December 28, 2009

Merry Christmas?

Every year Christmas time seems to get a little more unreal.
At first I thought it was just that I was getting more cynical with age; but being aware this year, I'm sure it's really getting more bizarre... (and, okay, I'm also more cynical, too). It hit me particularly when my wife and I were in the unusual situation of sitting in a Spanish-language church for a Navidad service. Besides several Spanish versions of popular Christmas hymns, the young music group suddenly put Jingle Bells on the overhead projector, with English words. Somehow, seeing the words 'writ large' as it were, made me very conscious of how crazy they must seem to those in the congregation who understood English. What could they make of 'bells on bob-tails?' In the midst of all the religious hymns in Spanish, what was the relevance of sleigh-bells on horses? Yet there is something quite illustrative about the contradictions.

From that service, I came away hyper-sensitive to all the craziness of this season. As I listened to the old, hackneyed tunes on the radio, the weirdness factor kept growing. Every singer established enough to be called an ‘artist' has to release a Christmas album sooner or later to cement their position in the commercial music scene. So we get all those old, familiar tunes 'covered' by every artist, and each has to add his/her distinctive embellishments, with more or less success-- you are the judge. Once a year, for maybe ten days or so, we get to hear all those old saws, by a platoon of artists, and just as they almost take over our feverish minds, they mercifully disappear for another eleven and a half months.

It's those songs that set the mood for the season, and if anyone stops to ponder them, all kinds of unsettling questions arise to sour that mood. We get so comfortable with the songs that the obvious questions don't occur to us. But if you had to explain the Christmas memes to a complete outsider-- the classic anthropologist from Mars-- you'd start to see what I mean. Like, he/she might well ask 'what does an impossible reindeer with luminescent nose have to do with the birth of the Son of God? Or a zombie snowman? And all those other secular favorites, ranging from rock rhythms to almost anything? Of course, they are all examples of the de-religifying of Christmas, if I may coin a word. Over the decades, the feast has, in the pop media, lost almost all of its original religious significance, and has morphed into a kind of winter saturnalia, a warm, family get-together time that appeals to almost all 'communities' regardless of religious outlook. Even the formulized greeting ‘Merry Christmas’ begs questioning. Why should it be merry... which connotes triviality, at best? (The French ‘Joyeaux Noel’ makes more sense for a Christian).

To the beleaguered Christians, this secularization of Christmas is much lamented. But it may actually be a blessing in disguise. Rather than asking the rhetorical 'Who took Christ out of Christmas?' Christians would do better to ask the question posed by an Internet writer who pondered 'Who put Christ into the Solstice?' Yes, that makes more sense. After all, there is nothing in scripture to indicate when Jesus was born. Nor is there the slightest hint that his believers ought to celebrate his birthday. For those who dare investigate, it seems that Constantine, the Roman emperor credited with making Christianity the official faith of Rome, decided his decision would enjoy much better chances of success if he eased his subjects into the transition from paganism. So, he made Sunday the official day of religious observance, and... he transformed the old feast of the winter solstice-- the day of shortest sunlight and longest darkness. Under Constantine's plan, the 're-birth of the sun' became celebrated as the birth of the Son, and pagan symbols like evergreen trees and yule logs were adopted into the new scheme of things. Eventually, 'Father Christmas' came along in Europe, and morphed into the stereotyped, rotund Santa Claus that infests every shopping mall in America every December. The once hallowed, holy day has become the premier holiday of the modern calendar, accompanied by its commercial companion, 'boxing day.' While the religious aspect is now trivial, the holiday has become so vital to retailers that many could not survive without the buying frenzy of Christmas.

On the flip side, the expectations surrounding Christmas are so onerous that many innocent 'consumers' suffer great stress at this time of year as they try to find the right gifts for people who don't really need more stuff; and as they try to find the money to pay for all the futile presents. I've heard it claimed that the death rate from suicide and other causes peaks over the Christmas/New Year season. What seemed a good idea 17 centuries ago, in a more religious era has turned out quite differently in today's society.

Perhaps the ultimate irony lies in the efforts of some progressive reformers to enforce a non-religious Christmas, one with no hymns, no nativity scene, no mention of Christ, and no church affiliation at all. To bolster their efforts, they've tried to add Hanukah and Kwanza, and heaven knows what, to the 'generic season' while denaturing Christmas into a Santa-Claus fest. Which takes us to the wacky concoction of incongruous themes that have grated on my nerves with increasing urgency over the decades.

As I stated, all these contradictions could have a beneficial outcome if they roused Christians to really think about their faith, and its sources, and to realize that they must stop depending on institutions and start developing a personal understanding of scripture and the gospel. Is this likely to occur? No; more likely, the contradictions will increase. Maybe all mention of Jesus will be removed, and tho the day may still be called Christmas, it will be completely non-religious, maybe even irreligious. No matter; I have long ago stopped taking it seriously.

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