together to offer a toast to the person looking at the card. The gathered friends are facing the recipient with their glasses held high looking not sad but not exuding merriment.

On the card, to the right of the family is depicted a woman with a child being clothed by a compassionate older woman standing above them, and on the left is a man serving food to an old person and a child dressed as commoners.

Let those who make distinctions between the sacred and profane play games that split the world in two. When I saw the card, I exclaimed: Look! It’s the Star of Bethlehem!

The star shines in the family greeting its loved ones with a cup of caring wine and in the reminders offered, left and right, about how to defeat Ignorance and Want.

It is a continuation of the parable of love found in the Greek Scriptures as well as in the parable of transformation found in “A Christmas Carol” where angels and spirits respectively sing strains of peace and good will.

And such transformation is not the property of a particular sect of believers; it belongs to every soul who faces the dark night of winter. It might not contain a manger or swaddling clothes or shepherds watching their flocks beneath an open sky but it does reflect a world where the pain of those in need has been taken into account and eased, if only slightly, by human beings committed to angelic peace.

Under such circumstances, the darkness of death hasn’t a leg to stand on because it’s a death-defying birthday, a birthday that belongs to every soul far and wide who looks up in the midnight sky in search of the Star of Bethlehem.