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Respecting The Strange At Christmas

Susan E. Reed: Christmas is not only about the child of the star, but creativity in general, including the birth of ideas, which require first, an adventurous departure from the known. Pictured: Santa Claus moves between cars greeting passengers in Portland, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Susan E. Reed: Christmas is not only about the child of the star, but creativity in general, including the birth of ideas, which require first, an adventurous departure from the known. Pictured: Santa Claus moves between cars greeting passengers in Portland, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

A little girl cried, kicked and screamed as she was led toward the mall Santa Claus. She saw not the magic of Christmas, only a strange man in a red suit. Outside, cars bared their grills at one another as they parried for tight spaces. In the crawl of one-lane traffic crept the frustration and annoyance at the cultural and commercial pressure to participate in what Ebenezer Scrooge called "humbug."

Humbug means hoax. The Christmas hoax involves reindeer that fly, a bearded man who enters through a chimney instead of the front door and a virgin who gives birth. Sometimes it is puzzling to think that billions still honor these stories at a time when science and technology have so advanced; a spacecraft can land on a comet, scientists have found an enzyme with which they can change a person’s genome and the NSA can find most of us almost anywhere, anytime.

Humbug means hoax. The Christmas hoax involves reindeer that fly, a bearded man who enters through a chimney instead of the front door and a virgin who gives birth.

A carol performed at Harvard’s annual Christmas performance helps bring the worlds of myth, religion and science together, by showing how we are all travelers. In “Wise Men Came Journeying,” the New Zealand lyricist Shirley Erena Murray writes:

Wise are each one of us looking for change,

stargazer people, respecting the strange,

inner and outer worlds open to light,

centered on seeing the real and the right.

Whether one is Christian or not, believes in God or is atheist, it is helpful to think of this time of year as dedicated to respecting the strange and pursuing the unknown. The Christmas story asks us to suspend all of our disbelief and to act as travelers “facing the deserts and crossing the lines, heeding no limits that culture defines.” For Mary of Nazareth, pregnancy and motherhood became her unknown journey. Joseph agreed to be the father to a son that technically, was not his. The shepherds followed a bright light and found a child in its beams. Santa Claus is a traveler who will go to any home that will have him bearing gifts for children.

Christmas is not only about the child of the star, but creativity in general, including the birth of ideas, which require first, an adventurous departure from the known. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote that his “best and most abundant ideas” for musical compositions came as he was walking alone or travelling in a carriage. In his later years, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge developed a vision for Kubla Khan while taking a vivid journey during a three hour nap. Dmitri Mendeleev created the periodic table of elements after dreaming how they could all fit together.

Visualization, the ability to imagine oneself as something different from today (creating a hoax around oneself), is frequently the genesis of accomplishment. Conrad Hilton imagined himself owning a hotel one day. As a child, Oprah Winfrey aspired to be someone who was paid to talk; she has said that she saw herself achieving greatness.

Yet, after they are conceived, ideas require nurturance in order to thrive. In an Australian study, basketball players who practiced free throws achieved greater success than those who envisioned themselves making perfect shots more than they practiced. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a cantata a week. Stephen Jay Gould read 800 articles and brought them together in a single thread for his "Ontogeny and Phylogeny." Despite being born with spinal problems, contracting polio and being in a bus accident, artist Frida Kahlo painted at least 140 paintings during her short and painful life.

Whether one is Christian or not, believes in God or is atheist, it is helpful to think of this time of year as dedicated to respecting the strange and pursuing the unknown.

Evolving ideas also require protection. Robert H. Goddard, who ushered in the space age with his creation of the liquid-fueled rocket, decided to keep his efforts quiet after being ridiculed for his ideas and failures in the press. Countless artists, writers and scientists spend days alone tending their progeny. Let’s not forget that Santa’s elves make toys all year long at the North Pole, a frozen wilderness where there is little to do but work.

Perhaps as the young, unhappy girl at the mall begins to see Christmas in the every day, she will come to revere how, in the dead of winter new life can emerge and flourish tended by those who provide love, guidance, dedication and sustenance; genuine gifts from the heart. Telling Santa Claus what you want at the mall might be the first step in making dreams come true.

Related:

Susan E. Reed Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Susan E. Reed is a columnist who has won several awards for her international reporting and her book, "The Diversity Index."

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