Shakespeare never ceases to amaze me. How does he get it so right, time and time again? He rarely speaks of Christmas in any of his plays. But in the opening scene of Hamlet he does, and what he says rings so true we hardly need another mention. Bernardo and Marcellus, two officers of the guard at the Prince of Denmark's gloomy castle, are engaged in a nervous conversation with Hamlet's friend, Horatio. They are discussing the ghostly apparition--which we later discover is Hamlet's father--that has just appeared to them for the third successive night. When the cock crows the wraith disappears. Then, still shaken, Marcellus muses.

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad:
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor with hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and gracious is the time.

These sentiments resonate with me. Which of us has not sensed a special aroma that seems to hang in the air during this season? Despite the deadening hype and the deafening jingle of the cash registers, there is something magical going on. But we can never be of one mind about it.

And the bard knows that too. After Marcellus has finished rhapsodizing about the hallowed time and wholesome nights, Horatio responds, "So I have heard and do in part believe it."

Horatio's "in part" saves the scene from melting into mere sentimentality. The Christmas season is a very mixed bag. Psychiatrists tell us they know exactly what to expect beginning just after Thanksgiving--manic shopping sprees, despondent drinking binges, and obsessive food gorging.

But they miss the most important syndrome. It is the spiritual schizophrenia that arises from our desperate view of Christmas: the incarnate love of God in a provincial stable--and our confusion over what to do about the angelic cantatas, the mysterious star, the enigmatic emissaries from the east, and the curious ineptitude of the evil king. "So I have heard," we murmur with Horatio, "and do in part believe it."

Is there a cure for our two-mindedness? I think there is. Christmas is just the right time to let ourselves soar with the poetry, the music, and the old, old stories, and to shed the crippling literalism that has in the modern era become the main obstacle to mature spirituality. The problem with what is sometimes called "the modern mind" is not that it is too critical but that it is tiresomely pedestrian. Literalism is a scourge, a disabling disease of the spirit. And, ironically, it afflicts religious fundamentalists and secular atheists in equal measure.

It is a kind of color blindness, a blight that incapacitates its victims' capacity to notice the truth that glimmers below the surface of song and metaphor, of poetry and legend. The fundamentalist insists it is all literal, and demands we believe it all. The atheist also insists it is literal, and rejects it all. Together they play out the unending Punch and Judy show of modernity, shrieking and whacking each other with big sticks. But this puppet show is too sad to be funny.

It can also become dangerous. The noted American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton believes that large numbers of people today are impaired by what he calls "desymbolization," the loss of the essential human capacity to symbolize our experience and--just as important--to understand the difference between a symbol and the reality it points to. Lifton, in his recent book "Destroying the World to Save It," suggests that the members of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese sect that released poison gas in the Tokyo subway system, suffered from this disability.

Many apocalyptic cults do. The Book of Revelation becomes an inflammatory text when readers take the flames, the horse-sized locusts, and the dragons literally. To this day there are zealots--both Christian and Jewish--lurking in the streets of Jerusalem who believe quite literally that they must rebuild the Temple before the Messiah can come (or come again). They pose a constant threat to peace.

Of course, people who cannot appreciate Christmas because they cannot take the familiar stories literally pose no such threat. But they are cheating themselves of something important. It might help them to remember that symbols are the essential language of faith, and that symbols--by their very nature--point beyond themselves to something so powerful and mysterious it can never be reduced to the prose of the tedious factuality we expect in news accounts. The imagery of the Gospel narratives--shepherds, angels, and all--should not be allowed to become the grinch that steals the marvelous reality they celebrate.

It is sometimes said that Christmas brings out the child in us. If that means that children can sometimes grasp the point of stories better than adults can, then we should welcome the opportunity to enter again, if only temporarily, into the enchanted world. But we also live in a world in which we need to keep our wits about us, especially so we will not be seduced by the hucksters who adroitly deploy the stories of Christmas to empty their shelves and clear out their inventories. We need to be bilingual--to comprehend the rich language of symbols, with their vocabulary of legends, myths, and parables, but also to spot the shrewd manipulations of symbols when they exploit them. Can we combine Marcellus's capacity for awe and Horatio's critical wariness? I think we can. And Christmas is as good a time as any to get some practice.

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