Friday, December 22, 2006

The Spirit of Christmas

Once again, news stories are popping up about the war on Christmas. Now, frankly, it seems to me that the folks who trumpet this so-called war the most are the people who take umbrage at court rulings that say you can’t put a manger in front of city hall. I don’t think there has been a declaration of war, so the so-called war at times seems one-sided.

What is the spirit of Christmas and how should we mark the day? We have long forgotten the reason for the time of year on which Christmas is celebrated and how the associations we take for granted came to be. For example, close your eyes and think of a Christmas scene and you are likely to picture something with snow. Yet, the fixing of Christmas in December was as much as an attempt by early church fathers to counter the popular pagan festivals of winter solstice and Saturnalia. We have a mind’s-eye picture of a baby Jesus shivering in a straw-filled manger, of shepherds and sheep out of snow-covered hills, of the still air of a winter’s night being shattered by angels singing. But, Jesus was not born in December.

The early church in determining when to celebrate Christ’s birth settled on December 25 because on that date an important Roman festival was held. What better way to continue vanquishing the pagan customs than to appropriate their festival dates?

In our country’s early history, Christmas was not an important holiday. In fact, the Puritans eschewed Christmas outlawing its celebration in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Following the American Revolution, Christmas celebration seemed too English and was therefore avoided.

In many ways, we have Charles Dickens to thank for reviving Christmas in England. Following the Industrial Revolution which displaced so many people in England, and left them very poor, people had stopped celebrating Christmas. It was too expensive to continue the tradition of feasting. Dickens had written just
Martin Chuzzlewit which was not a success. He needed money, so he got the idea for a story which he believed would be a success. Between October and December, he wrote the work, had it published at his own expenses, and brought out A Christmas Carol in December of 1843. It immediately sold out, and has been one of the most beloved Christmas stories since then. And it has also helped solidify our mental image of Christmas.

Some of the traditions we hold most dear have no relationship at all to the brief Christmas story told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. For example, the custom of bringing Christmas trees into our houses has nothing at all to do with the gospel accounts. This custom derives from our German ancestry—whether in the United States where German (Prussian mercenaries) soldiers introduced the custom, or in England where Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had a tree set up in Windsor Castle. Can you imagine Christmas without a tree? But what has it to do with the story of Jesus’ birth. Yet the setting up (or not) of Christmas trees has become part of the vaunted war on Christmas.

Almost any tradition that uses Yule—such as a Yule log—has no relationship to the gospel story. And don’t even start on Santa Claus—based on various European traditions where names such as Saint Nicholas or Sinter Claus migrate into Santa Claus.

Think of the typical Christmas scene that is set up whether on a school bulletin board, or in front of City Hall, or any other public space where it becomes the subject of controversy. Now analyze that scene—likely the scene combines a Christmas tree, the manger setting in a stable where the two gospel accounts are blended into one. So you have Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds and their sheep, the wise men, camels, other assorted animals that might be in a stable, and of course angels. Off to the side, you may even have Santa Claus and his reindeer—and if it includes Rudolph, you know . . . you just know. How on earth does this scene accurately communicate anything?

We can quickly dispense with the tree and Santa Claus and his reindeer. True, they are charming. But they don’t really have anything to do with the Christmas story. Now, let’s untangle the gospel stories. Matthew tells us about the things that mattered to him. Only Matthew tells us about the wise men from the east; he tells us about Herod’s scheming and the slaughter of the innocents; he tells us of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus’ fleeing into Egypt to escape Herod and his awful plans. Luke gives us a whole different set of particulars: he gives us the setting of the universal registration decreed by Caesar that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem; he tells us about the shepherds; and he gives us the inn-keeper who turns away the pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph. What we have done with these stories, each told for different audiences and with very specific and differing purposes in mind, is to blend them completely so they become a seamless narrative. It was not so in the New Testament telling.

Of course, Christmas is something more than a wonderful story. It is more than frantic shopping days counting down to THE DAY. It is more than the TV commentators hurling accusations against forces unknown. It is even more than Dickens’ wonderful story and Prince Albert’s German traditions. It is more than whether you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

The church I belong to, a
Presbyterian church, emphasizes Advent during the approach to Christmas. So we focus on preparing for the arrival of Jesus the savior. The songs we sing are Advent hymns. Sometimes I get frustrated wanting so much to sing Christmas carols all the Sunday s leading up to Christmas. But the discipline of not singing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve has begun to insinuate itself into my consciousness. I understand that by emphasizing Advent we focus on what it means to anticipate Jesus’ birth. We don’t get caught up in things like should we say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. Should we have a manger scene in front of City Hall or not? Should the public school bulletin board have Santa Claus on it or not? We are too busy preparing ourselves for the arrival of the Christ child to be wrapped up in the diversionary discussions that constitute the war on Christmas. We are, I would suggest, celebrating the true spirit of Christmas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We have been part of another discussion, and have some idea of what one side of the annual Christmas debate says. I observe here only that I think we are too hard on those elements of Christmas not derived directly from the first church. The fact that Christmas trees or Saint Nicholas come from much later only tells us that they come from much later. "Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen" -- wonderful carol, but of course not part of the original story. In which, agreed, Jesus may, or may not, have been born in December. So?

Consider the various elements of Jewish Festivals. Or the major components of pilgrimage in the Muslim Hajj. Are all found in their earliest documents? No. Are the elements of celebration therefore illegitmate? of course not. It's the nature of culture and religion to change and adapt. Even Advent, which I treasure much as you do ("Lo He comes with clouds descending, once for favoured sinners slain": Amazing!) is a later effort to recapture the sense of wonder in Mary and Joseph's waiting.

It may be, then, that trees and reindeer capture truth beautifully, even though they obscure it at the same time. The key for me is to grasp the sense of Mary's song: "The hungry he has filled with good thinigs, and sent the rich away empty." "All poor men and humble, all lame men who stumble, come haste ye nor feel ye afraid ..."

Merry Christmas, sister mine! Merry Christmas to one and all!