December 1, 2023

John Darling: We’re all divine sages

John Darling, then 22, walking across a snowy field on a relative's farm in Ontario, Canada during a Christmas visit in 1965.
December 25, 2022

In which a search for the Christmas Spirit ends up in a good place to start

By John Darling

I couldn’t find it, so I went out looking for it, stalking the streets, letting whim guide me here and there, into Goodwill, BiMart, up and down the main drag. The “it” I am looking for is that elusive, usually sentimentalized, grossly exploited thing called Christmas Spirit — which is supposed to be a giddy, blessed, childlike abandonment of the normal hurried, self-centered, worried, grabby, type-A personality we have the rest of the year.

An undated photo of John Darling with the slopes of Grizzly Peak in the background.

But it’s also real or we wouldn’t bother with Christmas. It’s that thing you see all through “It’s A Wonderful Life,” even though Jimmy Stewart many times grinches out, bitterly muttering “Why did we have all these kids!?” But in the end, it’s through the loss of all his cash that he finds there is community and everyone loves him and all his years of seeming drudgery have sown the seeds of something real and good.

I whip out the plastic and swipe it till it’s warm to the touch, making sure everyone gets more than they asked for or even thought about getting — and stick all the stuff in my trunk, so as to be free of that other kind of seasonal spirit, Christmas Dread, which is fear of getting people dumb things or not enough things so they resent you on this most magical of days — or (worst case) you end up alone on this day of togetherness, which is said to be the worst thing that can happen all year. And which actually happened this year to someone close to me but far away geographically and she said that loving yourself, alone, on Xmas eve was strangely liberating.

So I’m majorly grinching out, listening to these insufferable Xmas carols about mercy mild, heavenly sleep and round yon virgin — I mean, I don’t even know what they’re talking about. And all I feel and see is the pressure to shove that plastic in deeper and deeper — and maybe that will release this ineffable “spirit!” It doesn’t.

But something really turns me around. A movie, “Elf.” Funny, how often movies are the source of new understanding, visions of personal growth, higher levels of being and living. It’s Will Farrell, an orphan who is accidentally abducted by Santa and raised as an elf at the North Pole, where every day is Christmas — and before long he has tears running down our cheeks, tears of compassion and hope, because Santa’s sleigh runs on Christmas Spirit and in cynical New York, there isn’t any. Except what naïve Will brings. He just doesn’t know any better than to love everyone! And without a credit card to do it!

We stand in line with hundreds of people at the Trinity labyrinth, chatting, shivering, amazed that so many have shown up for this Solstice Eve ritual of walking among the farolitos, glowing sweetly in their paper bags round the circle and everyone sidestepping and bumbling round the snakelike pattern to the center where we are alone for a moment and she gifts me with an amethyst ring with symbols of om and pregnant goddess with spiral belly, so full of good jujus — and in following days, amid the shopping, I find myself back in the labyrinth, alone, noticing its facility for emptying the mind and munching the ego by its sheer illogicality and wandering purposelessness.

Into my hands falls the new Beatles “Love” album, yes “new,” in that George Martin, their producer in those magical years of the ’60s, took 36 of their songs and freely sampled, mixed, segued, overlaid and treated them all like movements or phrases in a symphony, creating a whole new, amazing jewel, one where, amongst the familiar, you don’t know what to expect and are taken down new passageways with old words.

I wander by M’s shop and his annual yule party — you never know who you’ll find there — where hot toddies are repeatedly thrust in your hand and many a wild tale is told, like some pirate’s grogshop by the waterfront, and I end up discussing Norse mythology by the hour with C. Only in Ashland. I’ve researched on Wikipedia what amethyst is all about — and it means, literally, no-get-drunk. The ancients believed its powers would keep people sober. It doesn’t seem to be working. So, I realize, spirits are an enduring part of Xmas spirit. A favorite editor jokes: remember to keep the X in Xmas! I look up Xmas on Wiki and it says the X was pronounced “ch” in Greek, so it actually is Christ and, as one dear friend reminds me, Xmas is not about religion, it’s about the core spirit of one divine sage (we are all divine sages, by the way), who spoke the obvious, (as revolutionary now as then) that it only works if we don’t return evil for evil and remember to love others as ourselves — but at an even deeper level to realize that if we don’t love our neighbor (or our neighboring religion), it means we don’t really love ourselves — so start there.

John Darling lived in Ashland from 1971 until he died at age 77 in January 2021. A US Marine Corps journalist, he went on to write for the Oregonian, Mail Tribune, Daily Tidings, and United Press International, among others, along with stints as a news anchor at KOBI, executive assistant to the Oregon Senate President and press secretary of campaigns for Oregon governor and U.S. Senate. is, with permission, publishing monthly excerpts from his collection “The Divine Addiction: Essays Out of Oregon.”

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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