Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What Happened to Christmas?

I must confess that Christmas is not my favorite holiday, probably for my own reasons. My birthday is on December 25th, so I’ve always felt overshadowed by the holiday. It’s a little like not having a birthday. The presents weren’t the problem. I could not have a party that day, or even get together with friends and go out. I’d have to be like the Queen and have 2 birthdays, the actual one, and an official one more convenient for people to celebrate.
Also, after doing 6 years time in retail, it’s hard to come out of that experience without a very jaundiced view of the whole holiday. I can be as sour on the Christmas holiday as any atheist celebrating Festivus. Even in the midst of celebrations that I truly love, the whole thing sometimes has a forced treacley quality about it.

Like almost everyone brought up in Christendom, I loved Christmas as a child. The smell of Christmas evergreens transports me back 45 years to my own early childhood. So what happened? Is it simply a matter of growing up? Or did the holiday itself change somehow in recent years?

To me, Christmas these days can be an unholy consumer culture potlatch with all of its former sentiments turned into sales pitches. Small wonder that the relentless and ruthlessly enforced good cheer drives the grief-stricken into even deeper despair. Our geniuses in marketing and advertising research always conspire to find new ways to squeeze more profits out of the holiday and make it ever more dreary. Needs and desires must be created where there were none before, compounding the sense of frustration and disappointment that comes with the whole gift exchange, and driving up higher and higher sales as people try to fill the new found emptiness. There are times when I think Christmas is becoming almost as dreary as airline travel, and I wonder why people still bother with it (a growing number of people don’t; a number of people I know who still celebrate the holiday have dropped the whole gift exchange part of it entirely).

I make a distinction now between that annual actuarial economic event called Christmas, and the religious holiday it replaced formerly known as The Feast of the Nativity. I usually focus my attentions on the latter and deal with the former as little as possible. The happiest and most satisfying part of it for me these days is Midnight Mass at my parish church. It’s a beautiful ceremony with a lot of before and after feasting that usually begins at 6PM and doesn’t end until the wee hours of the morning. We usually have beautiful music, ancient pageantry, and a packed house. I usually play a small part in the liturgy, which is deeply satisfying. There is lots of gemütlichkeit (for lack of a better word) in the informal dinner at a neighborhood restaurant for all those participating in the service, and more in the little party in the parish gym that follows the Eucharist. A new part of Christmas that really pulls the sting out of my birthday problem is Facebook. I used to feel very isolated on Christmas, and now I get pages full of birthday greetings from around the world. I love it! Thank God for social media!

Christmas at my parish this year (photos courtesy of Vince Chiumento):

Yours Truly on the left carrying a candle

The crowds watching our rector, Reverend Mother Stacey, lay the infant effigy in the creche

Our Italian Rococo Baby Jesus all strapped into his safety belt for the procession to the creche

A 13th century fresco by Giotto's shop showing St. Francis instituting the creche at Greccio. The painting shows a scene close to what still takes place in many churches (including ours) to this day. The original creche at Greccio was in a cave with a live baby playing the starring role.

We also had magnificent music such as this Mass setting by Cesar Franck, though not quite this lavishly orchestrated. We had a harpist, a cellist, a very hardworking organist, in addition to our magnificent choir.

In former times, Christmas was a rich and long holiday. Today’s secular celebration only lasts for a day, but the official religious feast lasts 12 days, from December 25th to Epiphany on January 6th. In between are other feasts like that of St. Stephen, Holy Name, the 2 Sundays of Christmas, etc.

Christmas, like all Christian holy days, has a lot of pre-Christian and pagan content. To all the secularists and neo-pagans who love pointing this out to me, I give the same answer that Italians give to American evangelicals who point out the pagan origins of all of those ex-votos and miracle working images in Italian churches, “e allora” (so what?). We all know the ancient pre-Christian origins of Christmas trees (I can remember a time when many churches banned Christmas trees from their premises for that very reason). Yule logs are definitely from ancient pre-Christian Europe, a legacy of ancient solstice rites. There are a number of extreme Christian fundamentalist denominations, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that consider Christmas to be a pagan holiday and will have nothing to do with it.

A Yule Log

Probably the tastiest manifestation of the Yule Log, the French holiday dessert buche de noel.

The pagan content of Christmas and so many Christian holy days is perhaps a legacy of ancient missionaries like St. Patrick and the Irish monks who restored Christianity to Europe after the tribal invasions of Europe in the wake of Rome’s fall. The early church fathers like St. Jerome were revolutionaries who wanted nothing to do with former religions. Christians were supposed to smash the idols and plant the cross. The missionaries were pragmatists (unlike the Church Fathers) who used the native religions of various peoples as a path to the Gospel. Patrick’s shamrock is the most famous example of this pragmatic hybridization. Ancient Irish Gospel books and stone crosses swarm with pre-Christian patterns and images that lost none of their magical powers in their conversion to Christianity. Frequently, pre-Christian rituals and practices survived the transition through widespread popular usage and pragmatic tolerance. Christmas and other Christian holy days are a hybrid of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Religion is a messy and untidy business, as untidy as people themselves. Those who would tidy it up frequently do more harm than good.

In pre-industrial times, Christmas was a long celebration in the darkest days of winter when the fields were fallow after the last harvest. There was little to do except to dispel the darkness with as much feasting as possible. The calendar of religious feasts (much more of them then than now) provided necessary breaks and opportunities to blow off steam in an age when labor was always hard and seldom rewarding.

From the most famous of all books of hours, Les Tres Riches Heures painted by the Limborg Brothers for the Duc du Berry in the 15th century, showing the month of January. The Duke seated before a fire screen on the right feasts lavishly in one of his many chateaux. The guest Bishop of Chartres in the center exclaims at the lavish gold and silver ware.

The month of February from the Tres Riches Heures showing what the peasants on the Duke's estates would be doing in winter, struggling to stay warm.

A very original conception of Christmas by Pieter Brueghel the Elder; if you look carefully, you can see Mary and Joseph arriving in a 16th century Flemish village in December transforming it into Bethlehem. On the lower right, children play with toys on the ice. On the left is a busy inn with hogs being slaughtered and bled for Christmas feasting (for that legendary boar's head and for blood sausages). Snow covered casks of ale have just arrived. And crowds of people gather to be counted in the census and pay the tax described in the Biblical account. A big Christmas wreath hangs over the entrance to the inn. On the upper left through the tree branches, a red winter sun rises.

The weekend is an invention of the American labor movement, and like so many inventions of the labor movement, it is in the process of being eliminated (the dark side of the repeal of Sunday closing hours together with the reality of global markets that never sleep). Those celebrations could be rowdy, lewd, and crude as people let loose. The celebrations of the Christmas holidays in all their drunken revelry survived the Reformation, even in the very Calvinist Dutch Republic, celebrations of everything from Saint Nicholas Day to Epiphany were every bit as rough and drunken as in former times, as the artist and innkeeper Jan Steen records in his paintings.

Jan Steen, The Feast of Saint Nicholas

Jan Steen, Twelfth Night

Christmas almost did not survive the Industrial Revolution. Time was now money, and the integrated global economy no longer had time available for the proles to frolic. Production schedules and profit margins had to be met ASAP. Christmas became attenuated down to one day on the 25th day of December, and frequently not even that.

As Adam Gopnik points out in a recent article in The New Yorker, what we in the English speaking world call Christmas is entirely an invention of the Victorian era, from Santa Claus to Christmas cards.

A sampling of some Victorian Christmas cards:

Christmas as we've inherited it from the Victorians is the invention of writers, especially Charles Dickens, with reformist sympathies eager to relieve some of the brutality of life for the toiling classes without necessarily sacrificing their own comfort. Those of a much less generous nature saw the humanitarian reforming agenda behind the melodrama and sentimentality of Dickens’ serialized stories. Thomas Carlyle, in words and tone that sound like an angry pundit from a libertarian think tank today, said Dickens “thought that men ought to be buttered up and the world made soft and accommodating for them, and all sorts of fellows have turkey for their Christmas dinner. Commanding and controlling and punishing them he would give up without any misgivings in order to coax and soothe and delude them into doing right.”

Indeed there is a Tea Party affiliated economist today who thinks Carlyle doesn’t go far enough:

Dickens's ignorance of basic economics would, if acted upon by Scrooge, have produced adverse consequences for Cratchit himself. Had Ebeneezer paid Cratchit a higher salary for his work, he [Scrooge] would very likely have been able to attract a larger number of job applicants from which he could have selected employees whose enhanced marginal productivity might have earned Scrooge even greater profits. At such a point, terminating Cratchit's employment would have been an economically rational act by Scrooge. As matters now stand, Scrooge's employment policies have left him with the kind of groveling, ergophobic, humanoid sponge we have come to know as Bob Cratchit; a man we are expected to take into our hearts as an expression of some warped sense of the "Christmas spirit." Being an astute businessmen, Ebeneezer Scrooge was well aware of the marketplace maxim that "you get what you pay for."
Unaccustomed as Commissar Dickens is to the informal processes of the marketplace, we would not expect him to tell us anything about competitive alternatives for Cratchit's services. Perhaps there are employers out there prepared to pay him a higher wage than he is receiving from my client. If this is so, then we must ask ourselves: did Bob Cratchit simply lack the ambition to seek higher-paying employment? It would appear so. At no time do we see this man exhibiting any interest in trying to better his and his family's lot.

Social Darwinists then and now don’t like Dickens, and in their heart of hearts, they really don’t like Christmas and what it stands for either.

A big problem with the Victorian Christmas is that it created a candied version of the original Christian story of the Incarnation. We can blame the Victorians for today’s Nativity Scene with Gentle Joseph, Mary in Blue, The Sweet Baby Jesus, The Shepherds, and The Little Drummer Boy. It’s a soft candy version of what is really a very dark story. Christ was born a bastard to an unwed teenaged mother, the result of a divine act of adultery that transformed poor fiance Joseph into history’s most famous cuckold. Christ was born on the run and spent His early childhood in hiding or in exile with a price on His head. His parents arrived in Bethlehem to satisfy some bureaucratic command from a far-away colonial power, to be counted in a census designed to control and tax a rebellious population. His mother was a pariah, and certainly people talked about her fiancé. They were astonished that he would keep her around, especially in her condition. The innkeeper turned her away probably because of her scandal as much as any over-crowding. She was forced to give birth out back in a stable with the animals. Then God Almighty appeared on earth as a completely helpless crying drooling infant whose diapers needed to be changed. A local warlord and client of the colonial power heard some wild prophecy about a king born in Bethlehem and sent in his military to murder every child under age 2 in the town. The little family barely escaped in time and fled to Egypt as homeless refugees. As so many who have commented on this story have pointed out, the Nativity story, literally true or not, graphically demonstrates what sort of Messiah this was to be. Bethlehem today is actually a lot closer to Bethlehem then than we would care to admit; a small out-of-the-way town occupied by a colonial power and deeply divided by sectarian and national conflicts.

The security wall near Bethlehem

Manger Square in Bethlehem with the Church of the Nativity; note all the little security precautions like all the bollards to direct traffic.

There are some on the left, Christian and not, who recognize the scandal of Christ’s birth and want to recover some of the original revolutionary challenge to established power so heavily implied in this story. For example, here is a recent Christmas message issued by Occupy Denver:
Today, some are celebrating an underprivileged mom giving birth in a stable, to a baby who grew up to be a prominent activist for peace, love and anti-capitalist values; who preferred the company of honest prostitutes, the poor and the disabled than that of the religious or financial elite; who partook in radical direct action against the banking system and who, at the conclusion of his life, was executed publicly as an enemy of state. Jesus was a revolutionary -- Merry Christmas

Indeed, Christmas is the one time of year when Mainstream America celebrates the birth of a bastard child to an unwed teenaged mother. Ben Franklin may have said that “God helps those who help themselves,” but it’s only the wishful thinking of some Americans determined to believe that God Himself ordained that “Nothing $ucceed$ like $ucce$$,” that put that phrase into Scripture. Jesus actually said quite the opposite throughout the course of His short life on earth.

The Captains of Industry and Masters of the Universe soon figured out that there was a lot of money to be made off of Christmas, and off of the Victorian version of it. And now our marketing wizards are busy creating desires and needs where there were none before. Christmas is now the year’s biggest retail accounting event.

The secularization of Christmas may bother Bill O’Reilly, but it does not bother me. Asking people to believe in virgin birth these days is asking an awful lot. The return of pre-Christian Yule by all sorts of Neo-Pagan groups doesn’t bother me either. Why shouldn’t Christmas have more than one meaning? Everybody needs a party at the darkest time of year.

What bothers me is the commercialization of it all, and how the drive for ever higher sales and profits so warps the holiday in both its sacred and secular meanings. Commerce transforms a time to get together, to make a little light in the dark, to eat, drink, and be merry, to enjoy a little life when all the world is in frozen suspension, into an orgy of greed and selfishness. Such a world of pervasive corruption and casual brutality is a gold mine for satire. One of the sharpest and most brilliant of current satirists gives The Holiday Season created for us by our corporate Betters the send up it deserves.

But hey, there's still 10 days left, so let's party.


it's margaret said...

Merry Christmas indeed, Doug!
Amen. Amen. Amen!

Paul said...

Merry Third Day of Christmas, Doug. And I say you should celebrate your birthday for a month.

JCF said...

Merry Third Day of Birthday, Doug: you and Jesus both! ;-) [My late paternal grandmother was a Christmas Baby also]

Looking forward to digging into this entry, at length...

MadPriest said...

In my house we always celebrate the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Doug Blanchard on the 25th. December and then Christmas twelve days later along with the Orthodox Church.

Counterlight said...

The only star I was born under was the Lone Star Flag of Texas.
Baylor Hospital was no stable, and Dallas was no Bethlehem.

Anonymous said...

Hope your birthday was quite joyful indeed! Sorry I missed it. :)

The problem pagans have is this: lots of them find it borderline hypocritical of Christians, to avail themselves of pagan symbolism while at the same time slamming paganism itself, and the holy powers they worship, saying (in some cases) it's "devil worship" and whatnot.

It's like someone outside the US who hates Americans, yet loves our money when they need our aid because their country just went through some horrible natural disaster.

Make sense? ;)