Santa Claus may be "making a list, and checking it twice" to see who gets something delivered down the chimney on Christmas Eve. But we all know there is more to the Christmas holiday than getting gifts, don't we?
While many people revel in the commercialism that surrounds the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, four leaders of religious communities in the valley were eager to discuss the deeper meaning of Christmas.
In a nutshell, it's still all about the difference between "naughty and nice."
"I'm very busy because there are so many sinners in the Wood River Valley," says Father Jorge E. Garcia, the pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Hailey.
He's only partly joking.
During his church's Advent penance service earlier this month, he and seven other priests and two Benedictine monks from Jerome heard confessions from hundreds of people. The penitents came to St. Charles following a thorough "examination of conscience," meant to prepare the faithful to receive the Holy Eucharist on Christmas Eve.
Garcia, who is a native of Colombia, conducts the Catholic liturgy in English and Spanish.
"There are many more Catholics on Christmas," says Garcia. "The visitors come—the tourists."
Garcia says the commercialism of Christmas derives from gift-giving at the time of Jesus' birth.
"More than 2,000 years ago, three wise men came to bring the baby Jesus gifts, because Jesus was a gift from God to all of humanity. So, parents give gifts and presents to all children on Christmas."
Garcia says Christmas lights are symbolic of Jesus, who said, "I am the light of the world."
"Isaiah is the most important prophet of the Old Testament. He said (2,700 years ago) that the people are living in darkness, but in the future, we will have the light. God's gift was our messiah, who he sent for our redemption."
A small crib lies empty in the St. Charles Church's nativity scene manger, surrounded by three wise men, Mary and Joseph. Garcia said the baby Jesus will arrive Dec. 24, in time for Christmas Eve mass.
The Rev. John Moreland, pastor of Light on the Mountains Center for Spiritual Living south of Ketchum, says his congregation "would not be considered Christian by most mainstream Christian denominations." His Science of Mind center, based on the writings of Ernest Holmes, celebrates all religions.
"We see Jesus as divine, but also as someone who came to show us our own inner divinity and oneness with the creator. Rather than try to take a stand on the historical aspects of the traditional Christmas story, we look at it metaphorically and how the symbolism of the story can help each of us transform our lives.
"Symbolically, we look at the birth of Jesus as the moment that we recognize the birth of the Christ consciousness in each of us. We believe that this universal concept is already within us, but that we, at some point, recognize that it is there. This 'birth' is the understanding that we are not separate creations of God, but that the presence of spirit is within all things, including us."
Moreland says the "drama" of the Christmas story can also be compared to the drama that happens in all of our lives as we make a major shift.
"It can seem like many things have lined up against us, but as we trust, have faith and know that we are being guided by a larger truth, we find that we each get to our own seeming miraculous moment where the birth of something greater occurs."
Pastor Michael Hendricks of the Life Church in Hailey, a non-denominational Christian church, says Christmas is "a time of love and joy and peace and great hope."
"Obviously, the celebration had pagan roots at one time, but as time went on it came to be a celebration of Christ coming onto the Earth and fulfilling his destiny. He brings a great hope during this time for all of mankind to know God and be with him eternally. Jesus is like a lifeline down from God the father. His purpose was to save the world, not to condemn the world. That is why we celebrate his birth."
The Rev. Ken Brannon, rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sun Valley, says he draws on the Benedictine tradition of balance during the holiday season—balance between work, prayer, celebration and service.
"While the rest of the world is revving up and shopping, Episcopal groups and other Christian groups are saying 'slow down and pay attention,'" Brannon says.
"I think some gift giving is fine. Money is one way we show value and regard for one another. I have two children and I see the joy that can come from a well-thought-out gift. But commercialism can also wag the dog. People can give when they don't have the means to. It can create great stress. If gift giving is reduced to an exchange that feels obligatory, it can be soul-killing. A true gift is chosen and freely given."
Brannon says the deeper significance of the holiday has to do with introspection and compassion.
"We have no historical proof that Dec. 25 was the date of Christ's birth. The date simply coincides with older Roman rituals. The critical theological idea is that the incarnation of Jesus was both fully human and God in the flesh. Jesus is a way to God. This is a uniquely Christian ideal and can be hard for our scientific minds to grasp.
"If we believe that God came to us as a humble man, it calls for us to open our eyes and look at our neighbors, our fellow citizens and ask, 'What can I learn from you?' We can see the divine in one another and the humanity in one another. It's like heaven meeting Earth. So there is a tension between these two. I think this is a natural and good tension."
The birth of Christ is celebrated by many millions of people around the world in many different ways: with music, lights, church events, dinners with family and, of course, the opening of gifts on Christmas morning. While the meaning of the holiday can vary, the emotional power of the season seems to be universal.
"For me, I feel so good during this season," Garcia says. "I feel so good with people. They're not so angry. They're smiling and hugging, gathering for meals and sharing gifts."
Tony Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org