By Dr Tim Seelig–

How do you feel in mid-December? Are the holidays a gift or a curse? Have you been mean or nice? Do you feel Ho Ho Ho or Bah Humbug? There are 15 holidays from different cultures that are celebrated between Halloween (the gateway drug to the rest of the holiday season and the National Gay Day) and New Years. Many involve gifts, food, hospitality. family and almost all of them involve drama.

Well like most, if I’m honest all of the above is true on one level or another, depending on the day. We hear so much more about buying than about giving. For the most part, when you’re around 12, we hear a lot more about giving than receiving. During other holidays throughout the year, we give or receive, such as birthdays, Father’s and Mother’s Day, and National Donut Day. During the winter holidays, however, we are both givers and receivers. The pressure is enormous.

We are bombarded with “gifts of the season”, “the reason for the season” and “all I want for Christmas is…”. No more Mariah Carey.

In writing my articles, and considering my 35 years spent on the First Baptist’s first bench, I still think it is my duty to share this part of my experience. Especially since many of my readers can fall into the “churchless” category. I take my research seriously, Hermeneutics. It is the study of the general principles of biblical interpretation. This is what I did here. It seems our celebrations and gifts today all started with the very romantic journey of three wise men following a star to the manger, where they gave Baby Jesus the very first Christmas gifts!

We are not sure that they were so good, since it took them two years to find the baby who would then be in her terrible marriage. But the gifts they brought weren’t baby onesies or rattles. Oh no. They brought good things: gold. Yes please. Frankincense and myrrh. Not your mother’s scent. We’ll come back to the freebies in a second. Here is the story.

There were three wise men from the east: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Oops, bad trio. It was the guys thrown into the fiery furnace! The sages were Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. They received a birth announcement for a baby that is born hundreds of miles away. The announcement was made via a huge star. They did some checking and found out that this was a very special baby. They had already missed the baby shower and delivery, but decided to go anyway. It took them a few months to put together everything they needed for the trailer. Gathering camels and scoundrels to accompany them was not easy. Then there was a long tearful farewell to Mrs. Magi. One of their most important jobs was to buy baby gifts. More on this topic in a minute.

It was a tough trip. No one can really determine the actual details of the trip. Google maps is sketchy from Babylon to Bethlehem or, most likely, to Jerusalem by the time they got there. Today it would be around 13 hours by car or 234 hours on foot. We don’t know why it took two years. Without GPS, they obviously wandered a lot. I can just imagine Caspar shutting down the trailer constantly asking, “Are we there yet?” Don’t take my word for it how difficult it was. It’s well known. Even TS Elliot wrote about it in his poem “The Journey of the Magi”. It’s pretty descriptive, of course.

Oh my God, it was a tough trip. Today it certainly wouldn’t take two years and there is a KFC just a 4 minute walk from the Church of the Nativity. Okay, back to the gifts.

Just as we idealized the trip, we did the same for the 3 gifts they brought. We all agree on gold. Its good. But the other two have been described as perfume and incense. Needless to say, these were great ideas to cover up the smell of dung spread in the manger, but by the time they got to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, they were already living in a house, with no barnyard animals. So what’s up with frankincense and myrrh? Clearly, some of my research came from “What Is Myrrh Anyway” from the movie Monty Python Brian’s life. In this film, however, the wise men got to the wrong house.

Turns out the gifts weren’t just a pretty Yankee scented candle and a few sticks of Nag Champa.

In an article by Colin Schultz in the Smithsonian magazine, these mages may have been onto something with the gifts they chose. “More than just aromatic compounds, frankincense and myrrh have interesting medicinal properties. From tests on mice, chemists at the University of Florence have discovered that the molecules of myrrh act on the opioid receptors in the brain, explaining its analgesic action. The key active ingredient in frankincense is similar in structure to some hormones like testosterone. Besides its analgesic action, myrrh also seems to have anticancer properties. Of the three gifts from the Magi, perhaps the gold was the least valuable of all?

Come on, wise men! You win the best secret Santa Claus award.

OK, enough with hermeneutics. I have my own story! Or two. Okay, three.

One of my most vivid memories is that of my paternal grandmother during the holidays. She remained a single mother of three amid the depression in Fredericksburg, Texas. German was his first language, as was everything else, stereotypical German, with work ethic being paramount. When her husband died, she immediately went to work to support her children and continued to work throughout her life.

Her three children have been very successful in their careers and in their personal lives, with eleven grandchildren among them. My Oma never got much, but she bought some holiday gifts for her three children, their spouses and eleven grandchildren. We knew his gifts would be small and inexpensive. But when we arrived for Christmas, the 11 gifts for the grandchildren were wrapped and under the tree. Oma calculated the most expensive and glued parts to the others to make up for the difference in cost. Each grandchild received a gift that cost the exact same amount when the coins were added… no favoritism was shown to anyone. My brother and I laughed at this until we were old enough to understand her huge heart and her desire was to demonstrate the equal depth of love she had for each of us. It was her lovely way of letting us know that we had equal parts of her heart.

When I became a divorced dad with kids living in another city, I gave them most of Thanksgiving and they spent Christmas vacation with their mom. It made it very different. Many of you know what it is like to send your gifts in the mail. It takes a bit more work, but it also leaves you totally free to do whatever you want on Christmas Eve. You finished your shopping at least a week earlier. For years, my partner and I would go to the massive Northpark Mall in Dallas an hour or two before they closed on Christmas Eve to watch the mad rush for last minute gifts. At this point, it didn’t matter what they grabbed just to get something under the tree. Male shoppers would often stop at the entrance to stores and pick up the scent that the impatient salesperson was spraying on. They knew that by 8 p.m. the stores would close and their only option would be the 7-Eleven around the corner. We would then retire to a cozy Italian restaurant for some Bellinis and lasagna! It was a perfect Christmas Eve, except I wasn’t with my kids.

Fast forward to the point where I was deciding whether or not to apply / audition for the position of Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. It came to my attention that the choir did three shows on Christmas Eve. What? I thought I left that behind with the multiple candlelight services of a mega church. At least SFGMC didn’t do a midnight mass / show! My first thought was, “If I wanted to do multiple performances on Christmas Eve, I could have stayed in church. Of course, I quickly discovered that Christmas Eve performances are truly the most wonderful time of the year for the choir. They are our gift to the community in every way. This year will be my last direction at the Castro. There will be tears. I just have to give up the tradition of lasagna and swap the Bellini for an Irish Coffee at Twin Peaks after the shows.

I’m afraid our gifts have become a bit of a mess. We don’t know our friends very well and many of us have left our families. Enter the Internet. It’s just easier to buy a Visa gift card and send it by email. We’ve even stopped handwriting greeting cards. Of course, we can do better.

In a 2016 online survey, 15% of people surveyed were unhappy with their freebies and 10% could not remember what they received. 25% of respondents said they gave their gifts back to someone else, 14% sold the items, 10% tried to take them back to the store, and 5% returned the gift to the donor. Seniors were more likely to send their unwanted gifts to charity, while those aged 25 to 34 “just threw them away.” Gifts least likely to be appreciated include items such as perfumes and cosmetics, ornaments, and clothing. These were exactly the things last minute shoppers grabbed at the Northpark Mall when panicking shopping.

Over the past 12 weeks, choir members have prepared gifts galore. The gifts of time, energy and talent. And the gift of their voices. And you received these gifts with incredible enthusiasm and gratitude. These gigs are the end of my last 35-year holiday gigs leading LGBTQ + choirs. I saw it all during the holidays. And, in the end, there is no Bah Humbug to be found. Just a heart filled to the brim.

One of my all-time favorite songs is “A Song for Christmas” by Frederick Silver. It sums up my feelings perfectly. No, I can’t give you all a physical gift, but I can share a song. This will be the last song of 2021!

With that, I wish you the happiest of the holidays. Signature until 2022.

Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

Posted on December 16, 2021