Getting back to notions of the secular and sacred…
I’m being haunted by a mythical creature. It’s Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas Unicorn. It’s stalking me. I’m not sure what it wants. I suspect it doesn’t have a real agenda or even one coherent message for me, but over and over again this season I’ve heard one couplet or another trotting up behind me, pretending to mind its own business, but being all sly and apropos and quite obviously following me for the rest of the day.
This weekend involved spending too much time in my own head exploring the spectrum of mental health and illness on which most of us fall in between, and how we all set ourselves and each other up for crazy, and here came the lines
Oh I’m a criminal pathology
With a history of medical care
I’m frantic shopper and a brave pill popper
And they say my kind are rare
I’ve been devoting much energy toward keeping Christmas simple this year, but yesterday was a full day of shopping and preparations and hoofbeats that sounded like
Oh I’m hysterically American
I’ve a credit card on my wrist….
I dip into a few of the posts littered around my virtual life written by people doing what they’re supposed to be doing – digging for reality, making meaning, sharing insights, confronting others’ otherness – and instead of inspiring me, it compounds my cynicism even as I sit down to do the same thing.
We are legions wide and we chose no sides
We are masters of mystique
This time of year I find myself saying “‘Tis the season” to just about everything, good and ill, because it is. Does any other time of year catalyze so much reconciliation and relational dysfunction? It’s the season of connection and disconnection that brings out the best and the worst in us. Our overconsumption in this time represents the antithesis of the historic call to fast and yet it becomes a form of stress that performs at least one of the functions of fasting: it reveals our failings and discontents. We have to face how disconnected and dissatisfied we really are because the season stirs in us longings to be connected and satisfied.
The Christmas Unicorn’s main theme is our search for the sacred in the secular. We have to admit that we are working with a mishmash of observances of our own creation at Christmas, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing there to observe.
Oh I’m a Christian holiday
I’m a symbol of original sin
I’ve a pagan tree and magical wreath
And a bowtie on my chin
Oh I’m a pagan heresy
I’m a tragic-al Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy with a lazy eye
And a penchant for sublime….
For I make no full apology
For the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest
I’m a construct of your mind….
The Christmas Unicorn freely and unapologetically admits he’s a mongrel beast, as are all our human holy-days, as are we all. Our traditions are artificial constructs that alternately gain and lose significance over time, which is why we require new ones, even if they are artificial constructs. We long for the sublime, but it’s a little too subliminal for us. We need to attach it to something concrete or to establish something concrete from which to jump into it. Nostalgia manifests our desire to be part of a tradition, which in turn outs our desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. Those desires can and will be misdirected, sure. We can put our hope in the nostalgia itself, but there’s nothing wrong with the impulse, and the occasional misdirection is a symptom of reality. We were created to be part of something larger that is not yet complete.
You may dress in the human uniform, child
But I know you’re just like me
I’m a Christmas Unicorn! (Find the Christmas Unicorn!)
You’re a Christmas Unicorn too!
And then the beast slays me with a borrowed refrain as nostalgic to my generation as White Christmas, at once a confession and assurance of pardon:
Love, love will tear us apart again
It’s all right. I love you.