Tis the season to be jolly so let us lift our cup of hot toddy and once more haggle over the pretty lights on government lawns.
I, like so many of the boomer generation, have fond memories of Christmas. The imagery of colors, lights, music, and presents, tug my emotions every year. Some of my fondest and most vivid memories of childhood center on that half-sleepless night when my three brothers and I would pack into one double-bed waiting for grandpa’s four AM phone call that signaled the arrival of Christmas.
As an adult and devout Christian, however, I have resisted the superficiality of our consumer culture that “the holidays” so aptly parades. I sometimes remind my kids not to expect too much from their father whose formative years were swept up into a historical vortex where disco music sucked all of reality into a black hole. Accordingly, I have struggled over just what to make of the Christian story being high-jacked as the vessel of choice to revisit that same black hole of glossy-eyed pop culture every year.
As far as its importance in the Christian liturgical calendar, Christmas is inordinately exaggerated. It pales in comparison to the centerpiece of the Christian liturgical observance which is Pascha. Within our pluralistic society, Easter observance sets comfortably along with Passover, Eid or a variety of other celebrations. Thankfully, we are free to celebrate it, but those who are not Christians can just as freely not observe it by hoisting a cold pint on the deck after ski runs or doing the laundry.
As with a good many of American Christians whose faith is stuck in a historical black hole, we lack perspective on this.
From the start and because of its universal perspective, Christian communities have always been adaptive to the culture it lives in. This is its strength, not its weakness. It learned long ago the folly of pushing too hard against local traditions. Instead of resisting people’s deep-seated emotional attachments to familiar rituals, it absorbed them within the Christian narrative. Nearly ubiquitous observances of honoring the dead, agricultural cycles, birth, and marriage were incorporated into an on-going tradition. This originated from a deep-seated conviction that in Jesus, God was offering a gift to the whole world, not endorsing some ethnic or nationalistic club.
This approach of incorporating civil or pagan custom (the word pagan simply means civil or local) has always been a give-and-take. The Church accommodated, or perhaps countered, a popular Celtic end of summer custom by moving its “all saints day” from Pentecost in the Spring to Fall where it could name the evening service “all hallows eve.” Halloween has enjoyed a cozy existence for quite some time. More recently, however, the civil part of it appears to be making a strong comeback. Evidently, the pagans want their custom back. For many Christians today, they can certainly take Halloween back.
A myriad of pagan customs were integrated into the Christian narrative of Jesus’ birth. The custom of bringing into the home an evergreen tree during the winter solstice goes back well before the time of Jesus.
Such customs demonstrate a vibrant life of their own regardless of who presumes to have control of it, yet it is amazing how unwilling we Christians are to “give them back” to civil religion. This especially applies to the custom of making lights in the longest and darkest point in the year. Christians integrated it as a symbol of God’s light through Christ that has come into the world. For countless others, whether religious or civil, it takes on other symbolic meanings. If for nothing else, it brightens up one of the gloomier times of the year.
The veneration of St. Nicholas of Myra is yet another example. His commemoration in the liturgical calendar of the Christian East on December 6th has mutated beyond resemblance. It has gone from honoring a humble bishop best known as a staunch defender of the poor and oppressed to the front man for Victoria’s Secret and Mercedes Benz.
At this point in my life, I don’t resist this historical dance. As with most wars that go on way too long, they inevitably wear on both parties. Inevitably, there will be a transformation that should not be resisted.
I would prefer that retailers find some other way to survive their fiscal year other than mutilate the narrative of Christ’s birth, hopelessly congealing the message of the gospel with its opposite. Pounding images of greed, self-indulgence and opulence, advertisements domesticate the gospel’s power to confront the powers that endlessly exploit the weak and vulnerable.
I would prefer that all of us, Christian or otherwise, could be more honest about this celebration by whatever name we call it. We Christians should stop romanticizing over some happy marriage between civil and religious life. Those days are gone and will not return. If we want to influence the world we live in, we could for one stop wholeheartedly endorsing economic systems that keep most of the inhabitance on the planet in poverty. It confounds me how vehemently some advocate for our savior’s title to be plastered in glossy mall displays as if this is the most effective way to tell the liberating story of Jesus. We need be reminded that for the first three centuries of Christianity and in many parts of the world today, Christians did not need civil endorsement in order to commemorate its most revered days and seasons.
I would prefer that those who have little to no commitment to the Christian faith not highjack its power for the convenience of another excuse to party or to elevate childhood cuteness to Disneyesque quasi-worship.
At times, I would prefer to make it through the season without hearing of yet another debate over lighted trees in town hall. But then again, the advent of Jesus’ birth was not without violent and vehement opposition (Mt 2). Our super-hyped observance of “the season,” however, is more about our national confusion over the role and nature of religion in public life than it is about the political threat King Herod sensed in the birth of Jesus.
When my father came to Denver as a refugee of the Holocaust, he along with my mom and my siblings observed all the marvelously uniform customs in the 50s and 60s regardless of its religious overtones. He seemed quite content to let Christmas be what it was and to watch his children light up with uber joy at the very hint of it, even though he probably struggled internally with painful images of “Christain” Germans marching into his home town of Vienna.
In the waning years of his life, Dad instilled his own little holiday tradition. At his mountain house, sometime after Thanksgiving, he would trudge through knee deep snow and put a string of colored lights around a Charlie Brownish tree standing feebly alone amidst a frozen, foreboding landscape. Every night, he would dutifully turn the lights on. What compelled Dad to do this? He wasn’t religious unless you want to include skiing in that category. Maybe it simply makes something normally cold and dark into something bright, beautiful, warm and yes, dare I say it, joyous! Even more so, maybe it inspires a deep-seated hope in the human heart.
Yes, my house is lit with pretty lights for the same reason, and I let the funny Christmas commercials, bickering over politics, my children’s joy over presents, feasts, parties, music and worship services be what it is—a Chex-mix of American culture in a post-modern world.
So merry…? …? …? Oh let’s be merry. Another hot toddy?